James Harden finished second in the 2015 MVP voting. Harden is a very good player but not quite as good as his press clippings. Let’s take a look at both sides of the issue.
Harden is the darling of the analytics crowd. Houston General Manager Daryl Morey is one of the most outspoken advocates of “advanced basketball statistics,” numbers that are supposed to provide more insight into a player’s value than those found in the traditional box score.
Morey has built the Rockets around the idea that the best shots in basketball are layups, free throws and three pointers. The Rockets abhor other shots and take as few of them as possible.
Mathematically, this makes a lot of sense. Most NBA players are very good at converting layups and free throws and a player only has to shoot .333 from three point range to be as efficient as a player who shoots .500 from two point range.
From a practical standpoint, there are at least three possible problems with this approach. Three point shooting can be highly variable, so even a great shooter could go 6-9 on three pointers one night and 2-9 the next night, which works out to a great shooting percentage from that distance but could result in a 1-1 team record for those games.
Also, scoring in the paint without a post up game may not always be possible.
Finally, the ability to get to the free throw line can depend on how the game is called.
A player who has no post up skills or midrange game can be guarded such that his driving lanes are curtailed and most of his three pointers are contested. LeBron James did not win a championship until he developed those two aspects of his game.
Harden plays the Morey way, getting most of his points off of free throws and three pointers. He led the league in Win Shares, an “advanced basketball statistic” that is supposedly more accurate and objective than traditional box score numbers and/or the eye test.
However, if you are going to buy the premise that the Win Shares leader is the NBA’s best player then you are also cosigning the notion that DeAndre Jordan is the fifth best player in the NBA, Pau Gasol, Kyrie Irving and LeBron James are in a dead heat for 9th-11th, Tyson Chandler is just behind that trio and Rudy Gobert is the 15th best player in the NBA.
Or, you can concede that there may be some issues with Win Shares. What you cannot do is use Win Shares to pump up Harden but then disregard everything else that Win Shares says.
The other side of the argument is that there is more to evaluating a player’s value than just aggregating his offensive output in an “advanced” way. “Advanced basketball statistics,” even by the admission of fervent but objective advocates of their value, are at best imprecise at measuring a player’s individual defensive contributions.
Last season, Harden was horrible defensively. This season, by some accounts he is adequate and by other accounts he is still subpar.
He is well below average defensively. I would not trust him to be willing or able to take on tough defensive assignments on a consistent basis and even when he checks lesser threats he is far too often distracted and out of position.
How many great players have multiple, lengthy YouTube videos dedicated to their terrible defense?
When I watch Harden, I see a player who is very talented and who puts up big numbers but who needs to have a more dominant all-around player around him to lift his team to a championship level.
I see Carmelo Anthony, Gilbert Arenas or Stephon Marbury, not LeBron James, Kobe Bryant or Tim Duncan (the players who have led teams to multiple championships in the past decade).
Since Harden arrived in Houston, the Rockets have accumulated two first round losses followed by a Western Conference Finals appearance that has been fueled in no small part by Dwight Howard and the play of Houston’s complementary players.
Harden has stuffed the box score, yet Houston has been outscored overall when he is on the court during Houston’s 13 playoff games so far.
The Rockets have outscored their opponents when Howard is on the court and the same is also true for Trevor Ariza and Josh Smith.
Harden has had some great moments during the 2015 playoffs but he was also a spectator during Houston’s key fourth quarter runs versus the Mavericks in game two and versus the Clippers in game six.
He is a very good player and yet one gets the feeling that the sum of his contributions can be replaced, individually or collectively, by other players precisely because that is what has happened so far during the 2015 playoffs when Harden is not in the game.