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Wednesday, May 20, 2015

How Valuable is James Harden?

According to WinShares, James Harden was the best player in the NBA during the 2014-15 regular season--and LeBron James barely cracked the top ten and Rudy Gobert checked in at 15th, meaning he supposedly deserves to make the All-NBA Third Team.  If you buy what "advanced basketball statistics" sell about Harden, then you also must buy what those numbers say about James and Gobert.

I don't buy any of it. James Harden is a very good player but he is in the mold of Carmelo Anthony, Gilbert Arenas or Stephon Marbury, not LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan.

In my newest article for The Roar, I look at the case for and against the idea that Harden is an elite player:

How Valuable is James Harden?

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posted by David Friedman @ 11:13 PM



At Thursday, May 21, 2015 5:16:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's mystifying to me why you've suddenly seized on plus/minus as a means of evaluating Harden. You yourself have (correctly) written in the past that plus/minus is basically valueless unless the sample size is huge (like, a whole season or more) because it's so noisy. The noise certainly outstrips the signal over a couple of playoff series.

You can say "it comfirms the eye test," but that's bad logic. Either it's a useful stat or it isn't. Using it only when it supports what you already think is simply confirmation bias.

Harden plays more minutes than his teammates. How often has he shared the floor with, say, Clint Capela? How often has Howard or Ariza? These are the kinds of issues that make plus/minus (and especially simple plus/minus) useless over this kind of sample.

I would submit that you should avoid this stat altogether in your analysis of Harden, or anyone else, in the playoffs. Using plus/minus -- especially in light of what you yourself have written in the past -- makes it seem like you're just looking for any data that can support your pre-exiting view, no matter its quality.

At Friday, May 22, 2015 9:19:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I have not "suddenly seized on plus/minus." I am well aware that plus/minus can be "noisy," which is why it must be placed in a larger context. The usefulness of any piece of information--a stat, the eye test or anything else--depends on placing that information in a larger context and not just relying on one fact or stat in isolation. I object to simply calculating plus/minus and then citing that statistic as definitive bereft of any context.

However, that statistic can be useful if placed in context. Regarding Harden, it is striking that after back to back first round losses his Rockets have launched into the Western Conference Finals. Has Harden suddenly and dramatically elevated his game? Or does something else explain Houston's rise?

It is interesting and very relevant that, despite Harden's gaudy individual numbers, Houston is actually performing better during the playoffs when he is not on the court. It is even more interesting that Houston gains ground when Howard or Ariza or Smith are in the game. Watching the games, it is evident that those three players have a great impact defensively while also contributing offensively. Then, it is important to remember that Howard has been the best player on a team that reached the Finals (Orlando in 2009). Howard has battled injuries in recent seasons but--at least until he tweaked his knee in game one versus Golden State--he has looked healthy and energetic during the 2015 playoffs.

When Howard is on the court, it is more difficult for the opposing team to score in the paint, which also makes it easier to guard the opposing team's perimeter players. Also, Howard draws defenders into the paint on offense, opening up the court for Houston's three point shooters even if Harden is not on the court as the primary creator. Howard's presence in the paint was a focal point of Orlando's three point attack even though Orlando did not have a perimeter player as good as Harden. The reality is that if you have a healthy Howard you do not need Harden; players who are not as good or flashy as Harden can still adequately replace what Harden does. That is further indicated by the fact that OKC had the best record in the West the year after letting Harden go; the value that Harden supplies can be replaced by other players.

I did not just start using plus/minus now. I have used it judiciously in the past, particularly in my coverage of Team USA. Here is one example of my previous use of plus/minus in context to evaluate the performance of Team USA: Team USA Olympics Report Card

At Saturday, May 23, 2015 4:48:00 PM, Blogger Kion Stephen said...

After watching the first 2 games of the GSW vs Houston series, it's ridiculous to suggest that Howard is more valuable to the team than Harden.

GSW is strangling almost every offensive option of Houston, and they're primarily being kept alive by the brilliance of Harden's midrange game - the same game that you said didn't exist because during the season, he focused more on 3's and free throws, rather than long/midrange 2 point jumpers.

