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Sunday, January 04, 2015

NBA Potpourri: James Harden, David Blatt, and The New York Knicks' Mess

The start of a new year is as good a time as any to revisit some recurring NBA themes, specifically how James Harden's game should be evaluated, how good of an NBA coach David Blatt is and what it will take to turn around the New York Knicks.

How Good Is James Harden?

When the Oklahoma City Thunder traded James Harden to Houston in 2012 after Harden refused to sign anything less than a max contract, I declared that Harden is best-suited to being a third option on a championship-contending team and I rejected the notion that he is an All-NBA First Team or Second Team caliber player. In contrast, Houston General Manager Daryl Morey, one of the most highly regarded "stat gurus," proclaimed that Harden is a "foundational player." I had never heard that phrase before but the only relevant or sensible interpretation is that Morey believes that Harden is great enough to be the best player on a championship-caliber team and/or that Harden is great enough to lift a mediocre or worse team well above its otherwise expected performance level. Harden is more than a third of the way through his third season in Houston, so one can draw at least preliminary conclusions about his game. Three issues should be examined: How Harden's departure affected the Thunder, how Harden's arrival affected the Rockets and how Harden has performed in terms of his individual productivity.

The Thunder posted a .712 winning percentage in Harden's final season with the team (2011-12) and they advanced to the NBA Finals, losing to the Miami Heat in no small part because Harden performed awfully on the sport's biggest stage; during the 2012 NBA Finals, Harden averaged 12.4 ppg--4.4 ppg worse than his regular season average--while shooting just .375 from the field and committing 12 turnovers in 164 minutes (Harden's teammate Russell Westbrook posted 11 turnovers in 211 minutes despite playing most of his minutes against the Heat's best players while Harden had the opportunity to play against reserves and/or tired starters).

Without Harden in 2012-13, the Thunder improved their winning percentage to .732 and eliminated Harden's Rockets 4-2 in the first round of the playoffs--but Westbrook suffered a playoff-ending injury versus the Rockets, crushing the Thunder's hopes of returning to the NBA Finals. In 2013-14, the Thunder posted a .720 winning percentage even though Westbrook missed 36 games while recovering from his knee injury. The Thunder advanced to the Western Conference Finals before falling to the eventual champion San Antonio Spurs. This season, both Westbrook and 2013-14 NBA regular season MVP Kevin Durant have missed a significant number of games due to injury but the Thunder are 17-17, including six wins in their past 10 games as Durant and Westbrook have returned to action.

There is no evidence that Harden's departure has negatively impacted the Thunder; their regular season record improved without him--no small accomplishment considering how good their record was in 2011-12--and their failure to make it back to the NBA Finals is related to injuries, not Harden's absence. If the Thunder had kept Harden then they likely would have lost Serge Ibaka and they would have been worse off.

What about Harden's impact on his new team? The Rockets' winning percentage improved from .515 to .549 in Harden's first season in Houston. That is equivalent to about three wins in an 82 game season. After missing the playoffs for three straight seasons, the Rockets sneaked in as the eighth seed and promptly lost in the first round to, as mentioned above, Harden's old team.

In 2013-14, the Rockets added Dwight Howard--a five-time All-NBA First Team center who had almost completely recovered from the back surgery that slowed him down in 2012-13 when he played for the L.A. Lakers--and improved their winning percentage to .659. The Rockets tied with the Portland Trail Blazers for the fourth best record in the Western Conference, received homecourt advantage versus Portland based on a tiebreaker and still did not manage to even push the series to seven games, losing 4-2. 

This season, the Rockets got off to a fast start but their current winning percentage is .697 and they would not even have homecourt advantage in the first round if the playoffs began today. They are 5-5 in their last 10 games and it seems much more likely that they will fall behind the L.A. Clippers, San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder as opposed to passing the teams that are already ahead of them in the standings.

The Rockets have improved a bit since Harden's arrival but they are still not a legitimate contender and the improvement that they have made has at least as much to do with Dwight Howard as it does with Harden. Harden is neither carrying a bad roster to unexpected heights nor is he lifting a good roster into legitimate championship contention. The Rockets have been first round playoff fodder the past two seasons and there is no reason to believe that they will advance past the first round this season.

Individually, Harden has put up some gaudy scoring numbers. He ranked fifth in the league in scoring in both 2012-13 and 2013-14 and he currently leads the league in scoring. However, Harden's field goal percentage plummeted as his role changed from being the third option to being the first option. For such a big-time scorer, Harden has a very limited offensive game; he either shoots three pointers or he drives to the hoop, throws himself into opposing players and begs for foul calls (which he often gets, at least in the regular season). Harden has no postup game and no midrange game; he plays the way that "stat gurus" prefer, because he racks up most of his points from either three pointers or free throws. It does not require an advanced mathematics degree to figure out that long two point shots (i.e., shots taken from just inside three point range) are not good shots; a player who has the ball just inside the three point arc should either step back and take advantage of the potential extra point or else drive closer to the hoop for a higher percentage two point shot. However, the idea held by many "stat gurus" that the midrange game is completely inefficient and/or unnecessary is extreme. Teams that cannot score in the midrange game are not going to advance very far in the playoffs unless they perform exceptionally well in other areas on a consistent basis.

Harden puts up decent assist totals but those numbers are a deceptive product of Houston's drive and kick offense; Harden is not individually creating offensive opportunities for his teammates a la great playmakers such as Magic Johnson or Isiah Thomas.

A player like Harden is not so hard to defend in the playoffs when the competition is tougher and the teams are well rested; you put one mobile defender on Harden, you deny Harden open three point shots and when Harden drives you avoid body contact while making sure to contest his shot. It is not necessary to double team Harden; Harden does not "tilt the floor" the way that LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Kobe Bryant do. It is no accident that Harden has shot worse than .400 from the field in three of his five postseasons, including both of his Houston playoff appearances.

Despite his high scoring average, I still think that Harden is an overrated offensive player. When Durant and Westbrook created opportunities for Harden, Harden was a much more efficient player. Now, Harden has a license to shoot at any time but he is not efficient and he has not elevated his team beyond the middle of the playoff pack.

Then, there is the notorious matter of Harden's defense. Harden may be the worst defender among All-Star players in quite some time. Often, he does not even pretend to try at that end of the court. Supposedly his defense has improved this season but he set the bar so low that the only way he could have gotten worse is if he actually put the ball in the hoop for the other team.

So, if my description of Harden is correct then why did he make the All-Star team the past two years and why did he earn an All-NBA Third Team selection in 2013 before making the All-NBA First Team in 2014? I never said that Harden is a bad player. He is a good player; he just is not an elite or "foundational" player. If Manu Ginobili had left the Spurs early in his career he probably could have scored 25 ppg, made several All-Star teams and received some All-NBA selections--but Ginobili never was an elite player and neither is Harden. Ginobili elected to take less money, stay in San Antonio and fill a major role on a championship team behind Tim Duncan and Tony Parker; Harden chose to seek more money and, in his opinion, more glory. It will be interesting to see how that works out for Harden, Morey and the Rockets.

In 2013, I gave Harden serious All-NBA consideration before tapping Kobe Bryant, Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul, Dwyane Wade, Tony Parker and Stephen Curry as my choices for the league's six best guards. Last season, injuries decimated the ranks of the league's elite guards (including Kobe Bryant, Russell Westbrook, Derrick Rose, Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo), paving the way for Harden to ascend to All-NBA First Team status.

Maybe Harden will prove me wrong. Maybe he will become more efficient offensively. Maybe he will start to play defense. Maybe he will shoot better than .400 in the playoffs and lead Houston past the first round. Until he does those things, though, I will not consider him an elite or "foundational" player.

Is David Blatt an NBA Championship-caliber Coach?

The simple answer is "No." How could he be? He has spent his whole career coaching basketball on the other side of the world, with different rules and inferior players. Blatt is a very good FIBA coach. That does not mean that he possesses either the strategic acumen or the right personality to lead a team to an NBA title.

Let us not misunderstand what happened several years ago when Team USA went through a stretch of failing to win gold medals in FIBA play. Those Team USA rosters did not include Kobe Bryant--the best player in the world at the time--and neither the players nor the coaching staff took the task seriously enough. If Team USA had been better coached and if the rosters had been better constructed then Team USA would have won every time. The fact that some FIBA teams could win one 40 minute game under FIBA rules against NBA players did not at all prove that the FIBA players and/or teams are superior to NBA players and NBA teams playing under NBA rules. If the best FIBA team played an 82 game NBA schedule that team would struggle to win 41 games--but if Team USA players trained year round under FIBA rules they could show up in any FIBA league or competition and win the championship.

