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Friday, April 26, 2013

Why James Harden and Pau Gasol Should not be Considered Elite Players

The difference between being an elite player and being an All-Star is not just about a player's skill set; an elite player also has a different mindset than an All-Star (just like an All-Star has a different mindset than an above average player and an above average player has a different mindset than an average player). An elite player is an All-NBA First Team caliber performer, a legit MVP level player, someone who is capable of leading a contending team to a championship. The term superstar is thrown around far too liberally, because at any given time there are only a handful of elite players in the NBA. An elite player is willing and able to shoulder a tremendous load on and off of the court. Tim Grover calls such a rare performer a Cleaner.

James Harden and Pau Gasol are clearly All-Star caliber players--not just because they have been selected as All-Stars but because both of them have the mindset and skill set necessary to be ranked among the league's top two dozen players--but are they elite players? Some "stat gurus," media members and fans may choose to anoint Harden and Gasol as superstars/elite players but the evidence suggests otherwise.

Harden averaged 28.0 ppg as his Houston Rockets fell behind 2-0 in their first round series versus the Oklahoma City Thunder but Harden shot just .349 from the field (including .154 from three point range) and he averaged 4.0 turnovers per game. Harden does not have a midrange game or a post up game, so his only plan of attack is to bomb away from three point range and/or hurl his body into the paint hoping to draw fouls. That is why I predicted that Harden "is likely to shoot a low percentage and commit a high number of turnovers against the Thunder" if the Thunder "run him off of the three point line and then meet him in the paint with either shot blockers and/or players who are willing to take charges." The Thunder have committed a few senseless fouls that boosted Harden's point total but overall Harden has performed exactly as I expected. Harden is a very good player but his limitations make him much more suited to being a second option (or the first option off of the bench, as he was last year for the Thunder) than to being the first option.

As a reserve player with the Thunder, Harden feasted against other, less talented reserves--and, when he played in the fourth quarter, he faced starters who had logged heavy minutes and thus were more fatigued. If Harden were Houston's second option then he would benefit from the double teams drawn by the first option; he would have open driving lanes and/or uncontested three pointers. Harden is not LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Kobe Bryant or Russell Westbrook (which is why Harden came off of the bench for Oklahoma City); his offensive game is more limited, regardless of how high his regular season scoring average soared for a Houston team that plays at a fast pace: Harden is Monta Ellis with a beard, not a franchise player who can be the first option for a championship team.

Harden is a young player, so if he works on his game perhaps he can become a franchise player--but because he turned down Oklahoma City's reasonable contract offer and gave up the chance to win a ring in order to be the best player on a mediocre team and because Houston has already paid him as if he is a franchise player I am not convinced that Harden has the mindset or motivation to change his game in that fashion: he clearly believes that he is a franchise player and he is being paid like he is a franchise player, so what voice--inside his head or outside his head--is going to convince him that he has a lot of work to do to reach that level?

Before Pau Gasol teamed up with Kobe Bryant, Gasol was a one-time All-Star with an 0-12 career playoff record. No one thought of Gasol as an elite player and, indeed, Memphis traded him to L.A. precisely because he is not an elite player; the Grizzlies knew that they had to rebuild their roster if they ever hoped to contend for a title. After Gasol joined the Lakers, his field goal percentage and offensive rebounding rate both improved because Gasol benefited from all of the defensive attention that Bryant attracted. Gasol sometimes whined that he did not get the ball enough, but he had already proven that he could not shoulder first option responsibilities for a championship team.

With Kobe Bryant sidelined by a season-ending Achilles injury, Gasol averaged 14.5 ppg and shot just .400 from the field as his L.A. Lakers fell behind 2-0 in their first round series versus the San Antonio Spurs. Gasol averaged 2.0 offensive rebounds per game, his lowest postseason average in that category since becoming a Laker. Gasol is a skillful player but--contrary to popular belief--he is not the most skilled big man in the game; Tim Duncan and a healthy Dirk Nowitzki are every bit as skilled as Gasol and they have both proven that they are willing/able to be the first option for a championship team. Like Gasol, Chris Bosh is not an elite player but Bosh's overall skill set is no worse than Gasol's; Gasol is taller and a slightly better passer but Bosh is more mobile and he is a better defender. However, the main reason that Gasol is not an elite player is not because of his skill set but because he does not have the mindset of an elite player; he seeks to fit in, not take over, so during the Lakers' 2009 and 2010 championship runs Bryant and Coach Phil Jackson constantly had to prod Gasol to be more aggressive at both ends of the court.

