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Saturday, August 17, 2019

Daryl Morey Ranks James Harden Ahead of Michael Jordan as a Scorer

Houston Rockets' General Manager Daryl Morey recently declared, "You give James Harden the ball and before you're giving up the ball how many points do you generate, which is how you should measure offense, James Harden is by far number one in NBA history and he was number one even at the Oklahoma City Thunder. It's just he was coming off the bench and he was a little more hidden. So you needed good data to suss that out. So we knew he had that amazing skill to be a scorer." Morey acknowledged that this will not be a popular take: "No, people hate it. The counter-argument is reasonable. If you put Michael Jordan on a team now, he would do more than James Harden. That's possible, but if you're just saying NBA history, if you give this guy the ball, how much does his team score after you give him the ball before the other team gets the ball, it's James Harden. I know that makes people mad. It's just literally a fact." In an interview that lasted well over an hour, the interviewers never asked Morey to explain what statistic/statistics prove Harden's alleged superiority to Jordan--and to every other player in NBA history--to be a "fact," nor did Morey explain. The interviewers took Morey's statement as a "fact" without challenging him in any way.

A player's scoring average is a fact. Michael Jordan averaged 37.1 ppg in the 1986-87 season. That is a fact. You can look it up. We can argue about what that fact means in relationship to other facts and other factors but we cannot reasonably argue about a fact.

Saying that James Harden is a better scorer than Michael Jordan and than every other player in NBA history is not stating a fact; that is stating an opinion, and Morey's opinion does not seem to be particularly well founded when one considers a few facts about Michael Jordan and James Harden:

1) Michael Jordan won a record 10 NBA scoring titles; after finishing third in scoring during his rookie season, he led the league in scoring in every full season that he played from 1986 through his second retirement in 1998.
2) Michael Jordan is the career ABA/NBA regular season points per game leader (30.1 ppg).
3) Michael Jordan is the career ABA/NBA playoffs points per game leader (33.4 ppg).
4) Michael Jordan won six championships in six Finals appearances and he ranks second in career ABA/NBA Finals points per game (33.6 ppg).
5) James Harden has won two scoring titles during his 10 year NBA career.
6) James Harden ranks 16th in career ABA/NBA regular season points per game (24.4 ppg).
7) James Harden ranks 33rd in career ABA/NBA playoffs points per game (22.9 ppg).
8) James Harden averaged 12.4 ppg in his only Finals appearance (a 4-1 loss), which would rank 95th in ABA/NBA Finals points per game had he played in enough games to qualify for an official ranking.

Those facts indicate that a strong argument could be made that Michael Jordan is the greatest scorer in pro basketball history. Other facts not listed here could support an argument in favor of Wilt Chamberlain and a select group of other players. 

An insightful and analytical person who believes that Harden is a better scorer than Jordan and than every player in NBA history would bring some information to support that statement; when confronted with a statement that seems absurd on its face, a good interviewer who is well versed in the subject matter would challenge the interview subject to defend his statement.

Unfortunately, we can only speculate about what Morey really meant, since neither he nor his interviewers found the subject worth discussing in depth.

Presumably, since Morey favors "advanced basketball statistics" he is disregarding supposedly primitive data points such as scoring averages and scoring titles. What do "advanced basketball statistics" say regarding scoring and scoring efficiency? Keep in mind that Morey did not merely compare Harden to Jordan, and Morey did not merely say that Harden is as good as Jordan or a little better than Jordan. Morey asserted that Harden "is by far number one in NBA history" and that Harden has been the best scorer dating all the way back to when Harden was a third option for the Thunder who scored 12.4 ppg in the 2012 NBA Finals while shooting .375 from the field.

Since Morey did not specify his statistic of choice, let's take a look at two "advanced basketball statistics" that exclusively pertain to scoring efficiency and two that pertain to offense in general.