The NBA game is faster, tougher, more physical and more complicated than the FIBA game with which Blatt is familiar. Blatt's supposedly sophisticated FIBA offensive sets are not getting the job done in the NBA even though Blatt's Cleveland squad is blessed with the best player in the NBA, two other All-Stars and a host of good NBA role players--and Blatt has yet to prove that he can teach and/or motivate NBA players to play good defense on a consistent basis.

The real questions are (1) Can David Blatt become an NBA championship-caliber coach? and (2) Will he become such a coach fast enough to keep his job in Cleveland? Blatt is not entirely to blame for Cleveland performing below expectations; LeBron James has admittedly coasted at times, various players have been injured and now Anderson Varejao is out for the season. However, even when LeBron James played hard and the Cavaliers were at full strength they did not consistently look like a championship team. It is interesting to recall how much criticism Mike Brown received during his first stint as Cleveland's coach. The current Cleveland team has more name-brand talent than Brown ever coached in Cleveland--though I think that talent on Brown's teams has been underrated a bit--but Blatt's squad lacks the attention to detail on defense that Brown's teams consistently displayed.

What Will it Take to Turn Around the Knicks?

The Knicks must get rid of Carmelo Anthony and rebuild their roster from the bottom up. When Mike Ditka first became coach of the Chicago Bears, he told the players that the good news was that he was going to lead the team to a championship but the bad news was that most of them would not be on the team by the time that happened. I expected that after Phil Jackson took over New York's basketball operations he would not re-sign Anthony; if someone other than Jackson did that he would probably be ridiculed for letting an allegedly elite player go but I thought that Jackson has enough championship credibility to defend such a move in the media--and cutting ties with Anthony is clearly the route that the Knicks should have taken.

Jackson publicly identified the Knicks' problems before he joined the team's front office: the Knicks have, as Jackson put it, a "clumsy roster." Anthony will probably be able to put the ball in the bucket until he is 40 years old but his overall game has not improved much since he entered the league: he likes to play one-on-one isolation basketball, he passes only as a last resort, he plays defense when he feels like doing so (not often enough to lead a team to a championship) and he is a capable, though not exceptional, rebounder considering his overall athletic gifts. He is not a good leader; he and his teams perform best when he is being guided/mentored by players with a championship mentality (Chauncey Billups and Jason Kidd in the NBA, Kobe Bryant with Team USA). 

The Knicks are currently 5-30, barely ahead of a Philadelphia team that has been accused of tanking. How can anyone possibly believe that Anthony is even close to being an elite player? Take Anthony off of that New York roster and add any elite player from the past 30 years; can you imagine the Knicks only winning five out of 35 games? A few years ago, Kobe Bryant made it to the playoffs in the Western Conference with Smush Parker at point guard and Kwame Brown at center. At some point, people have to stop looking at statistics, stop being blinded by reputation and just look at what is actually happening on the court. Carmelo Anthony is a physically gifted athlete and an All-Star caliber performer but he is never, ever going to lead a team to an NBA championship. He could possibly be the second best player on a championship team if the best player is a great leader, if the team is extremely well coached and if the right supporting cast is on hand.

I wonder if Jackson thought that Anthony would play his way out of New York in such a fashion that Jackson would not be blamed and meanwhile Jackson could take his time retooling the rest of the roster. In other words, if the Knicks had posted a respectable 45-37 record this season and Anthony had turned in his typical playoff disappearing act in a first round loss then Anthony might have considered waiving his no-trade clause and Jackson could have dealt Anthony without being viewed as the villain.

Jackson must have known that the Knicks would not be a contender this season but he could not have possibly imagined things going as disastrously as they have. Media members are rightly criticizing Jackson for giving up Tyson Chandler but Jackson's biggest mistake thus far has been committing so much guaranteed money to someone who is just not a franchise player. Jackson should have done what Masai Ujiri did in Denver: send Anthony to a team dumb enough to take him in exchange for a package of good, solid players. If Anthony would not have agreed to such a sign and trade, then the Knicks should have let him walk and used the salary cap space to rebuild their roster. Normally, I would not advocate possibly letting an All-Star leave without getting anything in return but in this case the reality is that Anthony is not going to lead New York to a championship and thus it makes no sense for the Knicks to pay him as if he is an elite performer.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:35 AM



At Sunday, January 04, 2015 1:34:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't understand the constant hate on Harden. I don't like him much as a player, but the guy is really balling, time to give him some respect. And stop making the excuse of him leaving over money. Harden isn't complaining about his situation. If he was like Paul did in NO or KG in Minn even Kobe in LA, etc., that'd be different. Ginobili only has made 2 AS in his career, Harden's already on his way to his 3rd this year at only 25. Ginobili never and would never have approached what Harden is doing right now. Some of your assessment of him is accurate like some of his playoff failures even though he's only 25, but most are way off base. You should be writing negative articles are supposed much more accomplished players like Melo(only 1x past 1st round) or Paul(never past 2nd round).

1. Thunder are still great without Harden because they still have 2 top 5 players and a great cast. They're obviously not as good, so stop saying that, haven't made it back to finals, and only .500 this year. If either go westbrook or durant go down, they're screwed. But, if they had harden, that wouldn't have been the case.

2. You're still blaming Harden for 2013 playoffs? Even without westbrook, the thunder were much better, and it still too 6 games. And they won 2 games by only 3 points. Remember melo/AI only went 1-8 in denver together in playoffs, and pau 0-12 in memphis.

3. Rockets much different from 12 to 13. Parsons 6th man in 12, 2nd man in 13. Roster differences not even close, much worse in 13.

4. Rockets 5th best record in league in 14, but same as Blazers. Somebody has to lose that series. Both teams probably #1 seeds in east. Harden 1st option and best player, not Howard.

5. Harden doesn't have a complete skill set, but neither does durant, westbrook, or james. There's holes in everyone's games. He's been efficient, and is the primary scorer/facilitator on his team at the same time. Stop saying his offensive game is limited, that's ridiculous. Nobody can score/assist that much if they were so limited. You don't think coaches would've figured him out by now?

6. Harden had bad defense in 13 and 14, but wasn't that bad in OKC, and is actually playing decent defense this year. He dominated defensively down the stretch against Memphis recently. And lots of nba stars don't play much defense either. You don't make 1st team all-nba by accident, except according to you. Injuries every year. The rockets are on pace for 57 wins and a 5 seed.

The west is stacked again. There's at least 8 very good teams, meaning 4 won't make it out of the 1st round. Injuries will be a key factor.

Harden's playing as well as anyone this year so far. His current stat totals of 27.2, 6, 6.6, 1.9, 0.9 have been duplicated exactly 0 other times in nba history. Nobody has ever put up that line ever.

At Sunday, January 04, 2015 6:19:00 PM, Anonymous Aw said...

Some thought that Carmelo was going to go to the Chicago Bulls. It.made sense also because Derrick Rose healthy and at his best is an mvp level player. And the Bulls also have a nice cast.

Some people may give Carmelo a pass because the team is just bad. But this year I agree he deserves more criticism than ever.

Also about Phil letting go of Tyson Chandler, it's not like the Knicks would be any better than they're now.

At Monday, January 05, 2015 3:07:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


You misunderstood my point about Ginobili; he only made two All-Star teams because he was willing to accept a tertiary role and win titles as opposed to going to another team, becoming a number one option and making the All-Star team several times while not winning any championships (which is what Harden will end up doing).

If Harden were a "foundational player" then his absence should be devastating to OKC and have a huge impact in Houston. Neither effect has been demonstrated.

It does not matter what seed Houston might have obtained in the East. The Rockets are in the West and figure to remain there for the foreseeable future; it makes no sense to offer max money to a player who will not be able to lead them very far in the Western Conference playoffs.

Harden's skill set cannot reasonably be compared to Durant, Westbrook or James. Those players are far superior to Harden at both ends of the court.

Stephon Marbury had more 20 ppg, 8 apg seasons than anyone other than Oscar Robertson. So what? Numbers only can explain so much about a player's true impact. Harden is a good player but he is not an elite player, as I explained in the article.

At Monday, January 05, 2015 3:12:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


The Mavs became worse without Chandler after winning the 2011 title with him and they have improved since he returned, while the Knicks improved when Chandler arrived and have collapsed since he departed. Chandler's defense and leadership are valuable. Jackson made Chandler some kind of scapegoat for New York's problems last season but after the Knicks' troubles so far in 2014-15 it is clear that Jackson misidentified the source of the Knicks' problems.

At Monday, January 05, 2015 6:01:00 AM, Anonymous AW said...

I understand what Tyson Chandler brings to the table.
The knicks only won 37 games last season I believe. Missed the playoff with Chandler after winning at least 50 games and getting to the second round of the playoffs as the number 2 seed the year before.
I don't believe he'd be a huge difference maker on the knicks this season if he was there looking at how bad they're.