In this series, however, Klay is playing very disciplined defence, and is avoiding the silly fouls that normally plague Harden defenders. Because Klay isn't making the typical mistakes, Harden has adjusted and is feasting on midrange jumpers against very stout defence. Without Harden's offence, those games would've ended up as lopsided losses.

You have a tendency to focus on various points in the past and forget that people and players change - sometimes dramatically - over time. Yes, Howard carried a team to the finals in 2009 - but that was 6 years ago. In 2015, injuries have robbed Howard of his former athletic dominance - 2015 Howard cannot carry a team in the same way.

In 2013, OKC did well after trading Harden. But both Durant and Westbrook improved that year, and Harden also improved his game since his time at OKC. In 2012, he was a decent player. In 2015, he is much better than he was back then.

You maintain that Houston is not a title contender with Harden as its best player. Yet, here they are, in the conference finals, playing extremely competitive games against the only other team remaining in the West. They were just a few possessions away from being up 2-0. If that isn't contending for a title, then i don't know what else to say.

I hate Harden's game in general. I also hate the constant foul seeking. But he is playing against a great and disciplined defender and has adjusted his approach in this series and remains highly effective.

PS. Smith and Ariza may have very good plus-minus numbers, but you can't realistically believe that they are more important to the team than Harden. They are complimentary players at their absolute best. Their success is due solely to the leader of the team. At least the argument of Howard being more important than Harden as the best player of team has some basis in reality. Trying to make the argument that Ariza or Smith, as complementary players, are more important than Harden, who is responsible for getting Ariza open shots and allowing Smith to work against a scrabbled defence, is just plain silly.

At Sunday, May 24, 2015 12:48:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


The ESPN announcing crew said it all during the game three blowout: Howard was the only Rocket who showed up to play. Harden lacked aggressiveness and was completely ineffective (3-16 field goal shooting).

Harden has not improved much in the past three years. All of his weaknesses are on display once again in the 2015 playoffs. He is a good player and he has had some nice games but he has also been a no show on several occasions, including game three versus Golden State, game six versus the Clippers and game two versus Dallas.

Without Howard, the Rockets would likely have gone out in the first round yet again.

The Rockets were very fortunate to even make it to the Conference Finals, needing an improbable game six comeback during which Harden sat on the bench. The Rockets are down 3-0 versus the Warriors, so they are a contender in name only. There was never a real chance that they were going to win the championship.

I never said that Ariza and Smith are better than Harden. I just made the point that the Rockets have been more effective with Howard, Ariza and Smith on the court than with Harden on the court. Harden accumulates individual numbers but the things he does can and have been replicated by other players on the team.

Also, if Harden were the reason for Ariza and Smith's success then all of their plus/minus numbers would be the same. Clearly, Ariza and Smith are doing just fine--and the team is doing just fine--when Harden is not in the game.

At Sunday, May 24, 2015 5:48:00 PM, Blogger Nick said...

Totally agree, David.

Out of curiosity, though, what do you see as the distinction between Harden and Westbrook? You always list Westbrook as a top 5 player, but many of your (correct) criticisms of Harden apply to him as well; inefficiency, reliant on bail-out calls at the rim, lazy defender, team does just as well when he sits, etc.

I'm not trying to start another 40 comment argument, i'm just curious what you see as the distinction? Is it an athleticism issue, chiefly?

At Monday, May 25, 2015 3:27:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


You and I evaluate Westbrook differently. I disagree that Westbrook is an inefficient player. Westbrook is not dependent on flopping and getting calls the way that Harden is. Westbrook is a much better defender than Harden.

You cherry picked a few anomalous regular season games in which Westbrook's plus/minus ratings did not comport with his impact/tremendous individual numbers. Westbrook also played with a broken face and assorted other injuries. In contrast, Houston's entire 2015 playoff run has been highlighted by the Rockets doing better with Harden on the bench and not on the court. That has not been the case for Westbrook during his playoff career, to the best of my knowledge.

Westbrook is far superior to Harden, in my estimation. The fact that OKC started Westbrook over Harden, chose Westbrook over Harden and did not suffer in the standings (until Durant and Harden got hurt) further shows that Westbrook is in fact better than Harden.