Here are the ABA/NBA career regular season leaders for True Shooting Percentage:

1) DeAndre Jordan .6367
2) Cedric Maxwell .6294
3) Tyson Chandler .6255
4) Stephen Curry .6236
5) Artis Gilmore .6227
6) Karl-Anthony Towns .6192
7) Dave Twardzik .6184
8) James Donaldson .6177
9) Adrian Dantley .6166
10) Reggie Miller .6139
11) Kevin Durant .6127
12) Charles Barkley .6120
13) Magic Johnson .6095
14) James Harden .6092
15) John Stockton .608

Harden far outranks Jordan in this category--Jordan is 94th on the list (.5686), just ahead of noted scorer Frank Brickowski--but Harden is not even in the top 10 all-time, let alone far and away the best. For those of you who have never looked at "advanced basketball statistics" before, True Shooting Percentage blends together field goals, three point field goals and free throws into one number. If you are familiar with pro basketball history, you can see from the names on the list that this metric favors players who primarily shoot layups and/or three pointers. This statistic has some value if you are just interested in comparing players who fill similar offensive roles (such as DeAndre Jordan and Tyson Chandler) but it is meaningless in terms of comparing great offensive players who have divergent skill sets. "Stat gurus" love to use this statistic to come up with "insights" such as Andrew Bynum (.592, but not enough career attempts to be officially ranked) should shoot more often and Kobe Bryant (.5496, 220th all-time) should shoot less often.

Here are the ABA/NBA career regular season leaders in Effective Field Goal Percentage:

1) DeAndre Jordan .6697
2) Tyson Chandler .5960
3) Dwight Howard .5830
4) Shaquille O'Neal .5823
5) Artis Gilmore .5820
6) Amir Johnson .5816
7) Stephen Curry .5815
8) Mark West .5804
9) Karl-Anthony Towns .5750
10) Kyle Korver .5735
11) Steve Johnson .5722
12) Darryl Dawkins .5721
13) James Donaldson .5706
14) Brent Barry .5703
15) JaVale McGee .5700

Harden (98th) beats out Jordan (194th) but Harden is not close to being the best of all-time. This statistic provides additional value to a three point field goal made--which is why you see Stephen Curry, Kyle Korver and Brent Barry--but mostly this is a list of players who mainly shot dunks and layups. Like True Shooting Percentage, this statistic does not tell you much unless you restrict the comparisons to players who have similar roles.

Here are the ABA/NBA career regular season leaders for Offensive Rating (this statistic only dates back to 1974 for the ABA and 1978 for the NBA, the seasons when those respective leagues began officially tracking individual turnovers):

1) Chris Paul 122.62
2) Reggie Miller 121.48
3) Magic Johnson 120.79
4) DeAndre Jordan 120.57
5) John Stockton 120.55
6) Kiki Vandeweghe 119.49
7) Karl-Anthony Towns 119.48
8) Sidney Moncrief 119.40
9) Charles Barkley 119.31
10) Adrian Dantley 119.30
11) Jimmy Butler 119.11
12) Kevin McHale 118.48
13) Danilo Gallinari 118.44
14) Tyson Chandler 118.34
15) Steve Nash 118.22

Harden and Jordan are in a virtual tie for 19th-20th (117.97). In case you were wondering, LeBron James is 36th on this list, right behind A.C. Green. This definitely looks like a great way to evaluate a player's overall offensive effectiveness regardless of role. I always knew that A.C. Green was better than LeBron James offensively, and now I have some "advanced basketball statistics" to back up that contention! Kobe Bryant is 169th, right behind Taj Gibson, and frankly I just don't understand why Phil Jackson played Bryant so many minutes and let the guy shoot so much.

Here are the all-time ABA/NBA career regular season leaders for Offensive Box Plus/Minus:

1) LeBron James 7.25
2) Stephen Curry 7.13
3) Michael Jordan 6.93
4) James Harden 6.75
5) Chris Paul 6.62
6) Magic Johnson 5.80
7) Charles Barkley 5.66
8) Damian Lillard 5.44
9) Larry Bird 5.02
10) Kyrie Irving 4.93
11) Russell Westbrook 4.93
12) Julius Erving 4.77
13) Kevin Durant 4.71
14) Reggie Miller 4.59
15) Clyde Drexler 4.51

For the first time in four lists, Jordan beats Harden!