He's a good fit for a team trying to make a run at a title.(Dallas)

I do agree with you about the Harden/Ginoboli comparison. Harden went for more money and glory. While Ginoboli stayed with Spurs. If Ginoboli did the same as Harden he'd probably would have gotten the same hype.

I always wonder what OKC could have accomplished if Harden accepted less money to stay.

Even though OKC hasn't suffered much without him.

At Monday, January 05, 2015 11:29:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ginobili has never been close to as good Harden is right now. Ginobili knew this. You can speculate all you want, but that's the truth. If Ginobili really was that great, he wouldn't have come off the bench for most of his career.

In 13, Harden was 3rd team all-nba, 8th in MVP and an AS. In 14, he was 1st team all-nba, 5th in MVP and an AS. As of right now, it looks like he'll at least duplicate what he did in 14 this year.

You are greatly overusing one Morey quote from 3 years ago. Yes, we know he said 'foundational.' And whether it's true or not, move on already. Yes, we know you have some obsession with bashing Harden. You don't like him as a player, and neither do I, but I can at least respect his game. And being a top 10 player for 3 years in a row with all of his accolades in that stretch, you might want to rethink your opinion of him. You do realize Harden is making the same amount as Parsons this year, right? And there's countless more big salaries of guys who don't add up even close to Harden as well.

Let's see: Paul, Griffin, Aldridge, Curry, Thompson, Parsons, Gay, Cousins, Heyward, Kobe, Howard-all are being paid big bucks and currently haven't done much for their teams. That's just in the west, I'm sure I'm missing some. With the nature of the nba cap, you have to pay some guys big bucks. Houston has 2 such players. Look at the Kings, they have 2 such players, and they're terrible. And the heat with bosh/wade, they're terrible in the terrible east. Houston basically just replaced Lin, Asik, and Parsons with Ariza, and they're still very good. Houston has quickly become a legit contender since Harden's arrival.

The bulls barely lost a step in 94 without Jordan. Was he not that good as well? Westbrook, Durant, and Harden don't complement each other the best. They're all similar types of players. Putting 2 of them together is fine, but then their 3rd best player should probably be a big or defensive-minded player. Losing any 1 of them wouldn't hurt them as much. Harden leading the rockets to almost a 1st round upset of the thunder in 13, and only 5 less wins in 14 is evidence enough of how good he is. The thunder have yet to reach the finals again without Harden and aren't too good so far in 15. If they had Harden thest past 3 years, he would've softened the blow to their injuries greatly. I think they would've most likely made at least 1 more finals.

At Monday, January 05, 2015 7:59:00 PM, Anonymous Eric L said...

Hey Anonymous,

MJ averaged 32.5 ppg, 8.0 rpg, 8.0 apg, 2.9 spg, 0.8 bpg in '88-'89 campaign. Those arbitrary stat cutoffs don't really serve much in an argument here as David mentioned with Marbury and his 20/8 seasons.

At Tuesday, January 06, 2015 4:05:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Ginobili made the All-NBA Third Team in 2008 and 2011. In both of those seasons he finished in the top 10 in MVP voting. In his prime, Ginobili was a better two way player than Harden is now or is ever likely to be--but Ginobili was smart enough to realize that he would win more championships as the Spurs' third best player than he would as the best player on some other team. Harden is not quite that smart.

The fact that the Bulls played as well as they did in 1994 is a tribute to how vastly underrated Scottie Pippen was at that time. I won a lot of bets with people prior to that season, because it was widely expected that the Bulls would be terrible but I knew that Pippen was already the best player in basketball other than MJ.

Harden did not almost lead the Rockets to an upset of the Thunder in 2013. The series did not even last seven games, despite Westbrook suffering an injury that knocked him out of the playoffs.

At Tuesday, January 06, 2015 11:29:00 AM, Blogger Keith said...

David: I've always been fascinated by that 94 Bulls team. Not only did Scottie Pippen play a magnificent campaign that year, almost taking the team to the finals again on his own barring a controversial foul call, but the 94 Bulls were also deep. They had nine players who averaged at least 15 minutes during the playoffs. I wonder during "what if" moments what exact sort of season and team would have been possible if Jordan had somehow stayed on with the addition of Kukoc, Kerr, and Longley to that roster.

At Tuesday, January 06, 2015 3:57:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Pippen had a tremendous season in '94 and I think that he deserved the MVP for his all-around play plus the way that he filled Jordan's shoes without feeling compelled to score 30 ppg.

At Tuesday, January 06, 2015 5:38:00 PM, Blogger Nick said...

Anonymous' defense of Harden is a bit overblown; he's an inefficient volume scorer who depends on trips to the free-throw line and doesn't often contribute defensively. Not only is he not a top ten player, if you care enough about defense and/or efficiency he's not even a top ten guard.

Ginobili- one of the three or four NBA players I hate most in the history of the game, for the record- was MUCH better than Harden in his prime, superior as a defender, playmaker, and scorer. That he didn't put up the same point totals is almost exclusively a function of shot attempts, pace, and system; it has almost nothing to do with their respective skill as players. Scoring- in and of itself- is meaningless; it's how/when you score, and whether or not it wins you basketball games.

That said, David's argument that losing Harden didn't hurt OKC is also a bit overblown; while they still put up good regular season records without him, it's quite likely they'd have had better playoff luck if Harden was their third best player instead of Martin/Ibaka/Jackson/whoever. There's something to be said for keeping pressure on the other team's second unit and/or for having a third trustworthy creator on the floor in crunch time. Harden's ability to get to the line is also arguably MORE valuable on a team with two other foul-drawers like Durant and Westbrook, creating foul trouble and bonus situations that generate easier points in intense playoff games.

Harden's overrated, but OKC's still kinda cheap/dumb for the way they handled things. They just traded a (mostly worthless, granted) first rounder to get Dion Waiters- who's basically a homeless man's Harden- so it certainly seems like they know they need a third guy and at this point are grabbing whatever's available and hoping for the best.

At Wednesday, January 07, 2015 11:43:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

David has an unhealthy obsession of bashing Harden. Most of his arguments against him aren't correct, as I've dispelled several times. Another example would be: what if Lebron played on the Thunder the last 2 seasons? Sure, they'd be better, but how much better? I'd say barely. He wouldn't complement durant and westbrook very much, plus he and durant play the same position. Plus, when a team is already so good(around 60 wins), even by adding the supposed best player in the game, your team wins aren't going to increase very much, if any.

And look at how good the roster around lebron was last year, and the heat only won 54 games in a terrible conf. Harden led his team to 54 wins in the stacked west. Put HOU in the east, and miami in the west, and HOU makes the finals most likely, whereas the Heat are lucky to make it out of the 1st round. Yes, we all know they aren't changing conf. But, this is relevant to realize, and you and others' opinions are swayed because of that. Harden did more with less than James last year, and this year so far as well. The blazers were better than any team the heat faced in the east in last year's playoffs.

Nick/David, both of you don't seem to realize what efficient is. Yes, for only one season, Harden was super efficient in OKC. However, he's still been very efficient in HOU. His career TS% in 11th in nba history. And his TS% while in HOU is higher than his career TS%. He does have a lot of TOs, but so do most of the top players like Kobe, Durant, Westbrook, and James.

Who are these top 10 guards in the game? You're dreaming. Nick, you overblow defense way too much. Plus, Harden is playing solid defense this year. And most of the top players in the league aren't exactly stellar defenders either.

The Marbury agrument would be relevant if Harden didn't make 1st team all-nba or lead his team to 54 wins last year or most likely more wins this year. Marbury never had a one-for-the-ages season stat line like Harden is this year. It's just interesting how David contradicts himself regarding Harden and other players.

He wrote a 25/5/5 article a few years ago, explaining how special this is to achieve. Harden barely missed this the past 2 seasons, and easily doing it this year

And he blasts Memphis dumping Gay and his extreme contract a few years ago, though Gay has never even made the AS team once. Memphis and Toronto both improved after Gay left them. Gay is playing with an AS center in SAC, and they're still a bad team. I like Gay, but he's clearly not as good as Harden. Somehow whenever any other player makes 1st team all-nba and top in MVP, they're elite, except for Harden. Even Kevin Love made David's elite list, even though he's made the playoffs yet, and is struggling mightily in CLE so far.

At Wednesday, January 07, 2015 2:57:00 PM, Blogger Matthias said...

What Jimmy Butler did to Harden yesterday is maybe the best argument to Harden's greatness. It is really amazing how much Jimmy has improved offensively. And more so as one of the top 5 defensiv players in the NBA. It would be very interesting to know your opinion about him.

And yes, happy new year to every one.

At Wednesday, January 07, 2015 4:02:00 PM, Blogger Nick said...

I admit I didn't bother to check Harden's Advanced Stats before commenting, and he is a little more efficient than I thought.

