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Saturday, February 29, 2020

The Antetokounmpo-Harden Comparison is No Comparison

"I wish I could be 7 feet, run and just dunk. That takes no skill at all. I gotta actually learn how to play basketball and how to have skill. I'll take that any day.--James Harden, making a not so veiled reference to Giannis Antetokounmpo

The notion that there is a "feud" between Giannis Antetokounmpo and James Harden is nonsense created by ESPN, and then hyped up by ESPN and other media outlets to boost ratings and internet clicks. There is not a Giannis Antetokounmpo-James Harden "feud" because Antetokounmpo is too mature to get involved in such foolishness. Antetokounmpo is focused on leading his Milwaukee Bucks to this year's NBA championship, not on arguing about who should have won last year's regular season MVP or who should win this year's regular season MVP.

There are two stories here: one is about objectively comparing the two players on a skill set basis, and the other is about the insights we can gain into the mentality of the two players.

Scottie Pippen, who has never been afraid to speak his mind, cut to the chase in response to Harden's comment to Rachel Nichols that he is unstoppable: Pippen noted that Houston is not in the top three in the West, so clearly someone is able to stop him! Harden thinks that if he scores 35 points then he is "unstoppable" even if his team loses, but six-time NBA champion/two-time Olympic gold medalist Pippen understand that in a team sport the goal is team victory, not individual glory.

Harden has been the show in Houston for seven full seasons (this is his eighth), and the result has been three first round losses, two second round losses, and two Western Conference Finals losses. Harden's field goal percentages during those playoff runs are ugly: .391, .376, .439, .410, .413, .410, .413--and he was not on fire from three point range, either: .341, .296, .383, .310, .278, .299, .350. Harden is awful when it matters most. The gimmicks that he relies on to pile up regular season points do not work in the playoffs. Harden's notion that he "learn(ed) how to play basketball" is a joke; Harden is a 25-27 ppg scorer (which is nothing to sneeze at, but also far from being the best scorer--let alone best player--in the league) who became a 30-plus ppg scorer only after he was permitted to travel, and to commit offensive fouls, with impunity. Also, like almost every ball dominant guard who has played for Coach Mike D'Antoni, Harden's regular season numbers are inflated by the system/style of play. Harden lacks the all-around offensive skill set not just of Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, but also of many other great scorers of the past and present who could score from all areas of the floor without traveling and committing offensive fouls. For instance, Larry Bird, Adrian Dantley and Dell Curry each had a great step back move that did not involve traveling and/or committing a foul.

I refuted the absurd notion that Harden is the best offensive player of all-time, and I demonstrated that Harden should not be ranked ahead of Michael Jordan as a scorer, so I refer the interested reader to those two articles as an introduction to rebutting the Harden mythology that has taken hold in many quarters--including, apparently, in Harden's mind (assuming that he believes his public statements about himself).

Strip away the hype that has piled up over the past several years, and it is evident that Harden is a perennial All-Star caliber player, but also that he is not an elite player on the level of (in no particular order) Giannis Antetokounmpo, LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant (when healthy) and Stephen Curry (when healthy). One funny aspect of the Antetokounmpo-Harden comparison is that, while Antetokounmpo is the best player in the league, it is not even clear that Harden is the best player on his own team. The Rockets pulled a Jedi-mind trick on Harden by going all-in with the small ball lineup: playing small forces Harden to be attentive on defense (he will be easily exposed if he is not, because the other four small players play hard) while also shifting him more often to the post at that end of the court (Harden is much better at post defense than at perimeter defense); further, while many people may have wrongly assumed that small ball is meant to unleash Harden, the truth is that after Houston committed to small ball Harden's numbers have been dropping while Westbrook's numbers are surging, and it is not coincidental that this shift in emphasis has corresponded with the Rockets being more successful as a team. The only way that Houston has a chance to win a championship is with Westbrook leading the way on offense by relentlessly attacking the hoop while all five small players hustle and scrap on defense and on the boards, a point that I made in my 2019-20 Western Conference Preview: "If the Rockets let Westbrook run the offense, attack the hoop and pass to open shooters when he is trapped then they will have a virtually unstoppable offense--and if the Rockets also commit to consistently playing hard and smart on defense then they will be serious championship contenders."

Harden is a good shooter (at least in the regular season) who is physically strong and durable. He is a capable, if not creative, passer; Houston's system places shooters in designated spots, and when Harden elects to stop dribbling and not shoot he is competent at making passes to those shooters; these could be called "Mike D'Antoni assists," and there are many point guards in the NBA who could rack up assists playing Harden's role. Harden is also effective at delivering lob passes to cutters. Harden rebounds well for his size, and he is a sturdy low post defender when he decides to engage mentally at that end of the court; he is often inattentive and ineffective as a perimeter defender, and he is generally awful at making the transition from offense to defense, particularly when the opposing team is running a fast break. Harden has repeatedly choked in the playoffs, and his inability to be at his best when it matters most puts into question just how meaningful his gaudy regular season numbers are.