While Harden is young enough to perhaps develop into an elite player--though I do not expect that to happen--Gasol is an older player who is clearly in the declining phase of his career and thus his numbers have trended downward the past few years even while playing alongside Bryant; it is evident that playing without Bryant does not open up offensive opportunities for Gasol but rather makes it more difficult for Gasol to score because the defense can pay more attention to him. Bryant's individual field goal percentage is adversely affected by "hand grenade" shots (i.e., shots that he has to take so that the ball does not "explode" in his hands because the shot clock is about to expire) but what "stat gurus" fail to understand is that Bryant's ability to create shots for himself and for his teammates makes his team much more efficient offensively. It must be very puzzling to "stat gurus" and certain commentators that the Lakers are struggling to score against the Spurs with the supposedly inefficient, ball-hogging, gunning Bryant out of the lineup.

It is "dangerous" to write this article now; a two game sample size is small and it is likely that as their respective series shift venues both Harden and Gasol will perform better at home in games three and four than they did on the road in games one and two--but the underlying truths expressed in this article transcend sample size and the vicissitudes of one playoff series: Harden and Gasol both lack the skill set and the mindset to be elite players, so unless/until that changes their production--particularly against top level teams in postseason play--will reflect this, regardless of what "stat gurus" and media members say or write.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:20 AM



At Friday, April 26, 2013 12:59:00 PM, Anonymous DanielSong39 said...

I don't believe in throwing around the word "elite" carelessly - I believe they should really be reserved for those who are performing at the highest possible level.

Right now, I believe there is exactly one player that fulfills that definition - Lebron James. Kobe was at that level a couple of years ago but he is there no longer. Other guys fall even shorter of Lebron's standard.

Now, if the Lakers meet the Rockets in the semifinals I might change my mind about those two guys - but otherwise, I'd say Gasol was one of the top 20 players in the NBA at his peak and Harden is one of the top 20 players in the NBA right now.

At Friday, April 26, 2013 1:01:00 PM, Anonymous DanielSong39 said...

I think Harden and Gasol are being to subject to unfair criticism, however. If Russell Westbrook swapped places with Harden and Chris Bosh with Gasol, do you really think the Rockets would meet the Lakers in the semifinal?

At Friday, April 26, 2013 3:06:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Daniel Song 39:

It is extreme to say that James is the only elite player. James is clearly the best player in the league but other All-NBA First Team caliber players--including Durant, Bryant and Westbrook--are also elite players; the All-NBA First Team center this season will not be an elite player but merely the best center among a group of good but not great players (a healthy Dwight Howard is the only elite player at the center position right now).

I don't understand your point about the Lakers and the Rockets--but I know that the Thunder replaced Harden with Kevin Martin (who is not an All-Star, let alone an elite player) and did not miss a beat. I also know that the eye test and the statistics that I cited in this article show that Gasol and Harden are better suited to being in secondary roles than they are to being in primary roles.

At Friday, April 26, 2013 5:13:00 PM, Anonymous Charles said...

I thought the Monta Ellis comparison was on point. Harden has often been referred to as having an "old man's game", but I found that to be a strange description for a player who often does not have a Plan B after getting into the paint other than floundering around looking for fouls. A potent pull-up game would be very beneficial for him.

As for Gasol, I think your point about his personality was illustrated perfectly by some comments both he and Bryant made after the Lakers' early April game against the Hornets: Bryant says he told Gasol to force his way into the post and demand the ball, while Gasol responded that it 'wasn't his personality' to be so assertive.

Another instance came after Bryant's 47-point game against Portland, Gasol commented that it was bittersweet because he still would have preferred to see more ball movement and better balance.

I think Gasol isn't wrong in the sense that teamwork is vital in basketball, but at the same time that attitude pretty clearly demonstrates the difference in attitude. I think a superstar would understand that his responsibility to lead includes being willing to take control and impose his will on a game when necessary. Gasol defers that responsibility to a collective consisting of his coach and teammates instead of aggressively trying to press the action wherever necessary.

At Friday, April 26, 2013 6:05:00 PM, Anonymous aw said...

