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Monday, November 16, 2015

A Tale of Two Shooting Guards

A highly regarded NBA guard is shooting .371 from the field--including .240 from three point range--and leading the league with 49 turnovers in 10 games as his team performs far below expectations. No, this is not about Kobe Bryant, a 20 year veteran coming back from serious injuries to his Achilles, knee and shoulder in addition to a calf bruise that he suffered during the preseason; this is about James Harden, who has been widely hailed as an MVP caliber player for a potential championship contender. Bryant's production is predictable, given his age and his injuries. What is Harden's excuse? It is bizarre that the media focuses so much attention on Bryant's supposed shortcomings as his Hall of Fame career draws to a close but ignores the poor performance of a much-praised player who should be in his prime and who recently declared that he should have won the 2015 NBA regular season MVP.

Harden's Houston Rockets, who supposedly added the final piece to their championship puzzle when they acquired point guard Ty Lawson, are currently 4-6 and would not qualify for the Western Conference playoffs if the season ended today. Among Houston's main rotation players who average at least 30 mpg, Harden's plus/minus number (-4.7) is fourth, trailing Marcus Thornton, Trevor Ariza and Dwight Howard. This is a small sample size of games but the trend actually extends back to the 2015 playoffs, when Harden's plus/minus was third on the team--the same as Jason Terry, .1 better than Trevor Ariza and worse than Dwight Howard and Josh Smith. Harden puts up gaudy scoring and assist numbers because he monopolizes the ball but there are many other players in the NBA who could put up similar numbers if they handled the ball as much as Harden does. In that regard, Harden is much more like Stephon Marbury, Gilbert Arenas and Carmelo Anthony than he is like Kobe Bryant in his prime or Stephen Curry now. Guys like Harden do not lead teams to championships; they only win championships if they understand their limitations and accept a smaller role behind a player who is more qualified to handle such a heavy workload. Marbury was unwilling to do that in Minnesota with Kevin Garnett. Arenas was much more interested in being quirky than in winning basketball games. Anthony made one fluky run to the Western Conference Finals (much like Harden did last year) but has spent most of his career jacking up shots, playing inattentive defense and losing in the first round of the playoffs.

Yes, Harden has already had a couple games with 40-plus points this season and he likely will have more such games before the end of the season. Those games do not refute my take on Harden. I have never said that Harden is a bad player. He is a very talented player who is more than capable of putting up big numbers--but he is not an elite player or an efficient player or much of a leader. Leadership is defined by actually leading a group of people to a meaningful accomplishment. Kobe Bryant is a great NBA leader--no matter how much media members bash him for supposedly not being a leader--because he has been an All-NBA performer for five championship teams. Steve Nash and Chris Paul are called great leaders by media members but what concrete results did their supposed leadership actually obtain? Someone did some kind of study showing that Nash high-fived his teammates more than anyone else--but what does that actually have to do with leadership or with winning? Jason Kidd was a great leader because everywhere he went his teams got better and everywhere he left those teams got worse. Results on the court spoke volumes about his leadership.

Harden puts up empty numbers and there is far too much variation between his best games and his worst games. Truly great players have a consistent impact on a game to game basis; when their shot is off, they compensate with their passing, their rebounding and/or their defense. Harden does not do that. Like Marbury, Arenas and Anthony, Harden is a talented player who can score a lot of points but is indifferent--at best--defensively and whose playing style/leadership style is not conducive to building a championship culture. Teams inevitably take on the identity of their best player. A defensive-minded player like Bill Russell can be the best player on a championship team because by sacrificing his own scoring opportunities such a player sets a good example for his teammates to follow. However, an offensive-minded player who does not work hard on defense is unlikely to be the best player on a championship team, because his teammates will follow his lead and also not work hard on defense (plus, such a player will play a lot of minutes and thus be a detriment to the team's defense even if the other four players do work hard at that end of the court).

I predicted that Harden would be a high scoring All-Star but that he would not be able to lead a team to a championship as the best player and nothing that has happened since he arrived in Houston has refuted that prediction. Harden is ideally suited to being the third or, maybe, second option on a championship-caliber team. Since Harden has arrived in Houston, the Rockets have exited the playoffs twice in the first round, with Harden playing poorly in both of those postseasons.

Last year, the Rockets had a record that was better than their point differential would predict and they took advantage of their favorable seeding to advance to the Western Conference Finals as an injury-riddled Thunder team missed the playoffs, as the Spurs rested their way to a bad seed/first round loss and as the ever-underachieving Clippers blew a 3-1 lead against the Rockets despite Harden's bricklaying (.398 FG%) throughout that series. Houston's run to the Western Conference Finals was a fluky result--and the players who did the heavy lifting were Dwight Howard, Josh Smith and Trevor Ariza. The Rockets actually did better in the playoffs with Harden off of the court than they did with him on the court. In fact, Harden was not even on the court during some of Houston's most critical runs during the 2015 postseason, including their big fourth quarters in game two of the Dallas series and game six of the L.A. series. Then, Harden shot 2-11 from the field and committed 12 turnovers in game five of the Western Conference Finals as the Rockets went down in flames versus the Golden State Warriors, four games to one.

The Rockets openly lobbied for Harden to win the 2014-15 regular season MVP but it would have been a travesty if Harden had won that award. Stephen Curry is clearly better than Harden and Curry was the best player on the league's best team, a team that went on to win the championship. Curry and the Warriors look even more dominant now than they did last season, which further emphasizes the gap between Curry and Harden.