That said, while he's *better* defensively this year he's still very bad. I also think it's hard to "overvalue" defense, since any given player spends half his career playing it- or in Harden's case, occasionally playing it.

His team lost in the playoffs last year to a semi-slumping Portland team despite starting two of the three best players, and four of the five best players, in the series. While he's able to score, he's rarely able to take over games, and the floppy-foul calls he lives off of tend to dry up in the last few minutes of close games (note that most of Portland's wins came in nail biters where Houston couldn't close; this is part of why).

He's also significantly easier to guard than most stars, on account of his crappy midrange game. He certainly puts stats up, but then so did Marbury, and Derrick Coleman, and any number of ultimately meaningless players. Harden's better than they are, but he's not a top-tier guy. It's telling how little of a difference he made his first season in Houston; that team had nothing before he got there, and with him they had... slightly more than nothing. Adding an elite rim-protector, though, rocketed them into true contention. Hint: turns out defense is KINDA IMPORTANT, GUYS.

As for guards I'd rather have than Harden right now? I'd take Westbrook, Paul, Curry, Rose, Dragic (despite his lower scoring/assist numbers this season his shooting and on-court/off-court numbers are still stellar), Conley, Wall, Thompson, Bledsoe (finally waking up after a shoddy first few weeks), Parker (same strengths and weaknesses as Harden, but can make a 20 footer), or... what am I at, 9? Let's go with Jimmy Butler, but there are a handful of others I'd think about.

Harden's a fine DH, but he's definitely a DH; he's the rich man's Monta Ellis, not the poor man's Kevin Durant. Nothing in his career suggests that he has a materially similar impact on wins and losses to any elite level player.

At Wednesday, January 07, 2015 4:15:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I am not "bashing" Harden. I am stating facts and drawing logical conclusions. I realize that Harden may be your favorite player but that does not make him an elite player.

If Lebron James had played for the Thunder the past two seasons then the Thunder would have won two championships.

Harden and the Rockets have yet to make it past the first round and probably won't have homecourt advantage this season so it is silly to speculate about what they might do in the East. In order to win a title you have to be the best team and beat everyone you face in the playoffs; a team that can't get out of the first round is not a championship contender.

My point with Marbury is that one isolated stat does not prove anything; the fact that Marbury and Robertson are the only players who achieved a particular stat line does not mean that Marbury was as good as Robertson. Similarly, the Harden stats that you cited do not prove that Harden is as good as you think he is.

Your comments about Gay and Love are random; they do not address any of the substantive points I made about Harden in my article.

At Wednesday, January 07, 2015 4:21:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I agree with the first part of your earlier comment. It is baffling that Harden--a good, but not great player--is viewed so highly in some quarters.

I also agree with your analysis of Ginobili compared to Harden.

My analysis of OKC in the wake of giving up Harden is two-fold: (1) The Thunder remain an elite team without Harden, so Harden is clearly very replaceable (OKC's slow start this season is obviously caused by injuries to two MVP-level players and if those players remain healthy the rest of the way the Thunder will once again be a championship contender). (2) The Thunder were unable and/or unwilling to pay both Harden and Ibaka, so if they had kept Harden then they would have lost Ibaka. Ibaka is the heart of their defense plus he can space the floor with his midrange jump-shooting. Harden adds nothing defensively and does not have a midrange game. Given the reality that OKC was not going to keep both guys, they made the right choice. If Harden wanted to win a championship then he should have followed Ginobili's example and accepted a lesser role with lesser pay.

Harden is miscast as the best player on a championship-contending team, a point that you nailed in your most recent comment.

At Wednesday, January 07, 2015 5:09:00 PM, Blogger Nick said...


I agree that IF OKC had to choose between Harden/Ibaka, then they made the right choice. My point was that they did NOT have to make that choice; they could have retained both at their current pay rates, and only had to pay the tax once (or twice at most), and not even all that much tax if they did.

OKC has claimed often that as a small market team they don't make enough money to pay the tax, but the financial report that came out last year outed them as lying liars who lie, and more relevantly, cheapskates.

Harden may well be replaceable; but as of yet, they haven't been able to replace him, and if they never win a championship with Westbrook/Durant that's going to be one of the bigger reasons why (there are of course others). Harden's overrated, but he *does* have value.

At Wednesday, January 07, 2015 6:16:00 PM, Anonymous Mike S said...

I have no dog in this fight. Harden nor OKC nor Houston are my favorite teams/players. So from my vantage point, I remember being STUNNED that Houston offered Harden top money. I decided to withhold judgment- he was very effective in OKC- but the games I've watched Harden play as a Rocket confirm what an incomplete player he is. I can't remember a player who gets so much attention for putting numbers and helping his team so little. I don't know whether or not David has some hate campaign on Harden or not, but from my observation his analysis of his game is hardly overstated. I would not want Harden on my team if I was putting one together. Too many other players who can score points but help your team win in other ways.

At Thursday, January 08, 2015 3:56:00 AM, Blogger Jordan said...

Anonymous, I see what you're trying to get at with your Harden defense, but comparing the Rockets with last year's Heat overshadows the rest of your solid points with an absurd hypothetical that diminishes your credibility.

The Heat played in the weaker East, yes, but last season, they were trying to get to the finals four seasons in a row (something only the two great Celtics dynasties and the Magic/Kareem Lakers have done in NBA history).

Furthermore, Wade missed 28 games and gimped around in another 30. The roster simply got older with more mileage and the "talented youth" they tried to reclaim were Beasley and Oden. Last year's Rockets had a talented and deep roster with two flawed, but definite starters coming off the bench (Asik and Lin).

And I agree that Harden is a very efficient guard. One of the most efficient two guards in NBA history. But I think his efficiency is ultimately a detriment to the team because he’s basically a better (healthier) version of prime Kevin Martin. Martin is 28th on the all-time TS% list and unlike Harden, he shot over 60% in four consecutive seasons—all as a starter. He also never played with a top NBA talent (I don't think Love is, and I think he's proven that this year). Harden's played with Durant, Westbrook and Howard.

During the regular season and against non-playoff savvy defenses, Harden feasts. But when smart teams have time to game plan for him, he’s very guardable. He’s got straightline speed, terrific strength, and a devastating tomahawk side jam, but he’s not an elite athlete and doesn’t have elite size for a two-guard. His post game has improved, but is not a go-to weapon like other elite, winning two guards of the past.

Hence his steep decline in the playoffs every year but the one he won sixth man with the Thunder and played a key role in getting them to the finals (and ultimately a key role in why they lost since he completely vanished). I was hoping to see an improved mid-range game this year, but he’s actually regressed in that regard.

You're right he's improved his effort defensively. Some noisy advanced stats say he's actually pretty good on that end this year. I think those stats are too noisy, but they do exist.

At Thursday, January 08, 2015 3:59:00 AM, Blogger Jordan said...

My addition to the conversation would be to look at who Harden has made better. Parsons got off to a horrific start this season with the Mavs, the Mavs have been involved in many blowouts lessening his minutes, and he’s been muzzled a bit with the addition of Rondo (which is why his raw stats are smaller). That said, playing next to Dirk Nowitzki has improved his efficiency and in the two weeks before the team got Rondo, Parsons looked like an all-star (I know small sample size).

Meanwhile, Trevor Ariza, after having the best season of his career, is suddenly having his worst. Howard is having the same season he had with the Lakers when he was coming off back surgery.

Even Lin has played about the same (frustrating game-to-game inconsistency) despite having moved to a worse coach and an even more prolific ball stopping chucker.

You could argue that Beverly has improved. But, if he has, the improvement is slight and difficult to separate from improvement simply from being given more consistent playing time.

It’ll be interesting to see how the Rockets fair in the playoffs. Right now they’d be playing the Mavericks in the first round without home court. They’ve added Josh Smith, Corey Brewer, Jason Terry, and a pretty good player in Alexy Shved. The team is deep, athletic, and talented. This has got to be their year.

I don’t have 10 guards I’d take over Harden, but I’d definitely take these eight: Curry, Westbrook, Paul, Wall, Lowry, Conley, Lillard, Butler, (and a ninth would be a healthy Paul George).

And, I don’t think the Rockets would be that much worse if you swapped Harden with Dragic, Bledsoe, Teague, Kemba, Rose, Parker, Thompson, or Lawson.

At Thursday, January 08, 2015 11:49:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, Nick believe what you want, but you and David are in the very small minority about Harden. I think the main thing with David, and you too Nick, is that players change and can better. This happened with Harden. He was younger and held back a little in OKC. His game was much too good for his role in OKC. He wasn't amazing from the start in HOU, but has gradually gotten a lot better. I also don't like Harden's game at all, but it's very effective. If he's so easy to guard, why does he consistently put up huge #'s and at an extremely efficient rate? What you're saying doesn't make sense. His style isn't pretty, but very successful. Marbury never accomplished much, but the same can be said about Grant Hill, Mcgrady, and Love.