At Monday, May 25, 2015 5:22:00 AM, Blogger Nick said...

I should clarify that I agree Westbrook is better than Harden as well, I'm just curious why you see such a tremendous gap between the two of them whereas to me it seems a much smaller one.

I agree that Westbrook doesn't flop, but he's still reliant on getting whistles near the rim; without his free throws, he's demonstrably inefficient as a scorer (similar to Harden when teams don't let him have his easy 3s and FTs).

I do agree that Westbrook is hurt a lot, but isn't that more a point in Harden's favor than Westbrook's?

As for defense, I'd say that while neither is or has ever really been a great defender, a year ago Westbrook was certainly better than Harden. That said, Harden improved on that end this year (though he still stinks) while Westbrook regressed, whether because of injuries or an increased offensive load, to the point of being one of the worst defensive starting PGs in the league (though Lillard still holds the crown). I'm not sure which is better right now, but they're both really bad. Hopefully Westbrook's D will recover a bit next year when he doesn't have to carry as much of the offense.

As for +/-, it's a noisy stat, but Harden's was better than Westbrook's for the season per 100 possessions, though Westbrook's "Box Plus Minus" was better. I don't know what the distinction between the two is, so I don't much know how to comment on it. Harden had the better On/Off court numbers per 82 games, though, which is puzzling given the relative strength of his supporting cast.

I disagree that I was "cherry picking" games; I don't remember the exact number, but it was at least a comparable sample size at the time than we've got Harden's performance in this year's playoffs; OKC was allegedly awful without Westbrook post Durant, but the +/- didn't constantly bear that out, and in games like the Philly game (in which OKC came back from 16-20ish points down with Westbrook on the bench), OKC was able to make their runs because the opposing PG stopped getting into the teeth of their defense every time down. If memory serves, Westbrook's +/- did jump when Ibaka went down, as I imagine Harden's did without Howard.

Westbrook's a better midrange shooter (though neither is great), Harden's a better three point shooter, and regardless of methodology gets more points at the line. I'd say Westbrook's a better passer and rebounder, but he's also more turnover prone (though again, Harden is also a dog on that front). Both guys, to me, are awesome offensive players when they're feeling it who do enough rebounding/at the line/passing to make up for the nights when they're not... and both are also almost indefensibly clueless and/or indifferent on D. They *should* be the best 1 and 2 guard in the league given their skillsets and athletic gifts, but to me both of them are closer to the 3-5 range at their respective positions.

Bottom line question, I guess, is what makes the distinction between a "top 5" player, and a player who's not good enough to be called "foundational"? Is it as simple as the extra 1.5 rebounds/assists and .7 points making up for the extra 4 shot attempts and 0.4 TOs? Or is there something deeper at work that I'm missing?

At Tuesday, May 26, 2015 1:03:00 PM, Anonymous AW said...

@ Nick F I agree with you. People like to point at Harden's efficiency but yet Westbrook is less efficient than Harden. He shoots a lower percentage.
Westbrook hasnt established himself as a better playoff performer than Harden and has had many playoff games in which he shot less than 40 percent and less than 30 percent. Yet we're suppossed to believe that Westbrook is more capable of leading a team deep into the playoffs as the main guy than Harden.

If someone believes Harden is not a top five player and/or can't be the best player on a team that wins it all that's an acceptable opinion.

But to act as if he is a non factor in Houston being the number 2 seed and being in the western conference finals is ridiculous.

At Tuesday, May 26, 2015 5:45:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

@AW, I agree with you.

It's noteworthy that David's argument going into these playoffs was that Harden couldn't maintain his regular-season efficiency and general valuable-ness because defenses in the playoffs game-plan and adjust, and Harden's game would collapse in the face of that.

That, at least, had some basis in prior history. But now that we see Harden scoring lots of points efficiently in the playoffs, as well as distributing extremely well and contributing in other ways, too, the argument initially slipped to "well, Howard's better." That's an arguable point, though hardly clear-cut. And it certainly can't explain Harden's *offensive" brilliance -- Dwight's great at D, on the boards, and at finishing, but he's not the offensive focus of the Rockets, nor the primary focus of opposing defenses. Harden is, quite obviously to anyone watching.

