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Friday, September 11, 2020

Lakers Dominate Paint, Win 110-100 to Take 3-1 Lead Versus Rockets

The L.A. Lakers outrebounded the Houston Rockets 52-26, shot .586 from inside the three point line, outscored the Rockets 62-24 in the paint, and built a 23 point lead before settling for a 110-100 victory in game four of the Western Conference semifinals. The Lakers are up 3-1, and can advance to the Western Conference Finals with a win on Saturday night. Anthony Davis led the Lakers with 29 points on 10-18 field goal shooting, adding 12 rebounds and five assists. LeBron James contributed 16 points, a game-high 15 rebounds, and a team-high nine assists.

Russell Westbrook led the Rockets with 25 points on 8-16 field goal shooting (including 3-8 from three point range), but that was not enough to overcome James Harden's predictable playoff choking. Harden shot 2-11 from the field (including 1-6 from three point range) en route to perhaps the least least impactful 21 point game in NBA playoff history; through a combination of his gimmicks and some careless fouls by the Lakers, Harden was given 20 free throw attempts, and he converted 16 of them.

Usually, Harden saves his 2-11 field goal shooting performances for elimination games. Harden shot 2-11 from the field and scored 14 points when the Rockets lost 104-90 to the Golden State Warriors in game five of the 2015 Western Conference Finals; Harden also set the all-time NBA single game playoff record with 12 turnovers in that contest. Then, he shot 2-11 from the field and scored 10 points when the Rockets lost 114-75 to the San Antonio Spurs in game six of the 2017 Western Conference semifinals.

There are people who can keep a straight face while saying that 21 points on 11 field goal attempts is efficient, but anyone who understands basketball realizes how ridiculous it is to term this choke job by Harden as "efficient." Harden shot 1-7 from the field (including 0-3 from three point range) in the first half as the Lakers built a huge lead that they never relinquished. Casual fans think that the NBA is a fourth quarter league, and they focus a lot of attention on fourth quarter statistics, but those who understand the NBA realize that the NBA is often a first quarter league; big comebacks are rare but often remembered, while most games are decided by the team that sets the tone from the start.

Harden is not capable of consistently being efficient and productive when it matters most. Every year in the playoffs, he has enough talent around him to advance--if he were really as great as he is supposed to be--and every year he fails to step up. If Harden had authored an MVP-level performance then this series would have been tied 2-2. Harden has had a few big playoff games in his career, but most of the time when there is a chance to make a positive difference in the outcome of the series he disappears.

Unless they are ignorant or willfully delusional, even the most ardent Harden advocates must admit that Harden is not an elite player, no matter how many regular season records he sets, and no matter how many awards he receives. The Daryl Morey analytics-centric offense that the Rockets have built around Harden is not a championship caliber offense. There is no denying or excusing the yawning gap between the gimmicky way that Harden piles up regular season points and his consistent inability to produce when it matters most against elite competition in the playoffs.

Morey has been preaching the same nonsense since 2007, he has had Harden as his "foundational player" since 2012, and he has nothing tangible to show for all of his arrogant bleating about how he knows more about basketball than the rest of us. Rarely, if ever, has a general manager or executive promised so much, delivered so little, and kept his job for so long. Morey says foolish things--such as stating that James Harden is a better scorer than Michael Jordan--and the media gives him a pass instead of calling him out.

The Lakers led 57-41 at halftime, and had held the Rockets to 79 points in the previous four quarters. This is not a fluke or a coincidence. This lack of production and efficiency is predictable; I predicted it before this series, and I have predicted it before every series in which Harden's Rockets faced a legitimate championship contender: Harden may have one or two big games, but when the chips are down he folds and his team's high-variance offense falls apart. We have eight years of evidence, and yet so many people still pretend that Harden is an elite player. Harden is a more durable, physically stronger version of Gilbert Arenas. The scoring titles and media-given accolades mean that Harden is a lock for the Hall of Fame, but comparing Harden to elite players like LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard--let alone Kobe Bryant or Michael Jordan--is ridiculous. While it is true that Giannis Antetokounmpo has not yet had more playoff success than Harden, Antetokounmpo is younger and bigger than Harden, in addition to already being a great two-way player. Antetokounmpo has work to do, but I would take him over Harden any day of the week.