Westbrook is better, and maybe Curry is this year. Dragic/Bledsoe are clearly not close. Parker's doing nothing this year. The other guys you mentioned are all good players, but certainly have outperformed Harden this year, and most of them are PGs, much smaller players than Harden. Harden was 1st team last year and in the mvp conversation, and he's doing even better this year. Really? Not impact on wins/losses? He took a sorry cast to a very competitive series against OKC in his first year in HOU, then led his team to 54 wins in his 2nd year, and doing even better in his 3rd year in HOU. I don't think you understand what impact means.

Again, I don't even like Harden, just don't like guys getting unfairly disrespected. David continually tells his readers that 25/5/5 players and 1st-team all nba players are elite players. Without the exception of guys named Harden. And when Kobe goes off, the Lakers win more, but why doesn't the same apply to Harden? I don't understand it. And can't stand Howard, not sure if I want HOU to win or not.

Harden leads nba with 14 30+ point games. HOU is 12-2 in those games. He has 3 40 point games, leading nba, only 3 other players even have 2. And the Rockets still managed to go 8-4 without Howard playing.

I see 8 contenders in west this year. I don't think if you don't even make it out of the 1st round, that means you're not elite player, that's ridiculous. The top teams usually rise to the top, but not always. And look at SA. It took them 7 years with stacked rosters and arguably best coach ever to win a title again, and they lost as #1 seed in 1st round along the way. They had no elite players and still managed to win last year. Memphis, Houston, OKC, SA, Dallas, Clippers, Blazers, and GS all have championship-caliber rosters. Only 4 get to make 2nd round, and only 1 of them even makes the finals. OKC and/or SA will most likely be a bottom 2 seed, at least one of them, might not be so good to be a top seed this year. The playoffs will be about matchups. Certain teams give other teams more problems, and vice versa, this will be a huge factor.

At Thursday, January 08, 2015 12:26:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I haven't heard anything other than Harden being a top player at worst the past couple of years from everywhere, except here, but that doesn't mean he necessarily is. However, when I hear guys like Doug Collins putting him in the mvp conversation, and I know David respects him, might be time to rethink it.

Harden's had success every season he's played. He isn't better than Durant/Westbrook, but he's close, and they both have their flaws, too. For 2 supposed top 5 players in the league to play together for 7 years now, and only make the finals once, are they really that great? And it's not like their casts haven't been very good either.

Durant only won 20 games in his rookie season, then only 23 with Westbrook in his 2nd season. Then, in comes Harden/Ibaka in his 3rd season, and they win 50 games. I know there's a learning curve, but that's a major improvement. Just saying.

Any team at any time in nba history is going to have be at least a very good team with 2 top 5 players. Kobe/Shaq had basically nothing around them, and they won 3 titles. Of course OKC is going to have a good reg. season record still with durant/westbrook, if they lose harden. But, they're obviously missing something, which is one reason why they haven't been able to duplicate their 2012 success. And if they have the 3-headed monster, if/when one of them gets hurt, it would soften the blow a lot. As we've seen if durant or westbrook gets hurt or both of them, OKC is in huge trouble and they have no answer. If they had Harden to step up to be that #2 guy, this wouldn't be the case.

At Thursday, January 08, 2015 1:54:00 PM, Blogger Nick said...


You seem to be ignoring context. Harden didn't have much of an impact at all on Houston's record until they got a top 2 or 3 Center to pair with him. Considering Howard's teams ALWAYS have markedly better records with him than without, and Harden barely moved the needle in his lone season as Houston's only star, I think giving Harden the credit there is kinda, well, dumb. And his allegedly competitive series against OKC was only six games, and was against an OKC team known for it's lack of depth and missing its second best player. Houston had the advantage at 3 out of 5 positions and a better bench and still lost.

More than that, you're enamored by very subjective metrics, like scoring, MVP votes, etc. While those are fun stats, they're ultimately meaningless without context. As for "easy to guard" just watch him in the playoffs any year. Teams play him for the midrange, and his shooting percentage plummets. He has yet to break 40% shooting in a playoff series for Houston. Who cares how efficient he is in the regular season if he turns into a scrub when it counts?

Comparing Harden to guys like Hill and McGrady who had their primes derailed by injury seems like an apples to oranges point.

I even kinda like Harden, but he's only a superstar at a glance; any real investigation of his influence over who wins or loses reveals him as a streak scorer who can't hack it against playoff level opposition and hurts his team on defense.

At Wednesday, January 14, 2015 4:50:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is a great article below that says a lot of what I'm saying about Harden amongst other things. He doesn't compliment Westbrook/Durant very well. They're all ball-dominant players. Even putting Kobe from 2013 and earlier or James on OKC, sure they're both better than Harden, but it wouldn't be a very good fit. Having Ibaka as the #3 being a big and defensive-minded player is a good fit. Plus, a top 10 player at worst like Harden shouldn't be coming off the bench, which is what he'd have to do probably for OKC to maximize their chances since he, Westbrook, and Durant all need the ball a lot. It wouldn't work very well for them to all be playing heavy minutes at the same time.

Durant probably isn't MVP if Harden was still around. I'm surprised that Harden has done as well as he has, but good for him. He wants to be an all-time great, not a backburner like Ginobili. Ginobili only makes the HOF because of his international play. And big-time players don't come off the bench. Harden deserved max money, got it, and has delivered so far. His team has shortly become a contender since he joined HOU. OKC is still good, unsurprisingly. They have 2 great players plus a very deep team, of course they'll still be good. Once you're in the 60 win range, even adding the best player in the world to your team isn't going to increase your season win total much, especially if he doesn't compliment your 2 best players the best. But, OKC has no answer if one of their stars goes down. They haven't played as well in the playoffs without Harden, even when at full strength. And Harden only shot super efficiently 1 season of his 3 seasons in OKC, his last season. That's because he started to get much better in his 3rd season, being the primary reason more than who he played with. Sure, westbrook/durant helped some, but it goes both ways, and he's carried on so far in HOU.


At Thursday, January 15, 2015 2:28:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


John Havlicek and Kevin McHale are two "big-time players who came off the bench" for championship teams. Bobby Jones is a multiple-time All-Star and All-Defensive Team member who came off of the bench for Philadelphia's 1983 championship team.

Harden had a choice. He could have accepted a little bit less money and a little bit less personal glory in exchange for a great opportunity to win a championship. He chose otherwise. If he is as great as some people suggest then--playing alongside a future Hall of Fame center and on a team that is built around him thanks to the "wisdom" of "advanced basketball statistics"--we will someday surely see Harden and the Rockets advance past the first round of the playoffs, but, for now, I feel comfortable writing my Houston playoff previews for the next several seasons: Harden will have a couple high scoring games, he will shoot around .400 and the Rockets will be eliminated in the first round. MAYBE, at best, the Rockets will find a favorable matchup and sneak into the second round some year.

By the way, there are little signs and indicators that Harden is not such a great leader or locker room presence. He chafed at playing his role in OKC. He loafs on defense. He went off on a Houston reporter who justifiably criticized him last season. He has not substantially improved his skill set since his days with OKC (he just handles the ball more and thus accumulates more numbers). Some people look at Harden's PPG and FTM numbers and are wowed. Some "stat gurus" are thrilled that Harden eschews midrange shots. The great thing about competition at the highest level is that you cannot hide. All of your weaknesses are eventually exposed and exploited. If I am right about Harden and if Harden never improves his skill set, then that will eventually become so obvious that even the biggest fool will not be able to argue otherwise. If I am wrong or if Harden improves, that will also become apparent.

At Thursday, January 15, 2015 1:09:00 PM, Blogger Nick said...


James Harden is not as good as Manu Ginobili, Kevin McHale, Bobby Jones, etc. Whether or not somebody starts says more about their team/organization than their talent.

Harden hasn't had a material impact on Houston's win totals (unless you ignore Howard showing up), and his playoff numbers are awful. The guy's a good regular season scorer, but he's not a superstar on the order of guys like Lebron or Durant.

At Sunday, January 18, 2015 1:07:00 PM, Blogger the unnatural said...

David's comments about Harden are a bit slanted to say the least. Understating The Rockets winning percentage this year being one of the most glaring.

You completely brush off the improvement the Rockets' improvement by saying that they're still 4th/5th in the West. True, but first of all, they still made an improvement. And considering Howard has missed 12 games this season (in which they went 8-4), lost Parsons, Asik and Lin (third, fourth and fifth options), and Harden has been by far their best player.