Now the argument has slipped to "plus/minus", and with it we've begun to see patently absurd comments about how easily replaceable Harden is, and how he's not really much of a positive at all (regular season or playoffs, apparently). These arguments, as you say, are ridiculous.

At Tuesday, May 26, 2015 6:53:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nick's overall analysis of Harden isn't good, but some of the points he makes comparing him to Westbrook is at least somewhat valid.

If everyone was completely healthy for this year in a hypothetical make-believe world, which I might add has never happened for any season in nba history, then James and Durant would probably be the two best players. After that, it's up for grabs. You got Curry, Harden, Griffin, Paul, Davis, Rose, Westbrook, Brandon Roy, Grant Hill, and T-Mac next in line in some order. However, James, Westbrook, Rose and Davis all missed some time, Durant missed a lot of time, and Roy/Hill/T-Mac are all retired.

Harden led his team to the WCF, which in essence is most likely the nba finals. At any rate, if he's good enough to do that, then he's good enough to be considered an elite player and good enough to be the best player on a title team. Let's look at past best players on title teams: Kawhi or Parker in 2014, Dirk in 2011, Pierce in 2008, Wade or Shaq in 2006, Billups in 2004. Harden is certainly better than some of these players, and stacks up well with all of them; and this 5 of just the past 11 years. David continually made excuses for Harden not making it past the 1st round for 2 years, and now that he's in the WCF; we're seeing different excuses. It's always a no-win situation for him. For someone doesn't understands the double standard Kobe and Westbrook get, this is very bizarre. If Harden is to be blamed for 1st round losses in 2013/2014, then why shouldn't Westbrook get even more blame for not even making the playoffs in 2015?

If Howard is the supposed best player on HOU, then shouldn't he get the most blame for 2014 and a likely 2015 WCF loss, especially since HOU remained an elite team when he didn't play this year?

I can't think of any other examples where a team loses their supposed best player(Howard) and keeps on ticking playing great ball. We all know Harden is no Kobe, but when Shaq was out in 2003, LAL sucked mightily, and there's countless other examples of what happens to teams when they lose a great player for a period of time. It's actually great that Howard was out for half the season this year, because we then were able to see just how great Harden is. David will never him his due, but at least the majority of people can see it. Maybe he shouldn't have been MVP or is the best player in the league, but he's sure heck close. Curry has probably been the best postseason performer, but Harden is right behind. James maybe 2nd best, but he's hardly playing like his elite self. Griffin also deserves mentioning. Paul, while overrated, does as well. He played really well, despite battling injuries.

At Tuesday, May 26, 2015 10:35:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


The difference for me is not based solely on numbers but rather on skill set. I think that Westbrook is better than Harden at everything other than shooting from 15 feet and out. I think that Westbrook has a better motor and is a more difficult matchup. If I were coaching, I would defend Harden by running him off of the three point line, forcing him to finish with his right hand and keeping my hands high at all times to avoid any cheap foul calls. I would also trap him at random moments when his back is turned because he is prone to make careless, lazy passes. I would back cut him relentlessly on defense.

Westbrook plays so hard and so fast that he is much more difficult to defend. If his defense slipped this year then I think two knee surgeries plus having a broken face and an injury-riddled squad might have had something to do with it. He was asked to do a lot with a not completely healthy body. Houston does not ask Harden to defend. He is put on the weakest perimeter threat and he still gets beat more than he should.

At Wednesday, May 27, 2015 3:29:00 AM, Blogger Nick said...

On the one hand, I do agree that Westbrook is better. On the other hand, I think that there's little to no evidence that Westbrook is a harder cover than Harden; even in the playoffs, Harden's playoff numbers as a scorer are across-the-board better than Westbrook's. It's one thing to say you'd cover him this way or that way, but at this point he's played one good defense (LA) and the league's best defense (GS) and his playoff numbers are still better than Westbrook's last year (or any year), and by a fair margin. Yes, Harden's an iffy midrange shooter, but forcing him into those shots has become difficult. On the other hand, Westbrook's career playoff FG% is .421. I remember you often have suggested .450 as the target mark for an elite perimeter scorer in the playoffs, but Westbrook's only met that number once, in his playoff debut loss against the Lakers (being guarded by Derek Fisher may have helped).