Antetokounmpo is taller, bigger, stronger and faster than Harden. Size--Specifically, Height--Matters in the NBA, so even if I thought that Antetokounmpo and Harden were approximately equal from a skill set standpoint I would give Antetokounmpo the edge based on his significant size advantage. Antetokounmpo is a better overall scorer than Harden even though Harden is a better three point shooter and a better free throw shooter; Antetokounmpo is a better scorer in the paint, he is a better scorer per minute, and--despite Harden's prolific three point shooting that, at least on paper, compensates for his poor field goal percentage--he is a more efficient shooter. Moreover, Antetokounmpo can dominate consistently in different game situations, while Harden's impact is high variance: when Harden is not making three point shots he generates a lot of empty possessions, something that regularly kills Houston in the playoffs. It is obvious that Antetokounmpo is a vastly superior rebounder, but even adjusting for the positional difference he is still a better rebounder than Harden. Defensively, there is no comparison; Antetokounmpo is arguably the best defensive player in the NBA, while Harden struggles to not be a liability at that end of the court. Antetokounmpo passes the ball to generate points for his team, while Harden passes the ball to generate assists for himself, and there is a big difference; this is like comparing two-time NBA champion Isiah Thomas to Stephon Marbury: if you only look at assists or "advanced basketball statistics" but you do not watch the game with understanding then you miss the big picture. Regarding ballhandling, I prefer Antetokounmpo's relentless drives to the paint over Harden's overdribbling, traveling, and ceaseless efforts to trick officials into calling fouls in his favor.

It is difficult to see how an objective and knowledgeable basketball talent evaluator would take Harden over Antetokounmpo, or even think that the comparison is particularly close.

Switching from a skill set comparison to a mentality comparison, the regular season MVP is an obsession for James Harden, and for the Houston Rockets as well. Harden won the 2018 MVP, and he finished second in 2015, 2017 and 2019. He has been very outspoken in his belief that he should have won the award each of the times that he placed second, and the Rockets have not been shy about publicizing (slanted) statistics to try to support Harden's contentions. It is evident that the regular season MVP means more to Harden than winning a championship; if this were not true, then Harden would be focused on adapting his game to postseason play to optimize his team's winning chances as opposed to talking so much about why he should be voted as the best regular season player. Harden forced his way out of Oklahoma City because he craved individual glory, and could not stomach the notion of being the third option behind Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, even though that was Harden's best chance to win a title; he could have been the Manu Ginobili of this era, winning multiple rings, but it was more important to him to chase the scoring title and the MVP award.

In contrast, Antetokounmpo has not lobbied for the MVP award, and prior to this season he said that he should not be referred to as the reigning MVP because last season is over, and therefore he has to prove himself all over again. Antetokounmpo has worked on his outside shooting and his decision making; now, when opposing teams pack the paint against him he is making the correct passes, or he is punishing them by hitting open jumpers. He is upgrading his skill set to be ready for the postseason. He plays hard all the time, and you can tell that his focus is winning, not individual statistics.

Antetokounmpo's growth curve, skill set and mentality suggest that he could be a Pantheon level player. To accomplish that, he must prove to be consistent and durable, and he must elevate his team to perennial championship contention.

Harden is in a different, lesser category. Every time Harden opens his mouth, and every time Harden bricks a three pointer during the playoffs, he tells us a lot about his mentality and his game.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:48 PM

2 comments

2 Comments:

At Sunday, March 01, 2020 1:02:00 AM, Anonymous Michael said...

I remember last year during the Rockets' 135-103 beatdown of the Clippers at Staples Center Don Maclean was doing color commentary for the Clippers and he had a few choice words about Harden's style of play: "I just feel like this style, what Harden does, is manipulating the game somehow. Almost like cheating it somehow.....And I don't really have a thought beyond that other than I'm watching something that isn't basketball. To me, basketball is player movement, ball movement, designed plays. Not just a guy walking it up and isolating every time. That's why I brought up that point earlier. Who else could do this? It's not like that within the system, he's getting all these numbers. The system is built for him".

Predictably, he took an absolute beating for these remarks and maybe a color commentator for the team that was down by 30 at the time wasn't the best messenger for those thoughts but none of this should take away from the insight of those remarks . Every single thing he said was/is completely true about Harden. As you noted, there are some objectively impressive aspects to Harden's game but the reality is that his game is primarily based on deception, something he is very good. He is an expert at deceiving the refs, the fans and the media which has translated into numerous individual accolades for him but the one thing he hasn't been able to do is deceive the unwavering rigors of playoff basketball.

 
At Monday, March 02, 2020 1:05:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Michael:

MacLean's comments are right on point, and echo what I have been saying about Harden for several years.

 

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