An MVP vote should not just reflect what happens in a given season but it should make sense historically. A Harden MVP would have been as discordant historically as the two MVPs that Steve Nash won. Nash was a good player and his career arc made for a nice story for the media but Nash--despite the plaudits he received as a leader and as supposedly the best player in the league two years in a row--never sniffed a championship. The best players of the 2000s were--in alphabetical order--Bryant, Duncan, James and O'Neal, with Garnett, Nowitzki and Wade also making an impact; each of those players won at least one championship as the best player on his team. Nash was in the next level below those guys and that was obvious at the time that the media gave him two MVPs but the story of a small player from a small school serving as the point guard for a high octane offense seduced the media MVP voters to ignore the fact that Nash was not actually better than the league's truly dominant players.

Nash left Dallas and the Mavericks not only remained a good team but they actually improved, reaching the Finals twice and winning the 2011 championship. When an MVP level player leaves a team that never happens, unless the MVP level player is replaced by another MVP level player. When Wilt Chamberlain left the 76ers, they rapidly declined from arguably the best single season team of all-time (1967) to arguably the worst single season team of all-time (1973). Bill Russell led the Boston Celtics to 11 championships in 13 seasons. Boston missed the playoffs the year after he retired and did not win another championship until adding another MVP caliber center (Dave Cowens, who won the 1973 MVP before helping the Celtics win championships in 1974 and 1976). Kareem Abdul-Jabbar led the Milwaukee Bucks to two Finals and one championship but since he left Milwaukee the Bucks have never returned to the Finals while his new team--the L.A. Lakers--won five championships with him patrolling the paint. When Moses Malone left the Houston Rockets for the Philadelphia 76ers the Rockets crashed--and did not reemerge until they obtained two dominant big men, Ralph Sampson and Hakeem Olajuwon--while the 76ers enjoyed one of the greatest seasons in NBA history. It is true that the Chicago Bulls did not fall apart when Michael Jordan retired--thanks largely to the efforts of the vastly underrated Scottie Pippen--but the Bulls did not improve, either. The Lakers missed the playoffs after Shaquille O'Neal left, though Bryant soon led them back to the top after the Lakers acquired one-time All-Star Pau Gasol. Bryant did not need that much additional help because he is one of the greatest players of all-time.

An MVP is an irreplaceable player. Nash was very good but he was not irreplaceable and his name does not belong on the MVP list. Similarly, Harden is very good but he is not irreplaceable; there are many other NBA guards who could do the same things Harden is doing if given the same opportunity and the Rockets would not be any worse off if they swapped Harden for one of those guards. The Oklahoma City Thunder replaced Harden with the likes of Kevin Martin and Reggie Jackson and did not miss a beat until their best two players--MVP level performers Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook--missed significant time due to injuries.

Many things broke right for Harden and the Rockets last year and they still got smoked in the Western Conference Finals. Harden is not as bad as he has looked in the early part of his season and I expect the Rockets to be a playoff team--but I also expect them to go out in the first round this year and in most if not all of the next several years. Maybe after Harden has lost in the first round as many times as Anthony people will begin to reassess their inflated views of his ability, much like the shine is coming off of Chris Paul as people are slowly figuring out that not only is he not good enough to lead a team to a championship but he might even not be good enough to be the second best player on a championship team, since for the past few years Paul has been the second best player on a highly touted Clippers team that has yet to reach the Western Conference Finals.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:12 AM



At Monday, November 16, 2015 9:50:00 AM, Blogger Nick said...

Agree about Harden. He's not even the most valuable 2 guard, let alone the most valuable player.

Disagree somewhat about Nash. While it's true that Dallas improved after Nash left, Nash was not yet an MVP level player; the hand-check rule, instituted the season he left, made him a much more dangerous player and he immediately led a team that had missed the playoffs the year before to the league's best record. On the other hand, when he left Phoenix they (lockout adjusted) lost 16 more games than they had the previous season. The definition of MVP is notoriously vague and open to interpretation, but in both 2005 and 2006 there was likely no player who's team's record would suffer more by his absence than Nash, and this is one of the more popular interpretations of what that award means.

The Suns won 33 more games in '05 than '04 and the only major roster upgrade was Nash (though some of their younger players would have progressed at least a little with or without him). Is there another team in '05 where removing their best player would cost them 33 games? It is easy to say "Kobe" but considering the Lakers only won 34 games that year, I think it's unlikely that even sans Bryant they could have been bad enough to go 1-81.

As for '06, there's a similar case to be made; Nash took essentially the same team, minus Amare and Joe Johson (their second and fourth best players, respectively) and plus Raja Bell and Boris Diaw to 54 wins. We don't have as clear a control group for that lot but I think it's fair to say that without Nash that team would struggle to win much over 20 games as well.

Basically, I don't think Nash won the MVP because people thought he was better than Duncan or Bryant or Oneal; he wasn't. I do think, though, that at least some of the voters base their picks on who means the most to their individual teams, and Nash had a very strong case both of those years.

Also, if *any* player was traded to a 29 win team and then won 62 games, they'd win the MVP, regardless of school/race/position/narrative. Similarly, if any player lost two All-Star teammates and only saw his team's win total drop into the mid 50s, he'd likely win the MVP. You may disagree with that reasoning for MVP- heck, I do- but until/unless the NBA gives a more complete definition of the word "valuable" it's a valid one.

Suggesting that Nash is an unworthy MVP presupposes a definition of MVP that is far from universal. If the MVP were merely the best player in the league, then only about 11 or 12 players would ever have won it. It basically would be limited to Pettit->Russell/Chamberlain->Jabbar/Erving/Malone->Magic/Bird->Jordan/Hakeem->Duncan/Oneal->Bryant/James. This would be boring, which is why the NBA encourages that diversity and discussion by calling it "Most Valuable" instead of "Best."