It's true that Harden's not asked to do much on defense... but back cuts work just as well on Westbrook (who sometimes runs several feet in the wrong direction when a player fakes that way before their cut). Neither guy is remotely attentitve off-ball, and Westbrook is overactive and easily misled on-ball. Harden's become a passable on-ball defender, though his lateral quickness leaves something to be desired. Both guys are clearly minuses for their teams, at least right now, and because of their different defensive responsibilities its hard to say who's actually worse; that Westbrook more often guards a threatening player makes his failings perhaps more damning, but then Harden turns non-threats into threats. Let's give them both a D for D and move on.

Again, you're not wrong that Westbrook is injury prone... but I feel to see how being constantly injured makes him better than somebody who's consistently healthy. It may well be that 100% Westbrook is much better than James Harden, but then 100% Rose or Wade is better than either; no GM in the league would take Rose or Wade over Harden or Westbrook, though. As you've pointed out, Westbrook's already had style knee surgeries; he's unlikely to be much healthier than he was this season (67 games), based on his style of play. To use another example, Bill Walton at his peak was arguably the greatest center ever, but you never see him listed above Wilt/Kareem/Russell/Shaq/Hakeem/Moses; durability counts for something. Would you rather have 67 games of Westbrook or 81 of Harden? I'd take the Westbrook games- particularly if I've Kevin Durant in my back pocket- but I wouldn't feel good about it.

I still take Westbrook over Harden, but I remain curious at how big of a gap you think is there, especially with very little empirical evidence on Westbrook's side besides higher assist numbers (which are noisy and circumstantial) and rebounding (which he's definitely better at), while Harden has the edge in efficiency and turnovers as well as durability. Perhaps i'm underestimating your valuation of Harden. Do you see him as a top 20 guy? Top 15? Top 10? I have him somewhere in the 15-20 range among all active players, and Westbrook maybe three or four spots higher, for whatever that's worth.

At Wednesday, May 27, 2015 3:08:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I never said that Harden is a non-factor. I have said that Harden is a very good player but that I think he is overrated.

At Wednesday, May 27, 2015 3:11:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


If you are right, then why is it that Houston's sudden ability to advance past the first round of the playoffs--after back to back first round losses--coincides with Dwight Howard returning to action late in the season and performing at circa 2009 levels in the playoffs?

If Howard is not having much impact then why is Houston doing better with him on the court than with Harden on the court during the playoffs?

At Wednesday, May 27, 2015 3:16:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Grant Hill is 42 years old. I doubt that there is any scenario in which he would be a top NBA player in 2015.

So, getting routed in the WCF (which seems to be the likely outcome right now) is now equivalent to reaching the NBA Finals? That is an interesting piece of "analysis." If you right, then it is interesting that after letting Harden go the Thunder reached the WCF and pushed the eventual champion Spurs to six games. How did the Thunder possibly manage to replace the irreplaceable Harden and advance to the Finals (based on your definition of the Finals)?

I am not "blaming" Harden for the first round losses. I just said that if he is a team's best player then I don't think that team will contend for championships. The first two years Harden played for Houston that was the case. This year, Howard has returned to form in the playoffs, the Clippers had an epic collapse and the Rockets are in the WCF, where they are trailing 3-1. How any of this disproves my analysis of Harden is a mystery.

At Wednesday, May 27, 2015 3:38:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Being a "harder cover" is not only proven by individual statistics but also by how a player distorts the opposing defense and creates opportunities for his teammates (who may or may not exploit those opportunities). I believe that Westbrook creates more problems for the entire opposing defense (not just the man guarding him) than Harden does.

We just completely disagree about Westbrook's defense. It may not have been as good this year as in years past but I am not giving him a "D." Let's just table that discussion, at least for now, because our previous conversations make it clear that we will not find common ground there any time soon.