Houston's collapse during game four versus the Lakers is typical of what we have seen for years from Harden and the Rockets. During a 16 minute stretch from near the end of the first quarter into the early portion of the third quarter, the Rockets shot 4-20 from the field as the Lakers outscored them 41-23. "There is small ball, and then there is absurdity," TNT's Kenny Smith said after the game, referring to Houston trotting out a 6-6 and under lineup versus a Lakers team that has great players who are big but actually can play small ball better than the Rockets do: LeBron James and Anthony Davis can beat you in the paint and outside the paint. As I explained in Efficiency Versus High Variance, "'Stat gurus' outsmart themselves when they value offensive efficiency over every other factor. They have determined that three pointers and free throws are the most efficient NBA shots. While that may be true mathematically, it is not true in a relevant way in the real world; there is value in trying to improve offensive efficiency, but there is also value in improving proficiency in other areas, including defense and rebounding."

You can predict what Houston Coach Mike D'Antoni will say after this kind of performance--we need to play with more energy, we will keep taking the same shots but next game we will make them--and you can predict what will happen: the Rockets will go down not with a bang, but with a whimper.

It is worth revisiting my assessment of James Harden when the Rockets acquired him in 2012. I asserted that Harden would not be worth a maximum value contract, and that he is best suited to being an All-Star contributor on a championship contender as opposed to the number one option: "Harden is a very good player but all of his weaknesses will be exposed in Houston if the Rockets expect him to be a franchise player. Harden is not an All-NBA First or Second Team caliber player. He is not someone who can draw double teams over the course of an 82 game season and then carry a team deep into the playoffs as the number one option. He is not Shaquille O'Neal, Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant or LeBron James." I added that Harden is the kind of player who is overrated by "stat gurus" who do not consider the context in which a player puts up his numbers; there is a difference between being an "efficient" second or third option as opposed to being the number one option: there is a qualitative difference between Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol, and between Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili.

I underestimated Harden's physical strength and his durability, and I did not anticipate that NBA officials would so often fall for Harden's flopping and flailing (at least during the regular season); thus, I was wrong from the standpoint that I did not expect Harden to win multiple scoring titles and to be selected not only as an All-NBA First Team player, but also as an MVP candidate and the 2018 MVP winner.

However, my prediction that Harden would not be capable of performing at an elite level in the playoffs was 100% correct, and that is the prediction that matters most: I was right that Harden "is not Shaquille O'Neal, Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant or LeBron James" and I was right that Harden is not the "foundational player" that Morey declared Harden to be. I was right that Harden gave up the chance to be part of a potential dynasty alongside Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook in exchange for pursuing individual glory. I was right that Harden would accumulate individual recognition without achieving team success. The fact that Harden received more individual recognition than I expected does not invalidate my larger point that Harden sacrificed an opportunity to win championships had he been willing to accept the role for which he is best suited.

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:32 AM



At Friday, September 11, 2020 2:02:00 AM, Blogger Awet M said...

Standard James Harden stat line:

21 points on a 2 of 11 field goals, and 16 of 20 free throws.

I remember Kevin Martin pulling such stat lines like these, but I don't recall him winning anything worth mentioning.

The Lakers were double-teaming Harden, but unfortunately, the Rockets lack the proper ball movement system where they could get him the ball back like the Warriors. But he was passing up floaters to PJ Tucker right next to him, it looked he was quit. He never tries a simple pass out and cut. There is no off-ball movement whatsoever.

It seems to be a pattern. He quits when he isn't scoring in the 40s or 50s.

Hence, the Lakers hard doubling Harden with a blitz, leaving Westbrook wide open, is actually an effective strategy. In fact. Harden has shot under 30% twenty times in the playoffs. To put that in context, LBJ has nine such bad games, but in twice the games. He's shot under 20% over 8 times, whereas LBJ, Curry has done it once, and neither Durant, Leonard, nor Westbrook ever did.