Writing this piece seems to be more about defending and attempting to prove your proclamations from 2012 right more than it does offering a thorough, unbiased appraisal of Harden. It's always "Harden is not a foundational player", and the Thunder win without him. You have even gone as far as comparing a 22/23 y/o Harden to 28-30, in prime, Kevin Martin in the past and said Harden is barely better than him. This is the only time I've ever heard being better than a borderline All-Star at 22 used as a knock against a player.

The Lakers winning % without Kobe was very close to their winning % with him and only Shaq in the lineup during the three-peat years. And far superior to their record with only Kobe. Using the same logic you apply to Harden and the Thunder, Kobe wasn't a foundational player from 2000-2002.

There is a lot of good and bad to Harden's game, but seemingly only the bad ever makes its way into your articles, and defending your original position seems to be your goal rather than reviewing the team and player. So to steal a line from the title of your previous post, James Harden isn't as good as Durant and Westbrook. So What?

At Wednesday, January 21, 2015 11:44:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


That is exactly right. Harden is a good player, not a "foundational player"--and that is why I believe that he would have been better served to accept a smaller deal to stay with OKC, at least if his goal is to win a championship.

At Wednesday, January 21, 2015 12:15:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

The Unnatural:

The winning percentages and rankings of teams have changed since I first posted this article but I did not and have not "understated" the Rockets' position. Right now, the Rockets are tied for 4th-5th in the West and 5th-7th overall. You do some research and tell me how many times the fourth or fifth best team in a conference wins the championship.

As Nick correctly noted, most of the Rockets' improvement in the past couple years--a small sample size of games this season notwithstanding--correlates with Howard's arrival, not with Harden's.

My thesis about Harden at the time he arrived in Houston was (1) OKC would not miss him very much and (2) he would not substantially improve Houston's postseason success. So far, nothing has happened to disprove my assertions, so there is no reason for me to search for an alternative thesis. When Durant and Westbrook have been healthy, OKC has performed even better than they did when Harden was on the team--and that is hard to do, since OKC was already an elite team. OKC has not returned to the Finals primarily because of injuries to Durant and/or Westbrook. We can speculate about whether or not OKC would have done better if Harden had been available to replace Westbrook but having Harden would have meant losing Ibaka. Also, nothing that Harden has done in the postseason for OKC or Houston lends credence to the idea that he could have stepped in for Westbrook and led OKC to the Finals. So, people can speculate that OKC misses Harden as a replacement for an injured Westbrook but the actual evidence that we have is that Harden was terrible in his only NBA Finals appearance and that as a first option threat he has yet to lead his team to a top four seed or even out of the first round of the playoffs. I prefer looking at what has actually happened as opposed to speculating. I predict that Harden will once again score a lot of points with a low shooting percentage in a first round loss this season.

I have not "knocked" Harden. I have accurately evaluated his skill set and accurately predicted how his departure would affect OKC (not much) and how much his arrival would improve Houston's chances of advancing in the playoffs (not much). I did the same kind of accurate analysis of Carmelo Anthony, Gilbert Arenas and other NBA players who were wrongly touted in some quarters as being better than they actually are. I stand by my analysis and predictions unless/until they are proven to be wrong. A lot of Wizards fans spewed venom at me for "hating" Arenas. I am still waiting for Arenas to lead a team past the second round of the playoffs.

Using the same logic with Kobe Bryant that I used with James Harden, Bryant was an All-NBA and All-Defensive Team performer for five championship teams. Bryant won two Finals MVPs. He had dominant, record-setting playoff games during those runs. Bryant also carried Kwawme Brown and Smush Parker to two playoff appearances. Harden has accomplished none of those things.

Harden may improve. I may be wrong about what Harden is capable of doing even if he does not improve. However, as of now, everything that I have predicted about OKC, Houston and Harden has come to pass, with the exception of Harden receiving one All-NBA First Team selection during a season in which an amazing number of All-NBA caliber guards suffered serious injuries (Bryant, Rose, Westbrook, Wade, etc.). I will be surprised if Harden becomes a perennial All-NBA First Team selection but--even if that happens--my major thesis will not be disproved unless/until he is the best player on a legit championship contender. Specifically, that means that Houston finishes no worse than second in the West in the regular season and/or advances to at least the Western Conference Finals.

At Wednesday, January 21, 2015 12:18:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

The Unnatural:

The significance of Harden not being as good as Durant and Westbrook is that Daryl Morey paid Harden as if Harden is that good and Morey portrays Harden as if Harden is that good. Supposedly, Harden is the prototypical player for "stat gurus." Morey's allegedly state of the art way of doing things has yet to produce a contender but the media continues to praise him while eviscerating other NBA executives. If Morey's "advanced basketball statistics" confer such a tremendous advantage then why hasn't Morey turned the Rockets into a great team after several years on the job?

Bill Walsh once said that it only takes three years to turn an NFL team from a bottom feeder into a contender. I know, different league and different era--but we have seen, time and again, that great executives/great coaches can turn programs around quickly. Supposedly, Morey is smarter than other GMs and, supposedly, Harden is the best shooting guard in the NBA. I would expect more from such a supposedly dynamic duo than just the fifth best record in the West on the heels of back to back first round playoff exits.

At Wednesday, January 21, 2015 10:50:00 PM, Blogger Nick said...

Just a little to add, if we're still going here...

First, point of clarification. OKC definitely, legally, and financially could have kept Harden at his current salary and kept Ibaka; they chose not to. They would have had to pay the tax 0-1 times (if they amnestied Perkins/made other little moves) or 1-2 times (if they didn't). Either way- based on the earnings report from last year and not even considering any additional revenue (jerseys etc.) Harden may have generated- they still would have turned a profit (and avoided the repeater tax). They had Bird rights to both, and were nowhere near the hard cap (the only thing that trumps Bird rights).

That said, in a hypothetical world where they had to choose, they chose right. Both are overrated, but Ibaka at least contributes on both sides of the floor (and OKC needs more help on D than O anyways) and doesn't appear to be as easy to neutralize in the playoffs; really the biggest hole in the arguments of any Harden defender is the steaming pile he's laid in every Houston playoff appearance (well, and his crappy defense and his inability to learn how to shoot a midrange jumper and his ineffectiveness when the whistle's not blowing, but I digress).

Second, semi-related point: I don't know if you've noticed, David, as I know you hold no small disdain for the mainstream media but they- and even your apparent nemesis Bill Simmons- have slowly been turning on Morey over the last eighteen months or so. He's still seen as an ok GM (and I'd argue that anybody who can lure multiple All-Stars and consistently produce a winning regular-season basketball team is at least ok), but he's no longer seen in most quarters as being at the level of say, RC Buford, or Masai Ujiri, or even (overrated) Sam Presti. If Houston continues to fail to get anywhere interesting, expect that turn to get much more dramatic over the next two seasons.

The irony is that Morey's praised as an Advanced Stats guy, and yet he loves Harden. Most of the really good advanced stats don't paint Harden as anything special; only the (relatively noisy) pure offense ones seem to like him much, and even those don't paint him as a game-changing playoff contributor.

For example his On/Off court numbers this season paint him as the third most important player on the Rockets (behind Ariza and Howard), and he's fairly significantly behind them. Neither Ariza nor Howard is a dominant offensive force, so they spend a bit less time on Sportscenter and their box scores aren't as gaudy, but they influence the game on both sides of the ball- something that most numbers say Harden still doesn't do, no matter how many times the Houston announcers try to tell us otherwise.

Even his most flattering defensive advanced stats paint him as middling-average at best, and his least flattering paint him as the matador when know and- well, not love, but you get the idea. If you need an example, he allows an average FG% of .495% from opposing shooting guards when he's guarding them (about 4% higher than league average), and his team is about 7.5 points better per 100 possessions defensively without him (considering he plays most of his minutes backed by Dwight Howard, letting Ariza and Beverly guard the other team's two best perimeter guys, and is often replaced by defensive non-factor Jason Terry, that's doubly damning). Granted, they're currently about 15 points per 100 better on offense with him, but remember that his offensive numbers tend to go to crap in the playoffs, where for his Houston career teams beat him by 4 net points per 100 possessions while he's on the floor (please note that Houston actually outscored Portland for the series last season, meaning Houston actually beat Portland while Harden sat and lost the series while he played).

TL:DR: If Morey was actually any good at advanced stats, he probably wouldn't have signed Harden.

At Sunday, January 25, 2015 11:48:00 AM, Blogger the unnatural said...


"The winning percentages and rankings of teams have changed since I first posted this article but I did not and have not "understated" the Rockets' position. Right now, the Rockets are tied for 4th-5th in the West and 5th-7th overall. You do some research and tell me how many times the fourth or fifth best team in a conference wins the championship."