Westbrook was actually remarkably durable in high school, college and his NBA career up to the point that Beverley crashed into him. That knee injury then had to be repaired twice. His other injuries--a broken hand and getting kicked in the face--are flukes, not a sign of frailty. It may be the case that his knee will never be the same but for now I am assuming that next season after a summer of rest he will be 100%. My point about his injuries is that, despite being hurt, he was extraordinarily productive this season. I'd take banged up Westbrook from this season over Harden and I certainly would take healthy Westbrook over Harden.

When I evaluate or rank players I do so based on them being 100% healthy, unless it is clear that a player has some kind of permanent physical issue relating to age and/or injury. I think that Westbrook is the best guard in the NBA and a top five player overall. I would take Westbrook, Curry, CP3 and Wall over Harden for sure. Kobe, Wade and Rose are better than Harden but may never be fully healthy again. Overall, that 15-20 range that you mentioned sounds about right for Harden. Harden 2015 is about as good as prime Ginobili, with the difference being that Harden is more explosive offensively but not as good defensively.

Why this evaluation of Harden is so controversial and why Harden is considered to be top five with a bullet instead of top 15-20 is something that I do not know. I compare it to that brief time when some people were saying, with serious looks on their faces, that Gilbert Arenas was as good as Kobe and deserved MVP consideration. Arenas had his little "Hibachi" routine and Harden has his stirring the pot motion.

At Wednesday, May 27, 2015 6:39:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What really surprises me about the Harden hype are all the respectable, qualified NBA analysts who reflexively call him an MVP caliber player and who allude to him being arguably the best player in the game. How can someone be the best player in the league when they are often times a liability on the defensive end of the floor? His sycophants will greatly magnify a few plays where he actually commits to playing defense and act as if this completely negates all the other defensive sequences where he just stands there and doesn't even pretend to give any effort.

You have more than adequately made a logical case for Harden being a top 15 player as opposed to a top 5 player. I don't understand why your stance generates such controversy if not outright hostility. The majority of NBA analysts consider Harden to be an elite player but this only shows the danger of blindly appealing to majority/authority. There was a time when a person could get in very hot water for even suggesting that the Earth wasn't the center of the universe, so general consensus must never be exempt from measured scrutiny.

At Wednesday, May 27, 2015 6:44:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Your concluding words, "...general consensus must never be exempt from measured scrutiny," are probably the wisest statement that has been posted on this topic both here and at the Roar, where my article has generated a lively--but at times bizarre--conversation about Harden's relative value.

At Thursday, May 28, 2015 1:07:00 AM, Blogger Nathan Wright said...

The Rockets were extremely lucky to make it to the WCF. Their scoring margin of +3.4 was good for 5th in the West, and they missed actually finishing 5th by 1 game. Their first round matchup was Dallas, a team that was consumed in self-destruction. Then they faced the Clippers, and Chris Paul teams have historically imploded by the second round, which is exactly what happened.

In short, this Rockets run feels like several years ago when the Jazz rode a flukily favorable bracket (they got to face the 8th-seeded Warriors who took out the 1st-seeded Mavericks) to the WCF where they were promptly annihilated by the Spurs. The following seasons, they were back to being early-round fodder. I anticipate that the same fate awaits the Rockets.

At Thursday, May 28, 2015 1:57:00 AM, Blogger Nick said...

OK, that more or less answers my curiosity; it's mostly a disagreement on Westbrook's D, not on Harden's qualifications. If i thought Westbrook was a significantly better defender, I'd certainly rank him higher.

At Saturday, May 30, 2015 8:10:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


You are absolutely right. The Rockets had the regular season point differential of a middling playoff team, which is a big part of the reason that I don't buy the idea that Harden did such an amazing job during the regular season. The Rockets ended up with a few more wins than they "should have" based on their point differential. The Spurs' loss in the final regular season game helped set up the Rockets' playoff run by giving the Rockets the second seed.

Dallas was a very disappointing team. They had Nowitzki, Ellis, Rondo and some good role players but could not figure out how to utilize their talent.

I agree with you that this Houston team as presently constituted is not set up to make regular trips to the Conference Finals.

At Saturday, May 30, 2015 8:11:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Yes, I think that you and I have a vastly different evaluation of Westbrook's defense.


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