At Friday, September 11, 2020 6:45:00 AM, Blogger Andrew Hennings said...

David, I thought you might enjoy this exchange I was having with a fellow on a website, where he claimed that Harden was a “much better scorer” than Kobe. After last nights game I mentioned to him that I thought KD, LeBron and Kawhi were at least 3 players who I thought were better and more diverse scorers than harden. Predictably this stat gurus focused his reply on LeBron who was not the basis for my objection. In any case I got most of these arguments from you:

“ You focus on LeBron being mentioned and I agree with you he isn’t as diverse as the other two, however LeBron does have a midrange and three point range when he gets going. I agree though that LeBron is more one dimensional than the other two. He is still more difficult to stop than Harden. Mainly because you are correct, he is otherworldly at getting to the rim, and that opens up the rest of his game.

Harden has a pattern of struggling against good teams in big games. Focusing on stats does not win him a championship. You’d think one of the best scorers in history would have at least one? But no, come crunch time good teams shut him down, and it is alarming “stat gurus” can’t see what is so obvious.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying Harden is not a great scorer, but stat gurus like yourself call him one of the best in history, and “far above” truly great scorers. I object to this assessment because it is blatantly false anywhere outside of “advanced statistics.” Believing advanced stats can tell you everything about a sport, and more than others doesn’t make you “moneyball.” It makes you someone who can’t see the forest for the trees, and is blinded to what is staring at you in the face!

One of the issues with metrics, is as soon as it is known a metric is being measured, the metric becomes the goal as opposed to the initial outcome that the metric was being used to approximate. In this example, efficient scoring is being used as a marker to predict winning. The Rockets hope that by increasing their scoring efficiency, this will increase their winning and lead to a championship. The problem with this metric, is that most of their sample size comes from the regular season, when most of the winning they are interested in comes in the playoffs. Efficiency measures they use to pump the Rockets (or Harden’s) scoring in the season, won’t necessarily lead to championship success. The metric, “regular season scoring efficiency,” may not be generalisable to “playoff scoring efficiency,” or even “finals scoring efficiency.” Just because Harden’s one on one ball works in the regular season, does not mean it works in May.

You mentioned before that Kobe and Harden have similar playoff efficiency. One issue I have with Harden’s playoff numbers being compared to Kobe’s in this way, is that he has only played in the finals once with OKC. His sample size of poor playoff games is necessarily going to be small, because as soon as a team figures out his “game,” he loses the series and departs the playoffs. Whereas first round teams (who players like Michael Jordan used to “feast” on) make up the bulk of his stats because he always plays the first round. Comparing Harden’s playoff stats is apples and oranges for at least this reason (there are many others, this is just one example of problems with using stats to generalise).

Harden is a great scorer, but he is one dimensional and this gets exposed in the playoffs when defences zero in. Truly great scorers like Durant, Jordan and Kobe are multi dimensional and are difficult to stop. This isn’t a dig on Harden, he just isn’t in those guy’s league. Few are.”

At Friday, September 11, 2020 10:43:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


When Harden does not have the ball in his hands, he is useless. He does not cut or screen, or do anything that threatens the defense.

Of course, against elite teams he is close to useless even when he has the ball in his hands. His foul drawing helps Houston get into the penalty, but other than that Harden does not provide much versus an elite team. Harden's passing is overrated. He accumulates assists by passing to specialists who are stationed in designated areas. There are at least 20 guards in the NBA who could amass similar assist totals while being coached by D'Antoni. Raymond Felton (5.2 apg for his career) averaged 9.0 apg during his 54 games playing with D'Antoni's Knicks. Felton averaged 17.1 ppg in those games, compared to his 11.2 ppg career scoring average. Chris Duhon averaged 11.1 ppg and 7.2 apg in 2008-09 for D'Antoni, compared to career averages of 6.5 ppg and 4.4 apg. Steve Nash went from being an All-Star to being considered an MVP after playing for D'Antoni. D'Antoni's system inflates the numbers of all guards, from journeymen to All-Stars. Nash is great, but overrated thanks to playing for D'Antoni. Harden is an All-Star, but overrated due to his inflated stats after playing for Morey/D'Antoni.