As for the "leader" comments, I think Nash's case for being a great leader can be seen most in two places:
1) He led the league's best offense or very close to it for 11 years, a run nobody else who was traded during their run (except Doc, I think) can compete with.
2) Almost to a man, his teammates saw their best scoring and FG% numbers with him. The only prominent exception being Dirk, who was 25 years old and miscast as a center in his last season with Nash, before peaking three years later.

Nash didn't win a title for a lot of reasons, chief among them his crappy defense, anemic rebounding teams, and how goddamn great the Spurs were most of those seasons, but I disagree that he wasn't a great leader.

At Monday, November 16, 2015 12:36:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'll say this about Nash and Paul. They're both overrated, but they're both future HOFers and did some very good things. They are both good leaders/teammates, but this gets greatly exaggerated about them. Paul was the best PG in the game for awhile, and deserved some minor consideration for MVP for a few years. Nash never should've been given real consideration for MVP. But looking back at 2005, Duncan/KG/Shaq were all not at their highest peaks. Kobe was injured some, and his team stunk. So, Nash kind of squeaked in there, and he probably was the best PG in the game for a few years. 2006 was a true tragedy of Nash winning MVP though. If Harden won the 2015 MVP, that year has no bearing on past or future seasons. James took a 2-week vacation and coasted throughout the season while his team underachieved. Durant was hurt. Westbrook was hurt some, and couldn't lead his team to the playoffs. What does that leave us? Curry and Harden. This shouldn't be too hard to see, and pretty much everyone associated with the nba could and did see this. Maybe a few had James #1 or #2 in MVP voting, but they had Harden/Curry right up there with him as well. Harden kept HOU elite for 1/2 season without Howard, at a winning pct. equaling 55 wins with what, Ariza as his 2nd best player. He had a decent cast around him, but no other even borderline AS and a team that had to deal with a lot of injuries besides Howard.

Who was the best player on SA in 2014? Parker, Leonard, or even Duncan? None were elite players that year or even close for that matter. Dirk was borderline elite in 2011, 2nd team all-nba. Pierce wasn't an elite player in 08. Curry was very good last year, but his team stunk. Wade wasn't really an elite player in 06, but blew up in the playoffs along with many favorable calls. Billups was elite in 04. There's lots of examples of players you'd never think capable of leading a team to a title, but they did. I don't think Harden can, but he's definitely a capable. Recent past history at least gives him a decent chance if his cast is good enough, which it hasn't been yet. The Martin/Jackson comparisons to Harden are quite amusing, especially since OKC has yet to make the finals again without Harden, which Harden was needed to come up huge in the playoffs for the to make it in the first place.

At Monday, November 16, 2015 1:18:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


You say that Nash caused the Suns' 33 game improvement and then declare that no other player was worth 33 wins that year--but saying that Nash caused all or most of the 33 win improvement is not the same as proving this to be true.

The 2005 Suns were substantially different than the 2004 Suns. In 2004, Amare was a second year player who missed nearly 30 games. In 2005, he was healthy and had another season under his belt. Young players tend to improve rapidly. Players ranking 4th-6th in minutes played on the 2004 Suns were Jacobsen, Voskuhl and Barbosa; players ranking 4th-6th in minutes played on the 2005 Suns were Richardson (not on the team at all in 2004), Nash and Barbosa, with Barbosa's minute slashed. So, the major minutes were distributed much differently.

Furthermore, Marion was an All-Star before Nash arrived, while Joe Johnson--the leader in minutes played for the 2004 and 2005 teams--was a young player whose improvement can hardly be attributed to Nash. In fact, JJ did not emerge as an All-Star--and a perennial All-Star to boot--until two years after he left Phoenix. Coach D'Antoni's first full season with the Suns was 2005.

The Suns' improvement was a perfect storm of D'Antoni's coaching, young players improving and the replacement of a selfish loser point guard (Marbury) with an unselfish point guard (Nash)--but it is a bit much to give Nash the MVP on the basis that he caused all of these changes, let alone to put him in the elite category of back to back MVPs when O'Neal only won a single regular season MVP during his entire career!

I agree with you that the thought process of the voters was that Nash singlehandedly transformed the Suns--but I disagree that this is a correct assessment of what happened. Nash was an All-NBA caliber guard, so of course adding him to the Suns roster--and jettisoning Marbury--was worth a lot of wins.

Whether or not it seems "boring," I think that there probably are only a dozen or so players who should have won MVPs. An All-NBA First Team selection represents adequate recognition of what Nash provided to Phoenix.

At Monday, November 16, 2015 1:40:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I agree that Nash and Paul are HoF players.

Paul was the best pg in the NBA for a period of time and deserved All-NBA First Team status but I never thought that he was the best player in the league; Kobe and LeBron, at the very least, were always ahead of him.

Shaq's impact in Miami was at least as great as Nash's in Phoenix, eventually culminating in a championship. I agree that 2005 was somewhat of a down year for the league's perennially elite players but I thought that Shaq deserved the 2005 MVP and I definitely think that Kobe deserved the 2006 MVP over Nash.

Regarding last season, I struggle to understand how anyone could choose Harden over Curry. Curry is a better shooter, better passer and better defender for a team with a much better record. Two years ago it may have been less clear which player is better but Curry's game has continued to develop while Harden's has not. Harden is a high usage offensive player who does not exert much effort defensively.

At Monday, November 16, 2015 1:41:00 PM, Blogger Nick said...

I don't disagree too much with a lot of that. I think both that Nash helped Johnson and that Johnson would have improved either way. I think it's clear that Marion benefitted a great deal from Nash, ditto for Amare. I think that D'Antoni deserves some credit as well, but Nash maintained his production under Gentry (and to a lesser extend even under Porter's misguided attempt to run that roster as a half-court outfit), and D'Antoni did coach part of that abysmal '04 season.