So, at least according to the "advanced basketball statistics" for offense available at BasketballReference.com, Morey's "fact" regarding James Harden being "by far number one in NBA history" as a scorer is not a fact. Perhaps Morey has some secret, proprietary statistic that ranks Harden ahead of Chamberlain, Jordan, Bryant, and the best basketball players from six alien species that NASA has yet to discover. Based on Morey's comments about Harden being a "foundational player" who is a better scorer than Jordan and every other basketball player ever, this statistic must be amazing. I wonder how A.C. Green and Kobe Bryant rank on Morey's secret list?


In The Strengths and Limitations of "Advanced Basketball Statistics" I explained that "advanced basketball statistics" can be "useful as a supplement to traditional box score data and to the observations of trained scouts/coaches" but they have serious limitations that must be recognized and understood:
Phil Birnbaum has worked extensively with baseball statistics but after thoroughly studying "advanced basketball statistics" he concluded that they are not particularly reliable:

You know all those player evaluation statistics in basketball, like "Wins Produced," "Player Evaluation Rating," and so forth? I don't think they work. I've been thinking about it, and I don't think I trust any of them enough put much faith in their results.

That's the opposite of how I feel about baseball. For baseball, if the sportswriter consensus is that player A is an excellent offensive player, but it turns out his OPS is a mediocre .700, I'm going to trust OPS. But, for basketball, if the sportswriters say a guy's good, but his "Wins Produced" is just average, I might be inclined to trust the sportswriters.

I don't think the stats work well enough to be useful.
My job is focused on utilizing legal analytics as efficiently and effectively as possible, and one of the points that I often make to my clients is that relying on inaccurate, incomplete and/or irrelevant analytics can be worse than having no data at all, because now you have a false sense of security that you are making data-driven decisions when you are actually doing nothing of the sort. Combining some numbers together and calling them "advanced basketball statistics" is worse than meaningless unless it can be demonstrated that those so-called advanced numbers are accurate, complete and relevant. I would not put much weight on an offensive statistic that ranks A.C. Green ahead of Kobe Bryant, nor would I try to rank all offensive players on the basis of any one number. What matters is skill set evaluation, and also an understanding of a player's psychological makeup: when things get tough is that player going to perform better or perform worse? Has Morey ever looked at regular season versus playoff splits of any numbers for James Harden? In between spouting unsubstantiated "facts," he might want to look into the cracks in the playoff resume of his "foundational player."

Daryl Morey and his fans would argue that Morey utilizes "advanced basketball statistics" in a way that provides a clear edge over the rest of the teams in the league. Logically, that should result in Morey's team having a clear edge over other teams in a sufficiently large sample size of data. Let's test that hypothesis.

Morey's first full season as Houston's General Manager was 2007-08. During the subsequent 12 seasons, the Rockets have missed the playoffs three times, have lost in the first round four times, have lost in the second round three times and have lost in the Western Conference Finals twice. Thus, more than half of the time Morey's teams have advanced no further than the first round of the playoffs. They have never won a championship or even a conference title. If you ran an organization and Morey showed up in your office offering to sell you his expertise/his proprietary analytics would you buy based on those results?

The fact of the matter is that during a very long run as the chief decision maker in an NBA front office, Morey has failed to demonstrate that his methods generate any meaningful competitive advantage in the postseason. Yes, the Rockets have won a lot of regular season games--though not enough to avoid missing the playoffs during a fourth of Morey's reign--but they have not been an exceptional playoff team. If Morey's use of "advanced basketball statistics" creates a significant advantage, we have yet to see much evidence of that advantage.