I analyzed all of this correctly eight years ago, and the fact that Harden achieved some regular season accolades in the meantime does not in any way invalidate my overall assessment of him as a player.

At Friday, September 11, 2020 10:55:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Thank you for sharing. It does not seem like some "stat gurus" will ever admit that they are wrong.

At Friday, September 11, 2020 8:18:00 PM, Blogger Jordan said...

David, I am not a fan of James Harden. I think his game is terrible for the NBA and his influence on it has resulted in a bunch of guys copying his foul-drawing tactics. I also wholeheartedly agree with your overall assessment that Harden is no Kobe, let alone Jordan. That he is overrated by the media and Morey. And that he is not a player that can win your franchise a championship as its best player (at least with how he currently plays). I think your Nash comparison is spot on as is your evaluation of him as a basketball player. 100% agree with all of that. I also agree that Morey is a blowhard and himself overrated and that basketball statistics -- advanced or basic -- are only one piece to a larger whole. Those that focus only on that piece, are destined to come up short.

But, I think you're being a bit harsh on him and your hangup with the word "foundational". Because, honestly, he has been a foundational player in many regards. He's carried his franchise to a 64% win percentage during the regular season, he's never missed the playoffs as his franchise's cornerstone. As you pointed out, his ability to stay healthy and play put shame to guys like Kawhi and Kyrie (definitely not a franchise cornerstone) who play 60-70% of each season. He's won an MVP and finished top 5 in 4 other seasons. He routinely warps the other team's defense as a main focal point (the Lakers are blitzing him). He's a walking endorsement.

So, from a franchise standpoint, he's brought winning and media attention to the Rockets.

Now, I get that he has not delivered a championship, and ultimate success as a franchise is to win championships. But, really, not many players are able to do that. If foundational = championships than only Lebron, Curry, and Kawhi qualify as foundational players in today's NBA. Maybe pre-injury Durant...though he never did it as the man (even if he was the best player on the Warriors). Does that mean Charles Barkley or Karl Malone or Gary Payton weren't foundational players for their franchises back in the day?

Houston has always struggled to attract any noteworthy "franchise" players. So, from Tilman Fertita's POV, Harden has been foundational.

He may not be as complete or as good as Giannis, but he's done more for his franchise. He's been doing it much longer than Doncic or Jokic. He's gone farther than Westbrook (yes, I understand Westbrook's team and coach handicapped him). I guess I feel a player can be a foundational piece to an organization, and still never win a championship. Take Damian Lillard for example. Jody Allen the Blazers wouldn't trade Lillard for almost anyone. Even though he's maybe only a top-10 player. What he brings in terms of setting a tone for the organization, accountability, work ethic, and determination. What he's meant to his teammates and coaches. And of course, the success he's brought on the court. These are all "foundational" imo. And Harden has done a lot (definitely not all) of those things too.

At Friday, September 11, 2020 9:15:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I think that this is a matter of semantics. I am putting Morey's description of Harden as a "foundational player" in the context of Morey's other comments about Harden, including comparing Harden favorably to Michael Jordan as a scorer, and Morey's public assertions over the past few years that he had built a team around Harden that was the biggest threat to the Warriors. The player Morey is describing would be better than Barkley, Malone, Payton, and Lillard. Morey ranks Harden as at least comparable to Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, and LeBron James. I find those comparisons ridiculous, and not supported by Harden's skill set and accomplishments.

However, you are interpreting Morey to mean that Harden is capable of being a durable perennial All-Star who leads his team to a lot of regular season success while also becoming a fan favorite who generates ticket sales and sponsorships. Based on that interpretation, one could argue that Harden is a "foundational player" or a "franchise player."

I agree with you that, based on the definition you supplied, Harden could be considered a "foundational player" or a "franchise player"--but I disagree that the definition you supplied matches the plain meaning of what Morey has said about Harden.


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