I think looking at it in terms of "well, only the very best should win back to back MVPs" is an easy trap to fall into. Whatever your definition of MVP is, I think it's important to take it on the individual merits of that season. Obviously Nash is not as good as Shaq, but for several definitions of MVP he was a legitimate candidate both years he won. I personally feel Oneal should have won 1-3 more awards, but him getting robbed doesn't have anything to do with Nash's candidacy one way or the other (unless you feel that Nash stole the '05 award from him, which is certainly a defensible position).

At any rate, I think it's pretty obvious that Nash was the primary reason for the Suns improvement when he arrived, and the primary reason for their decline when he left. I think as the primary reason for that dramatic win total- and on a team that could not function without him, whereas many of Shaq's best teams could survive his absences by leaning more heavily on Kobe or Wade- Nash was a perfectly credible MVP by the "how much does his team need him" and/or "how many wins is he responsible for" metrics. He wasn't a good pick by the "best player in the league" metric, and by the ever-popular "best player on the best team" scale, he would have qualified in '05 but not '06.

At Monday, November 16, 2015 2:10:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is one of the few places on the internet where an objective discussion about Harden can be had. Harden's highs don't last long enough and his lows are too historically awful for him to be considered an elite player. Many people were critical of his WCF Game 5 performance but many others still made excuses for him; that he doesn't have enough help and he's expected to do too much.

Imagine if LeBron or Kobe shot 4-11 and had 6 turnovers in a conference finals elimination game. They would be relentlessly mocked for it and rightfully so. That is a beyond embarrassing performance for an MVP caliber player in a game of that magnitude unless they were trying to play through a serious injury. Harden is supposedly on the same level as those guys but gets a fraction of the criticism for making half as many field goals and committing twice the number of turnovers. I don't know which is worse about Harden's game five against the Warriors; he had more turnovers than shot attempts, he had six times as many turnovers as FGMs or that his 18 FG% was not much higher than his 12 turnovers. This was the worst playoff game ever by someone who was given serious consideration for MVP and it wasn't a complete anomaly.

Anyone who isn't a brainwashed Harden acolyte has known for quite some time that his game flounders in the postseason. Mad Dog pointed this out and Jeff Van Gundy's rebuttal was that Harden is better than Jerry West. It's one thing when the general NBA media and casual fans spout absolute nonsense but it is truly disconcerting when one of the greatest basketball minds on the planet does it. The Harden worship is drifting into legitimate cult territory.

At Monday, November 16, 2015 2:40:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I think that just getting rid of Marbury is worth 5-10 wins. I agree that Nash added value to the Suns at an All-NBA First Team level and I understand the reasoning involved in choosing him as MVP but I disagree that this reasoning is correct.

Regarding the Suns' decline, the Suns missed the playoffs in each of Nash's final two seasons. They were already declining even with him on the roster. The first season after he left the roster changed significantly, so it becomes difficult to assign credit/blame but there is no evidence that (1) Nash had the ability to carry a contending team to a title like Shaq/Kobe/Duncan/LeBron or (2) that Nash had the ability to carry a solid--let alone a mediocre--team to the playoffs like Kobe did in 2006 and 2007.

I do think that Nash "stole" the 2005 MVP from Shaq, though of course that is not Nash's fault but rather the fault of the voters. I also think that Shaq should have won over Iverson in 2001. Kobe should have won in 2006 and 2007. Three MVPs each sounds about right, though one could plausibly argue that there are other seasons in which Shaq and Kobe deserved more MVP consideration than they received.

I prefer the "best player in the league" metric as the first criteria for selecting an MVP, though I do find some validity to considering who is the best player on the best team, especially if the best team is very dominant and one player on that team clearly stands out.

At Monday, November 16, 2015 2:46:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

JJ, Amare, and Marion did just fine without Nash. Amare was a beast in his first season in NY, and then he got the injury bug after that. Nash was a sexy pick in 05, and as David pointed out, there were many other variables going on to contribute to PHO's success. Nash and DAL flamed out in the 1st round in 04 to SAC. Nash was never a serious MVP candidate before 05. He didn't somehow get a lot better in 05. A lot of things fell into place, and it worked out well. He was a good leader. Great? Not sure about that. Maybe, but his leadership/unselfishness is way overblown to make him good look and/or to denigrate another player.

Yes, past/future seasons should have no bearing on current season's MVP voting. And just because someone wins 1, maybe 2 MVPs, doesn't mean that player is better than someone else or didn't deserve them, but it's very weird when Nash has many MVPs as Kobe/Shaq combined. Amare leaving after 2010 season was the start of PHO's decline, not Nash. Their window had closed.

Anonymous, Harden's actually not well-liked overall. But, it is easy to see how good he is. Last year might've been the perfect situation for Harden, but he still had to play very well, and he kept HOU elite when Howard was out. He is a very inconsistent player, but still a great player.

I don't know what GS winning more than HOU last year has anything to do with anything. GS's cast was much better, they obviously should win more.

At Monday, November 16, 2015 2:52:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Exactly right! Harden is a talented player who is capable of putting up big numbers but he is way too inconsistent to be ranked alongside prime Kobe, LeBron, Durant, etc. You are right that if Kobe or LeBron had playoff games as awful as some of Harden's stinkers then they would be properly lambasted--and you are right that the only justification for how terrible Harden played against G.S. would be a significant injury.

Van Gundy is normally an excellent commentator but he has a blind spot regarding old school players like Jerry West. It seems like Van Gundy knows a lot about basketball strategy and about current players but not so much about the history of the game.