What about those two Western Conference Finals appearances? Keep in mind that the NBA is designed to promote parity, which means that in the long run most teams are going to advance to the Conference Finals at some point (James Dolan's New York Knicks are a conspicuous exception to this premise, but that is a story for another day). During Morey's tenure with the Rockets, 10 of the Western Conference's 15 teams have advanced to the Western Conference Finals at least once. Five of those 10 teams have advanced to the NBA Finals at least once and four of those five teams have won at least one NBA title.

It is not surprising that Morey places more emphasis on "advanced basketball statistics" than on more basic statistics such as winning. His teams have yet to win a championship during his 12 years at the helm, but according to Offensive Box Plus/Minus Morey is a genius because he has acquired three of the top 11 offensive players in pro basketball history!

The Rockets are unlikely to ever win a title with Morey running the show. He is convinced that Harden is the greatest scorer ever, which suggests that this season the Rockets will run an offense featuring Harden monopolizing the ball to prove that point while Russell Westbrook's driving skills are not fully utilized. Westbrook is Houston's best player now, and if the Rockets are smart they will put the ball in Westbrook's hands while Harden is used as an off the ball scoring threat.

During the interview, Morey noted that Harden and Westbrook are just the fourth tandem to play together within three years of each player winning a regular season MVP, and Morey pointed out that the three previous such duos--he did not identify them, but presumably he is referring to Bob Cousy-Bill Russell, Julius Erving-Moses Malone and Kevin Durant-Stephen Curry--all won titles. It will be very interesting to see if the Rockets are smart enough to take full advantage of this opportunity.

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:12 AM



At Tuesday, August 20, 2019 3:04:00 PM, Blogger Awet M said...

Better than Jordan? Harden isn't even the best of his era. Curry, Durant, and James are all superior performers in the playoffs, in which Harden's numbers drop across the board despite increased minutes.

Regular season: 24.3 ppg on 60.9% True Shooting at 34.3 mpg
Playoffs: 22.9 ppg on 57.9% TS at 35.2 mpg.

Jordan averaged 33.4 ppg at 56.8 TS for his playoff career. Better than his regular season numbers, and 10 points higher than the Beard.

Morey's entire argument relies on the "points scored per possession," which does not determine the criteria for better scorer in the slightest. Even if that was decisive, Jordan remains the superior basketball player who's achieved far more.

Comparing players from different eras is an exercise in futility because that assumes the game remains sacrosanct, pristine perfect like a Platonic Form of basketball that never changes. Stats are obtained in completely different circumstances. Therefore, it's premature to claim the assertion as a factual one.

In reality, Jordan would more than likely be breaking all sorts of scoring records if he played in an era of no handchecking on a D'antoni team.

At Tuesday, August 20, 2019 10:56:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Morey did not explicitly state that he is relying on "points scored per possession" and I would be interested to see how that statistic is calculated on an individual level. If Kobe Bryant draws three defenders, passes to Lamar Odom and then Odom passes to a wide open Pau Gasol for a dunk--a dunk only made possible by Bryant distorting the defense--who gets "credit" for that possession? I suspect that any such individual metric rewards players who make sure that they either take every shot or they make the last pass before a shot is taken. So, Harden would do well, as would LeBron James and Stephon Marbury. Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant would likely not fare as well with such a metric.

One point that I have often made about "advanced basketball statistics" is that when a "stat guru" or his followers use a particular metric to "prove" that Player A is better than Player B you can only accept this as a valid judgment if you buy the premise that this metric is accurate and reliable. Regarding the four metrics I cited in this article, if you buy the premise that they are valid then you are buying the premise, to cite just one example, that A.C. Green is better offensively than Kobe Bryant.

So, I would be interested to see what metric Morey is using to rank Harden as the greatest of all-time and therefore what other premises one has to buy to accept that notion.

Another interesting aspect of this is that--even if one buys the premise that Harden is better than Jordan offensively--Jordan was so much better defensively that Jordan was still a significantly better player overall.


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