If I had said that Hou would win the championship, your last comment would make sense. Since I didn't, there's no research for me to do. What I DID say is that you brushed aside their increased winning % (and didn't even mention that Howard missed 12 games, which at this point in the season is more than 1/4 of the season). Their ranking in the conference standings didn't rise because OTHER teams also got better. Other teams getting better cannot be used as a knock on Harden, which is what you're doing.

"Using the same logic with Kobe Bryant that I used with James Harden, Bryant was an All-NBA and All-Defensive Team performer for five championship teams. Bryant won two Finals MVPs. He had dominant, record-setting playoff games during those runs. Bryant also carried Kwawme Brown and Smush Parker to two playoff appearances. Harden has accomplished none of those things."

Yeah. Most of what you wrote out here didn't happen in the time period I was referencing. 2000-2002. I chose my words very carefully for this reason. Bryand did the majority of these things AFTER those years. The fact still remains that from 2000-2002 the Lakers winning % without Kobe and just Shaq was fairly close to their winning % with both. And their winning % with only Kobe. Once again, using your logic with Harden, Kobe was not a foundational player from 2000-2002.

I'm a Lakers fan, so if anything I would love to see a team with Dwight Howard on it go up in flames year after year. Do I think James Harden can be the best player on a title team? Probably not. Unless he's part of a really deep NBA outfit, I think he's more ideally suited to being the second-best guy on a title team. And that's Houston's biggest problem. Their two best players are guys ideally suited to being great No. 2's.

That doesn't make Harden not an excellent player to have, make it unreasonable for Harden to want a max deal (Max deal and being a franchise player are not necessarily the same thing), or Morey necessarily wrong for thinking he's a foundational guy. I think Morey was talking up his first big acquisition like any GM would. He's not going to say, "Well, Harden is a pretty good, but not great, player." This is a league where there are probably only 4-6 guys who I think are good enough to be truly "foundational" and can be the best player on a title team, Harden is in that next crop of guys that are all very good.

Those top guys, in my opinion, are Lebron, Anthony Davis, Kevin Durant, Steph Curry. And I could consider Westbrook to be in that class as well despite never really being in that situation. That's five guys and two of them play together. Unless you're fortunate enough to land one of them, or build a team with a strong ensemble cast and great coaching (Atlanta, SA, G-State), you have no choice but to make due with almost-but-not-really foundational guys like James Harden because he's in that group of the next-best that are something from the 6th-15th best player in the league. I think that Morey is well aware his team needs more which is why he traded for Dwight and made runs at Carmelo, Lebron and Bosh. None of his machinations and attempts at FA moves look like those of a guy who thinks his "foundation" is 100% solid.

At Wednesday, January 28, 2015 1:15:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

The Unnatural:

Houston's winning percentage is not the point. If Harden is a "foundational" player then he needs to demonstrate this individually in the playoffs and he needs to demonstrate this in the regular season by moving Houston up in the standings. I agree with you that there are very few franchise players. Harden is not one of them. That is why OKC does not miss him and why Harden has not turned Houston into a legit contender.

Houston's winning percentage this season is not relevant to the points that you made in your first comment. As I indicated in my response, Houston's ranking suggests that it is unlikely that the Rockets will win the championship. I see no reason at this point to change my evaluation of Harden specifically or the Rockets in general.

Kobe Bryant was a top five player in the NBA for at least a good portion of those first three championship runs. He made the All-NBA and All-Defensive Teams in each of those three seasons. He was already a better and more dominant all-around player at that early stage of his career than Harden is now and, I predict, than Harden ever will be.

My analysis of players is always multi-factored. I never rely on just one stat or one observation. Bryant was clearly a franchise player in the 2000-02 time frame. He was good enough to be the best player on a championship team. The fact that he played alongside another franchise player does not take away from Bryant's greatness.

I agree with you that there are only a handful of franchise playeres in the NBA at a given time and that Harden is not one of them.

I disagree with you that a non-franchise player should receive max money. That is not a smart thing for a franchise to do under the current salary cap system. Teams that give max deals to non-franchise players end up like the Nuggets (Melo), Knicks (Melo), Wizards (Arenas), etc.

At Wednesday, January 28, 2015 3:41:00 PM, Blogger the unnatural said...


I tend to agree that guys who are not franchise players should ideally not receive max money, but that is the nature of the NBA. Good debate.

At Thursday, January 29, 2015 5:12:00 AM, Anonymous AW said...

There's a lot of guys in the league that are overpaid. Teams sometimes overpay to keep important players or to add other players.

About franchise players, yes a lot of teams are not fortunate to have one.

A lot of players that are taken high in the draft don't always turn out to be a franchise player(which may be a reason for teams not to tank). They may turn out to be a bust. Or after several years they may max out as being very good but not a franchise cornerstone. Either way the team will pay and praise them as if they're a franchise guy.

About James Harden, yes, I believe he's overrated.

But let's not pretend OKC still can't use him. Putting the contract/salary cap situation to the side, I believe OKC is more dangerous with him regardless what they achieved after he left. I'm not saying not having Harden costed them a title or will cost them in the future.

At Thursday, January 29, 2015 10:07:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

The Unnatural:

Yes, it is the nature of the NBA and perhaps in some cases it can be justified for reasons other than on-court ability (popularity with fans, leading to increased ticket sales, more nationally televised games, etc.) but in general I think that teams that avoid overpaying players do better in the long run both on the court and also financially.

At Thursday, January 29, 2015 10:21:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Somehow, I skipped answering your comment. Sorry about that.

I don't have all of the figures in front of me to dispute your assertion about what OKC was permitted to do under the cap at the time that they made the Harden decision--but I still say that they made the right choice to not overpay Harden. OKC has two max players who they must keep and to maximize their chances of doing so they must put the best possible supporting cast around them. Overpaying Harden would have meant losing out elsewhere on the roster. Also, I think that it is important to consider that Harden thinks of himself as a max level guy and he would not have been happy in OKC as the third option, even with max money. He was already chafing at his role and he would have become a bigger problem as time passed because he is not better than Durant or Westbrook so he would have remained the third option. Harden would have scored a lot when one or both of those guys got hurt but OKC would have been worse than Houston is now and thus it would have been pointless for OKC to keep Harden. The bottom line for OKC is that they have to keep Durant and Westbrook and they have to hope that both guys stay healthy.

I have not noticed any shift in the media's adoration of Morey but if you are right that this has happened then it is overdue. Yes, Morey has made some solid moves but there is absolutely no indication that his use of "advanced basketball statistics" gives him and the Rockets any edge over teams that evaluate players in more traditional ways.

You are right that the ironic thing is that Morey either is not very good at "advanced basketball statistics" or else he has quietly abandoned them in favor of other methods. After several years of leading Houston nowhere, perhaps Morey realized that he has to try something else to build a contender. Either way, Morey's tenure in Houston is hardly a ringing endorsement of the idea that the "stat gurus" are taking over the league in terms of building championship caliber teams.

Let me emphasize that I love statistics and I love truly advanced statistics; I just lament that people who misuse and misunderstand statistics are glorified in the media. Dean Oliver, Roland Beech, Dan Rosenbaum and a few others have done great work in the field--but guys like Abbott and Simmons have set the field back by making wild, unsubstantiated claims.

At Thursday, January 29, 2015 12:06:00 PM, Blogger Nick said...

The simplified version of the cap issue is that if Houston had kept Harden, they likely wouldn't have Reggie Jackson, Jeremy Lamb, or Steven Adams (or Dion Waiters). It is my opinion that they'd be better with Harden (there a lot of guys out there who give you 80% of what Adams does, and Harden is objectively better than Jackson) than what they ended up with, but you remain correct in believing that Ibaka is more valuable to their team than Harden.

That said, if they fail to win a title in the Durant era, the Harden trade will be #1 with a bullet in their contender's obituary.

At Thursday, January 29, 2015 12:26:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Obviously, you meant if "OKC had kept Harden," not "Houston."

I still agree with OKC's decision. It does not make financial sense to give max dollars to a non-max player (Harden), Ibaka is more valuable to OKC than Harden and Harden was not going to be satisfied with being the third option--and that situation would have created chemistry issues; just think about the Portland teams from the early 2000s that had two guys who could start at every position.

As things stand now, if OKC does not win a title in the Durant-Westbrook era then the culprits are (1) Harden's ghastly performance in the 2012 Finals (which is the closest that OKC has come to winning a championship thus far) and (2) the injuries that have stopped OKC's playoff runs in 2013 and 2014. The 2015 season seems like it may also be scuttled by injuries, because even if OKC makes the playoffs (which I think will happen) the Thunder will be on the road throughout the playoffs, facing higher seeded teams in every round.

If Harden had played better in the 2012 Finals or if Durant and Westbrook had not been slowed down by injuries in subsequent seasons then I think that the Thunder probably would have won at least one title already.