Harden reminds me more and more of Arenas. Arenas had all of that "Hibachi!" nonsense, he was not a good leader and he played indifferent defense, while Harden does that stir the pot gesture, he is not much of a leader and his defense is even worse than Arenas' defense. Harden's offensive game consists of a lot of overdribbling and a lot of flailing when he gets in the paint, instead of trying to actually make a shot. When officials don't fall for Harden's flailing nonsense he often has great difficulty scoring. All of that extra dribbling and extra flailing leads to open court turnovers that are easily converted into points for the opposing team. Open court turnovers are much worse than dead ball turnovers like traveling or throwing the ball out of bounds, because when there is a dead ball the offensive team has a chance to set up on defense. Harden can be a one man fast break for the other team.

Even Harden's rebounding numbers are deceptive; the Rockets play small, so Harden has rebounding opportunities, but he actually does a poor job keeping his man away from the boards and the Rockets tend to get outrebounded with him on the court.

At Monday, November 16, 2015 3:21:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


We agree about Nash and the Suns.

Do you think that Golden State would have won the championship if Harden were swapped for Curry? I don't. Harden would have come up with a stinker game that swung a series against G.S., maybe versus Memphis or maybe in game four versus Cleveland (assuming that G.S. even got that far with Harden as the first option).

I think that if just about any All-Star guard replaced Harden on Houston's roster (and stayed healthy, which would probably disqualify Kyrie Irving) the Rockets would not miss a beat--but no one is saying that Damian Lillard or John Wall should be the MVP. Those guys are at least as good as Harden.

Why do you elevate Harden above All-Star caliber to MVP caliber? Since Harden took the reins in Houston, the Rockets have been first round fodder twice. Last year, the Rockets' record exceeded their point differential and during the playoffs their most effective lineups features Howard-Smith-Ariza, not Harden. The Rockets saved their season versus the Clippers with Harden on the bench.

Sometimes a team that is not really championship caliber sneaks into the Conference Finals once, only to never return again (Denver 2009, Memphis 2013 are recent examples). I strongly suspect that the 2015 Rockets will fall into that group.

At Monday, November 16, 2015 3:49:00 PM, Blogger Nick said...


Amare's FG% dropped by 5% in his first season without Nash. His scoring went up by about two points, on about 3.5 more shots (that's not great, especially considering his increased usage should have gotten him to the free throw line more often; without Nash setting him up though, he averaged the same FTAs as the season before, despite a career high usage %).

Marion shot about 45% for his career before playing with Nash and over 50% with him. His best three FG% seasons came with Nash (well, 2.5; his FG% fell almost 7% when he was traded to Miami). He had his 1st, 3rd, and 6th highest scoring seasons in his full three seasons with Nash, but only his 4th, 5th, and 6th highest FGA. He made the All-Star team every full season he played with Nash, and only once in his other 13 seasons.

Joe Johnson I agree did better (though not in terms of FG%, but a larger role will usually hurt there anyway) post-Nash, but I attribute that more to youth and an increased role than anything else.

Raja Bell, Leandro Barbosa, Boris Diaw, etc. all had easily their best seasons playing alongside Nash, and struggled after losing him (though Diaw has had something of a rebirth as a role player on the Spurs, another team with a great leader in Tim Duncan).

Regarding '04, I said above that Nash did not become an MVP caliber player until the hand-check rule allowed him to more easily get into the paint, and the system in Dallas was much less dependent on him to create than the one in PHX anyways. I agree with you that he was not an MVP candidate in Dallas.


Re: Harden

I agree with most of what you're saying in principle, though I do think that Harden is significantly better than Lillard, who is a similar offensive player, a less effective rebounder, and improbably an even worse defender. I also think Wall is much, much better than Harden or LIllard and may well be the second best point guard in basketball by the end of the season. I think he's already probably the best defensive point guard in the NBA (though Chris Paul and Patrick Beverly could both also make a case), and his offensive game is nothing to scoff at.

At Monday, November 16, 2015 3:54:00 PM, Blogger Keith said...


I agree with your analysis that Harden isn't a truly elite player and benefits from a lot of ridiculous media hype. I was wondering in turn what your thoughts on Curry as a legitimate MVP candidate are. It's clear that Curry is obviously better than Harden in almost every way and that he is an excellent player but I feel more than a bit of hesitation in awarding him an MVP outright since I can't say that a lot of his player hasn't been enhanced by the quality of his team, especially on defense which has been giving him plenty of open looks, and a system that works to his strengths.

Still, his play and unconscious shooting in the early part of this season has been undeniably impressive and I would take him over Nash, Paul, and others. MVP doesn't feel quite right though.

At Monday, November 16, 2015 4:05:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

That's a tough question. I'd say probably not, but it would've been a very close finals series. However, that doesn't mean he's not a current great player or that he didn't have a better 'regular season' than Curry. It should be very easy to see how valuable Harden was during the regular season last year. If you can't see it, well, that's on you. And for inth time, MVPs are based on the regular season, not the playoffs. And why would anyone say Lillard or Wall are MVP guys? I'm confused. Your examples are very stretched to say the least sometimes. Harden's made 3 AS teams, 3rd all-nba, 2 1st team all-nba, led his team to the WCF, all while putting up huge #'s and scoring efficiently. You've often said before that the LAL needed Kobe to score to win, regardless of his FGA. You should take a look at HOU's record when Harden scores 30+ and then when he scores 40+. What have Lillard/Wall done compared to this?

The real question is why do you denigrate Harden from MVP caliber to just below AS caliber? Everyone(media, players, coaches, nba experts) ,except you and a few random others, put him at elite status these past 2+ years. Maybe this year will be different, who knows. Lots of good players in the nba now, maybe Harden will regress to right around 10-15th best player or other guys will catch up to him. I think Leonard will be great, and everyone wants to put him at superstar status now, but let's wait to see if he can actually make 1 AS team first.