I agree with some things here. I agree Pau Gasol at his best isn't a franchise level player, or Chris Bosh. Both of those guys at their best are more skilled than Dwight Howard but they can't have that franchise player tag like Howard does when he's healthy.
A guy like Shaq may not never been close to being all of that skilled, but he definately was a franchise player.
So it's not all about the skillset, it's about impact as well.

As for James Harden, you can say he has weaknesses. But getting him was a big move going forward for the Rockets. No one was expecting them to compete for a title right away when they got Harden. People talk about how the Rockets just barely got in the playoffs as the eighth seed with Harden as a way to down the guy.
We'll just see if Harden gets better as time goes on. And that is something interesting. If Westbrook was on the Rockets instead.of Harden. I don't think The rockets are more of a contender with him than with Harden. People would just back up westbrook by saying he needs a better team.

Maybe Gasol shouldn't really take all the blame for the Grizzlies 0-12 playoff record with him. Those teams he were on was not all that good. They were not expected to make any noise. But it was obvious Gasol was not a franchise guy though.

At Friday, April 26, 2013 6:39:00 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

David, what is your reasoning for considering Russell Westbrook an elite player but not Dwyane Wade?

At Saturday, April 27, 2013 4:10:00 PM, Blogger Awet M said...

Actually, I think the Harden trade forced the elite players on Thunder to grow up a bit, shoulder more responsibility and mature their games. Since KD & Westbrook were still on the upswing of their development, skills-wise, game-management wise, etc., thus missing Harden's playmaking created room for growth & maturation.

They are slightly different players than they were last year in terms of skill set and management.

At Sunday, April 28, 2013 6:28:00 PM, Anonymous DanielSong39 said...

You do have a good point that Kevin Martin replaced James Harden and the team did not suffer any dropoff whatsoever.

We also just saw Reggie Jackson replace Russell Westbrook and Mike Miller replace Dwyane Wade, and neither team missed a beat. Does the eye test apply to these scenarios as well?

At Sunday, April 28, 2013 6:42:00 PM, Anonymous DanielSong39 said...

FYI, I think Oklahoma City is still the favorite to make it to the semifinal but will probably be the underdog to the Spurs should they make it that far. As for the Heat, I believe they will be title favorites with or without Wade - but obviously they will have a better chance with Wade.

But it's still my belief that apart from a guy like Lebron James, most teams can replace one player - even their best player - and perform close to their peak level, at least for the short term.

If Oklahoma City crashes out in spectacular fashion before the semifinals I will eat my words. As for Wade, the dude is obviously fine so we'll cross the bridge when we get there.

As for Harden there is zero chance that he will become even close to being Lebron/Kobe level so I think we are in agreement there. And it's laughable to think that Gasol was ever at that level - heck, I don't think even Dwight Howard is at that level.

At Monday, April 29, 2013 2:43:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


For the past couple seasons Wade has not been healthy enough to consistently perform at an elite level.

At Monday, April 29, 2013 2:45:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


There is some truth to what you wrote but Durant and Westbrook were clearly elite players prior to this season and Harden clearly was/is not an elite player. That is why Durant and Westbrook started/made the All-NBA team while Harden came off of the bench.

At Monday, April 29, 2013 2:47:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Daniel Song 39:

I did not see Reggie Jackson replace Westbrook for an entire season nor did I see Miller replace Wade for an entire season.

A healthy Dwight Howard is an elite player because of his defensive dominance and his ability to score 20-plus ppg even without a refined post game.

At Monday, April 29, 2013 2:54:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Most elite players reach that status because of their skills sets but I have always said that a player can also be elite based on sheer dominance; O'Neal and Howard fit into the latter category.

Why is it a "big move" for Houston to get Harden? The Rockets gave him a max deal, barely made the playoffs and are probably about to get swept. I don't believe that Harden can be the best player on a championship team, so for the Rockets to improve they will have to spend max money on another, better player while also still filling out the roster with the necessary role players to survive a long regular season followed by a deep playoff run.

If Westbrook were on this Houston team then the Rockets would have won at least 50 games. Westbrook is as good or better than Harden in every meaningful skill set category except for three point shooting.

I never gave Gasol "all the blame" for Memphis' playoff record; I just said that his individual statistics and his team's performance demonstrate that he is not an elite player. Memphis' management came to the same conclusion.

At Monday, April 29, 2013 2:56:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


You understand my point completely and you cited some excellent examples that support my case.


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