Meanwhile, if Houston never makes it out of the first (or second) round with Harden as the team's "foundational player" then all of the media members who hyped up Morey's supposedly revolutionary use of "advanced basketball statistics" should admit that those "advanced basketball statistics" do not confer any meaningful advantage for someone who is trying to build a championship team in the real world (as opposed to in a simulation or on a spreadsheet). The story that Simmons and others hammered home is that Morey and other "stat gurus" have such a tremendous advantage over the traditional, supposedly backward-thinking GMs that any team smart enough to put its operations in the hands of a "stat guru" would be rewarded by winning championships with a roster filled by players who are not appreciated by people who are not blessed with the wisdom of "stat gurus."

While some teams have wisely taken advantage of statistics to tweak their rosters/lineups, there is little reason to believe that the supposed "stat guru" revolution has done much more than make a lot of money for those who have been fortunate enough to market themselves as "stat gurus."

At Thursday, January 29, 2015 2:23:00 PM, Blogger Nick said...

Totally agree with you about Houston and their ultimate fate.

That said, I don't agree that Harden wasn't worth max money to OKC; while he isn't worth it to Houston, my belief is that any contender that's on the cusp can and should overpay to push themselves over the edge... and doubly so with the impending cap jump (which by all accounts everyone more or less knew was coming) rendering the second half of that "max" deal relatively insubstantial from a cap POV, and arguably even making the last few years of Harden's deal a bargain from a market standpoint. It's silly to suggest that on-court their team is better than it would be with Harden to put pressure on opposing second units, while it's quite likely having an elite offensive player off the bench would have insulated them against strong second units and relieved some of the pressure/defensive attention from Durant and Westbrook.

I also think blaming injuries as the reason OKC hasn't won a title is a crap argument; all teams are vulnerable to injury, and many have won in spite of it. Additionally, even healthy and with Harden, OKC got demolished by Miami, and I don't see any reason why that wouldn't have been the case any of the subsequent two seasons. Even last year, they were mostly healthy in the playoffs (minus a brief and temporary absence from Ibaka) and lost to a historically great Spurs team; arguing that they would have beaten that team if they had Ibaka for two extra games strikes me not only as speculative, but also very optimistic. I'm a proud and open Spurs hater, but even I have to admit they were a very special team last season.

Additionally, even when Ibaka was healthy it took them seven games to beat Memphis (who didn't have their best scorer for game 7) and six to beat an unremarkable Clippers team; hardly the mark of a playoff juggernaut. OKC last year- and to some extent this year- has no meaningful depth and poor in-game coaching (though Brooks is excellent from a player development/chemistry standpoint); that's the real reason they haven't won yet, Harden and injuries be damned.

I also don't agree with the chemistry argument; Harden's affection for and relationship with Durant and Westbrook is well-documented. While it is perhaps fair to speculate that he would have been unhappy as the third banana, there's no meaningful evidence for that argument, and the successful co-existence of noted headcase Westbrook and Durant is a strong indicator that OKC's coaching/locker room environment is well equipped to deal with that sort of issue even if it did arise.

At Thursday, January 29, 2015 3:08:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


In general, I agree with you that a team that is close to a title should be willing to overpay to some extent to keep that roster intact--but I disagree with your specific take about OKC. David Aldridge laid everything out nicely prior to OKC parting ways with Harden:

"OKC is in the same relative position as the Spurs found themselves at the start of their dynasty. San Antonio made its choice, building a four-time champion around Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. Only Duncan got a max deal out of those three, and San Antonio has been able to keep its core together for a decade. But the Spurs had to let Stephen Jackson go to Atlanta in free agency in 2003, and it took them nine years to get him back. They had to let Hedo Turkoglu head to Orlando as a free agent in 2004, and, painfully, trade the rights to Luis Scola to Houston to keep their financial house in order."

Aldridge concluded:

"It really is Harden's call. He can take the money and run, and no one would blame him. He could take less money and have a chance to win two or three rings, just as Ginobili and Parker did. And no one would blame him."

Earlier in that article, Aldridge went through some math that contradicts your assertions about what OKC could and could not have done. The bottom line at this point in our discussion is that I believe that OKC could not afford to keep Harden at a max rate and that OKC was wise not to pay Harden a max rate, while you think that OKC could have afforded it and should have done it even though you admit that Harden is not really worth it. I'm not sure where else we can go from there, as neither of us is likely to budge from our positions.

As for your other points, while it is true that all teams are vulnerable to injury it has been since 2012 that OKC has had Durant and Westbrook both at full strength throughout a playoff run. Maybe they both will be healthy for the 2015 playoffs but OKC will have a low seed if they get in at all. We are not talking about peripheral players here. Let's not pretend that injuries to MVP-level players don't alter who wins titles. The 1978 Blazers likely would have repeated if Bill Walton had not been injured. Isiah Thomas' sprained ankle probably cost the Pistons one more ring.

Many great teams have been pushed to seven games and gone on to win the title. That is often considered a sign of greatness. How many game sevens did Russell's Celtics win? I don't buy the argument that OKC was not going to win a title merely because they had some long series.

Harden runs his mouth publicly about various teams and players not being any good. Durant and Westbrook coexist because they are on the same level and they need each other. Harden is not on their level and if Harden had been relegated to third wheel status there would have been problems in OKC. Harden was already griping about his supposedly too limited role during the 2012 playoffs, though I don't have a specific article on hand right now to document that.

At Thursday, January 29, 2015 3:40:00 PM, Blogger Nick said...

This piece pretty much summarizes the cap situation (though the cap is going to likely go higher than this piece suggests): http://grantland.com/the-triangle/ibakas-return-fuels-more-what-if-questions-about-james-harden/

Re-reading that, the crazy thing is that OKC was willing to pay Harden ALMOST what he's making right now- 1.1 million less per year. That makes the whole thing even more of a head-scratcher, luxury tax be damned all to Hell.

That piece overall is softer on the Thunder than I am, mostly because it assumes they didn't know the cap jump was coming- but basically every team has since more or less admitted they knew it was coming, if not the degree. That article outlines probably the best argument against keeping Harden- limiting flexibility- but considering how poorly OKC has used that flexibility its hard to say that gamble paid off.

As for the financials, here's Forbes' analysis of OKC: http://www.forbes.com/teams/oklahoma-city-thunder/

Even if you add Harden (and keep the guys they got for him), that team's making an eight figure profit season to season, so arguing that they "couldn't afford him" is just flat out wrong. Even if they keep him and didn't amnesty Perk (which by all accounts they probably would have), they'd STILL be making over 10 million net profit per season. And that's assuming Harden doesn't add any revenue, which he would, in both merchandise/jersey sales and quite likely in additional playoff home games. There really isn't a reasonable way to claim that OKC "couldn't afford" to keep him. Both the cap and their profit margin would have allowed it, and comfortably at that.

As for injuries, both Westbrook and Durant were healthy by playoff-time last year. Ibaka missed two games against a Spurs team that beat them twice with him, so I'm not convinced that he would have swung the series had he played the first two games.

My point with the long series wasn't so much that long series are a mark against a great team, but that:

1) They needed a suspension to beat a hobbled Memphis team, who you have many times stated is not a true contender even at 100%, and it still took them seven games while totally healthy. That's a little different than Russell's Celts needing 7 games to get by Pettit or Chamberlain.

2) They needed six games to beat a Clippers team that was in its absolute darkest moment with the Sterling thing going on, and who even at their best aren't a truly top tier team.

If you're about to say Westrbook wasn't truly healthy because he missed half the season, I'd caution you to check his numbers first; he had career highs in both playoff scoring and playoff assists that season.

At Sunday, February 01, 2015 3:08:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Yes, OKC could use Harden but the salary cap prevents teams from signing/paying every "useful" player. Therefore, teams must make choices about who to sign and how much to pay each player.

If Harden had been willing to take less, then he could have had a Ginobili-like role on a championship team.

At Sunday, February 01, 2015 3:29:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Even the Grantland piece that you cited acknowledges that the financial situation is/was complex. In hindsight, perhaps it can be said that the Thunder could have/should have known certain things but it is only fair to judge them on what they knew at the time.

Kevin Martin is good enough to fill the Harden role but he got hurt. Waiters can probably fill the Harden role, too. Martin and Waiters are probably also capable of averaging 25 ppg for a team that loses in the first round of the playoffs.

I think that OKC made the best possible choices in general but that injuries have hit their key players at unfortunate times. It is easy to dismiss the importance of the series that they won but that kind of analysis could be done for/against just about any team that contends for a title.

I also think that chemistry would have been an issue if they had kept Harden.

It will be interesting to watch OKC and Houston for the next few years. If all of the key players stay reasonably healthy, let's see if OKC wins a title and let's see if Harden gets out of the first or second round.


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