If you think HOU losing in 1st round 2x in past 3 years is bad, then what about OKC last year? You still put Westbrook at elite status. This is such a silly remark. HOU wasn't very good in 2013, and they still won 2 games vs OKC. They then had to play another 54-win team in POR in 2014, and save some Lillard heroics, HOU would probably have made the 2nd round. Westbrook had pieces around him to at least make the playoffs. Howard missed 42 games last year, and HOU was still awesome. At some point, you need to look at all the facts, not just the ones that support your theory. If you can make to the WCF even once, that's an amazing accomplishment in today's NBA. HOU may never well make it again with Harden, it's possible. But, look at the top WC teams(SA, LAC, GS, OKC). Pretty tall task even for these 4 teams.

At Monday, November 16, 2015 7:03:00 PM, Blogger Kion Stephen said...

The MVP is purposely defined vaguely to foster these sorts of arguments. And because it is not clearly defined, you cannot take your own preference for the MVP definition and determine that just because a player does not fit that definition, they do not deserve to be in the MVP discussion. Argument about who should actually win the MVP, to me, is fine, but just because a player doesn't fit your view of 'best player in the league is MVP' narrative, you can't completely discredit that player's candidacy to at least be in the discussion.

The MVP, as it is currently awarded, is a regular season reward. And it is an award for the current season only.Therefore, the merits of whether player X deserves to be mentioned as a candidate to win the award has to focus on their regular season play during that season. You may not agree that the MVP SHOULD be a regular season award only, but that's the current definition of it. Therefore, denigrating someone's candidacy for the MVP based on their playoff performances is going too far. The award does not take such performances into consideration.

With the above being said, it's perfectly fine for Harden to be in consideration for the award - i am extremely happy he didn't win but i can understand him being considered. His team performed way above expectation given the injuries to Howard, and his individual performance was quite high. He has stinkers - probably more frequently than you'd like - and he hunts for fouls way too often, but he's a very effective one-on-one player and it is difficult to contain him. To be clear, i am absolutely NOT a fan of Harden's game and don't personally like watching him play, but i did watch him go toe to toe with Curry for the first two WCF games in GSW, and as great as GSW was as a defensive team, they could not really contain him for those first two games (a fact that David, you seem to ignore when you bring up playoff performances). He also blew up in Game 4, but i think that's more a product of GSW taking their foot off the gas than him taking over, but in those first two games, they tried to slow him down but couldn't.

And, finally, considering someone for MVP in a given year doesn't mean that you consider them the equal of other MVP award winners in other years. It just means that for that given year, they fit the MVP definition best (for whatever definition of MVP) for that year. That also means that you can't look at Harden's performance this year as ammunition for whether he deserved to be considered for the award last year. This year has no bearing on his candidacy last year.

At Tuesday, November 17, 2015 12:40:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


One could quibble about where to rank Wall, Lillard and the other 2015 All-Star guards but my larger point is that any of them could replace Harden on Houston's roster and the Rockets would be just as good, if not better--but the only guards mentioned in the MVP discussion last season were Curry (deservedly so), Westbrook (deservedly so) and Harden (inexplicably so).

At Tuesday, November 17, 2015 12:42:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Unlike Harden, whose game has stagnated--if not regressed--since leaving OKC, Curry continues to improve. Many analysts questioned if Curry would be just another J.J. Redick but I said from the start that he would be a very good NBA player. Of course, no one imagined that Curry would be THIS good. I think that Curry is absolutely an MVP level player. His offensive game is obviously lights out and his defense is very underrated.

At Tuesday, November 17, 2015 1:11:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


You missed my point. Wall and Lillard are not MVP guys. Neither is Harden. The difference is that, inexplicably, Harden is portrayed as an MVP guy. Put Harden with the Wizards or the Blazers in place of those teams' respective incumbent All-Star guards and those teams would not be better off. Put Wall or Lillard (or any other All-Star guard) on Houston and the Rockets would be just as good, if not better. The mystery is why has such a cult developed around Harden. He is an inconsistent offensive player and a bad defensive player. His leadership leaves much to be desired and in crucial moments his team does better with him on the bench. A typical playoff season for him includes a small number of good performances outweighed by a number of horrific performances. In the 2015 Western Conference Finals, he had three good games but he also had one game in which he shot 3-16 from the field and another game in which he shot 2-11 from the field in addition to accumulating a playoff single game record 12 turnovers. Those are not MVP numbers.

Every time Kobe played in the playoffs, the media acted like his entire legacy was on the line on a shot by shot basis. Did he shoot too much? Did he not shoot to prove a point? This nonsense continued even after Kobe won five rings. Harden chokes away playoff games on a regular basis and yet he supposedly is an elite player. Not in my book. Harden is not suited for the role of best player on a contending team and the longer Morey tries to put him in that role the more both Morey and Harden will be exposed. Morey has been in Houston for almost a decade, armed with "advanced basketball statistics." What exactly has Morey accomplished other than getting a bunch of people to gather together every year at a stats conference to compliment each other on being brilliant? How is all of that "advanced stats" business working out in Philly or in Memphis? Maybe some people do not want to say that the emperor has no clothes because they hope that the emperor will hire them some day. I could not care less. I'll just write the truth and let the chips fall where they may.

You are right that the regular season MVP is based on regular season performance but regular season performance includes an analysis of a player's skill set strengths and weaknesses. Harden relies on three pointers and flopping. He overdribbles and he turns the ball over too frequently. His defense is terrible. All of these things are evident in both the regular season and in the playoffs. Yes, he is capable of erupting for a big game--but 10 years from now, the members of the Harden cult are going to be doing the same excuse-making that Carmelo Anthony's fans do now, because Harden is going to rack up a lot of first round playoff losses.

I do not hold Harden to a different standard than any other player. I expect an MVP-level player to perform at both ends of the court, to be consistent and to be capable of leading a team to a championship. Yes, once every 30 years or so there is a team like the 1979 Sonics or the 2004 Pistons that has several really good players but no superstar. Could Harden win a championship as part of such an ensemble? Perhaps, but the point is that he does not have the all-around game or the consistency of a true MVP. I also did not think that Derrick Rose or Allen Iverson or Steve Nash deserved their MVPs. I often disagree with the MVP voters. You may think that the MVP voters are the real experts but I have sat on press row with many of them, I have watched their work habits closely and--while some of them are experts--many of them do not have the foggiest idea what they are talking about.

At Tuesday, November 17, 2015 1:12:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I write less about basketball now because I am in Law School. You cannot just show up in court and call yourself a lawyer (you can represent yourself in court but that does not make you a lawyer); you have to get a J.D. and you have to pass the bar. However, there are no objective standards or criteria regarding basketball expertise or even journalism itself. The commentators I respect the most are guys like Hubie Brown, Jeff Van Gundy and Doug Collins; they are right a lot more often than they are wrong but even they are not right all the time and I don't agree with every single thing that they say. I know that I am not right all the time, either, of course, but if you go through the literally millions of words that I have written about pro basketball in the past decade or so I have a pretty good track record. My default tendency is that I would rather wait a bit too long to anoint someone as elite as opposed to doing so too early. A lot of people raved about Durant right from the start but I correctly pointed out that in order to reach his full potential he needed to be put back at forward (Carlesimo played him at guard), he needed to get stronger, he needed to stop dribbling the ball so high and he needed to improve his defense and rebounding. When those things happened, I ranked Durant accordingly.

Rick Kamla and others raved about O.J. Mayo but I correctly predicted that Kevin Love would be the better player. Gilbert Arenas bizarrely became some kind of a folk hero but I correctly stated that his one trip to the second round was a fluke and that it would never happen again.

I advocated for Maurice Stokes, Roger Brown, Mel Daniels and Artis Gilmore to make the Hall of Fame years before those players were belatedly inducted. I wrote detailed, informed pieces about those players at a time when the "experts" were writing a lot of garbage that no one will remember.

At Tuesday, November 17, 2015 1:32:00 AM, Blogger Nick said...


My only real disagreement there is that while I agree with your overall assessment of Harden, I think it's fairly dramatically overstating it to suggest they'd have done as well with Lillard, who shot a lower percentage in better circumstances (Lamarcus Adridge draws a lot of defensive attention) to the tune of 6.5 fewer ppg on 1.5 fewer shots while also posting fewer assists, rebounds, and free throws. He's also perhaps the only starting guard in the NBA worse on defense than Harden. While I agree that Harden's dramatically overrated, he's still solidly a tier above LIllard (who's beyond overrated in his own right).

There are a lot of guards you *could* replace Harden with and see a Houston that's as good or better- Curry, Paul, Westbrook, Butler, Wall, probably Thompson, Wade, maybe Conley, Lowry, DeRozan, the in-shape version of Goran Dragic- but those are all legitimate stars who could conceivably be the second best guy on a title team. Lillard- and he's young, so perhaps he'll improve- as he currently is would need to play for a virtual All-Star team to seriously contend. He's a scoring point guard who doesn't score efficiently or draw many fouls, doesn't pass well (for an alleged star), and might be most defensively inept starting guard in the league. He's an actively bad ballplayer.

TL;DR You're making a good case- and one I agree with- but it hurts the case's credibility when you overplay it by suggesting he's no better than a chucker like Lillard.

At Tuesday, November 17, 2015 10:29:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

All those PHO guys did well with Nash, no debating, but they all did well without him, too. Different systems and different roles with and without Nash, it wasn't just Nash. All of this talent converging in PHO, and yet not even one finals appearance. The easy and lazy thing to say is that Nash was the only difference or madeup a 33-win difference from 04 to 05. If everything was taken into account and the public doesn't get caught up in the exciting fastbreak style of PHO, Nash would never had the chance of winning. And he barely won btw. The handcheck rule had been in effect for years. Even if some minor adjustment to the rule had been made, you're overstating this a bit. Nash's stats barely improved from 04 to 05, and this has mainly to do with the faster pace played by PHO.

At Tuesday, November 17, 2015 11:56:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


The larger point is that many All-Star guards--none of whom are mentioned in the MVP conversation--are as good or better than Harden and could have a similar or even greater impact for Houston if given the same role/opportunity. Harden is deservedly an All-Star--which I predicted and expected when he left OKC--but he is not an elite player.

As for Dragic, he seems to epitomize fat and happy. He got paid and did not come in ready to play. There is NO excuse. Bryant and Westbrook would never do that. Shaq got away with being out of shape because he was so great but that did not make it right. Dragic got paid for life off of one fluky, career-best season that he likely will never duplicate--and that is one reason I am reluctant to make a guy an All-Star or an MVP off of one year. I most respect the guys who do it year in, year out.

At Tuesday, November 17, 2015 4:13:00 PM, Blogger Nick said...

As for Harden, i obviously agree with your larger point. I just strongly disagree with your example. Not all All-Stars are created equal, and Houston with Lillard instead of Harden would be a borderline playoff team at best, and lottery fodder at worst.

At Tuesday, November 17, 2015 4:22:00 PM, Blogger Nick said...


As cited here (http://www.nba.com/2009/news/features/04/09/stujackson/index.html), the hand-check rule began being interpreted differently the season Nash got to Phoenix. Regardless of his stats (which did improve greatly out of proportion from the 2 extra possessions per game the '05 Suns averaged over the '04 Mavs), the rule allowed him to get into the paint and make those swooping baseline kickout passes that were the lynchpin of PHX's perimeter attack. Those passes only occasionally led to assists as they often led to a chain of quick, simple passes around the perimeter as the defense scrambled to rotate. Additionally, Nash's percentage around the rim went up as it became easier for him to get there.

At Tuesday, November 17, 2015 6:35:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


I personally will take steph curry over Nash harden paul or iverson. He can shoot dribble pass and defend at a high level. He the nba top 3 shooter ever.
He avg 35 a game. He may win the scoring title at of. And his team is 11 and 0.

I think harden great but not elite. Kobe on the end of his career. He a too ten player ever. Houston has a fluke run last year. There not going to go far this year.

At Tuesday, November 17, 2015 8:42:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Clarification: Harden actually had 13 turnovers in game five versus G.S., not 12 as I stated in an earlier comment.

At Tuesday, November 17, 2015 10:13:00 PM, Blogger Kion Stephen said...


I am also in the same boat as Nick - i completely agree with Harden not being an MVP worthy player, but again, i think you overstate your case a bit too vehemently. I do better understand your reasoning for doing so, but i disagree that any "second level" guard can do what Harden did last year with that Houston team.

Context matters, and not everyone is able to win one on one matchups without help. As horrible as his defence is (inexcusable, btw, but i'm focusing solely on his offense for this argument), Harden has a somewhat rare ability to be the focal point of the offense as a two guard. His one-on-one talent almost directly led to many of the advantages that Houston enjoyed on offense. But, not every player has that skill, even if they are better players overall.

Take for eg, Klay Thompson. Klay CANNOT be the focal point of the offense on a game by game basis, even though i consider him a better overall player than Harden when you consider his consistent shooting and especially his defence. I love the guy, but i've literally watched every single GSW game since Steve Kerr got there and his post up, off the dribble and pick and roll game cannot hold up as the primary option of a good offense. He's awesome in his role as a consistent far side threat to keep his defender from helping on Curry pick and rolls, great at curling off screens, good at off the ball cuts, and can post up smaller defenders somewhat effectively, but whenever he's the focal point of the offense without Curry drawing attention, he tends to go from All Star caliber to only slightly above average. But, he has a role on a great team and serves his role extremely well. In a different role, for eg in the Harden role, he would be average at best.

Now, whether Harden's one on one skill should be measured as more valuable than Klay's shooting, cutting and post up skills is somewhat debatable. There aren't many players than can do what Klay does either, and GSW is a decidedly better team than Houston, so maybe Klay's skill should be more valued than it is in the general MVP discussion. But that doesn't take away from the fact that replacing Harden with Klay would definitely make Houston significantly worse on offense unless Houston completely changed their scheme to keep Klay off the ball as much as possible, and include a lot of player movement to get him his shots a la Rip Hamilton or Ray Allen.
(I'm using Klay as my example because i watched every game of his last year so can speak with some authority based on actually watching his game rather than looking at stats. I can't speak with the same authority with regards to other players you've mentioned)

All this being said, even though i can understand why Harden was in consideration for the MVP by being the focal point of the offense for the team with the second best record in the loaded West, i can't reiterate how happy i am that he didn't actually win the award. I strongly dislike his game, and although watching him against GSW, i gained some appreciation for how hard he can be to stop when he has a flow going, it's still an ugly way to play basketball in the long term.

At Sunday, November 22, 2015 12:31:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


It is possible to disagree about exactly how many "second level" guards could do what Harden did and it is beyond the scope of this article to make an in depth comparison of Harden to more than a dozen other guards. My point is that he did not deserve to win the MVP or even to be featured in the MVP conversation to the extent that he was. I would actually take prime Nash over Harden just because Nash was so much more efficient and possessed much better leadership qualities. Nash deserved to be in the MVP conversation but I never thought that he was THE best player in a given year.

My evaluation of Harden does not rise or fall based on comparing him to Klay Thompson. In fact, I am pretty sure that I never have made that specific comparison.

What I have consistently said about Harden is (1) OKC could easily replace him, (2) that he is a very good player but not good enough to be the best player on a championship team (unless that team is like the '79 Sonics or '04 Pistons, squads that had several very good players but no elite players) and (3) that as long as he is Houston's best player the Rockets would likely lose in the first or second round of the playoffs. I did not speculate about whether he would receive MVP consideration from media members or what specific stats he would put up. I detailed his skill set shortcomings (dribbles too much, flails too much instead of finishing strongly at the rim, weak defender, lacks midrange game, lacks postup game) and I also noted two additional negative factors: he is a poor postseason performer and he lacks leadership skills (he pouts when he does not get his way, as seen in OKC when he did not get the minutes/shots he wanted and as seen in Houston at various times, including now when he is feuding with the coaching staff and Dwight Howard and when he will not cede ballhandling duties to Lawson).

Injuries to Durant and Westbrook have hindered OKC since Harden left but, when healthy, OKC has actually won a higher percentage of games than they did when Harden was on the team. OKC has capably replaced Harden.

Houston lost in the first round twice with Harden and then made a run to the WCF last year--a fluky run including an improbable comeback from a 3-1 deficit. Houston won more regular games last year than expected based on their point differential, so it is not at all surprising that this year they have regressed (though the amount of regression is unexpected). During key portions of Houston's playoff run, Harden sat on the bench.

The above factors/evidence support my evaluations of Harden. The fact that the same media members who wrongly gave Steve Nash two MVPs also voted Harden second last year does not sway my opinion one iota.


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