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Chemistry class: Damian Lillard vs James Harden

Portland Trail Blazers' Damian Lillard, right, has been outstanding in 2015-16. AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin
Expert
9th March, 2016
8

James Harden is a better basketball player than Damian Lillard. He just is. Whatever metric you want to use – counting stats, advanced stats, or the good old metric of the eye test – Harden comes out on top.

Houston’s bearded star averages more points, more assists, more rebounds and more steals than Lillard. He shoots a slightly better percentage from the floor and gets to the free throw line four and a half times more per game than Dame. Lillard is better from deep and turns the ball over less, but his usage rate is also lower than Harden’s.

The advanced numbers are no kinder to Portland’s favourite son. Harden leads Dame in all the major categories, ranking seventh in PER versus Lillard’s 11th, fourth in estimated win shares versus tenth, eighth in win shares versus 13th, and 19th in true shooting percentage versus 71st.

Before the season Portland looked like the quintessential one-man team. When Lillard hit the bench they would be dead. Not the case. The Blazers offence falls off a cliff with Dame riding the pine but their defence is so much better at the same time that their net rating without him is only negative 2.3 points per 100 possessions.

Houston is the real one-man team. With the bearded one on the floor, the Rockets have the league’s sixth ranked offence. When Harden takes his rest Houston plummet to 29th on that end. And for all the hankering about Harden’s woeful defence – and my God, it can be bad – his effect on their defence in the numbers has been minimal. Overall, his net rating is +8.1, effectively the difference between Golden State and Indiana.

Harden is better at basketball than Lillard, by such a margin that it’s not really debatable. And yet, if you could pick one of the two players to build your team around, wouldn’t you pick Lillard? Almost in a heartbeat?

Outside of the Warriors, the Blazers and Lillard have become the biggest story in the NBA since the All-Star break – not least because Portland beat Golden State by 32 three weeks ago with Dame dropping 51. The stories about Lillard’s leadership and his effect on the young Blazers have flowed as quickly and smoothly as the release on his picture perfect jumper.

For all intents and purposes, Lillard seems like the evolutionary Chauncey Billups – a shoot-first point guard whose teammates don’t seem to mind because they love him so damn much. Portland’s management has said that Lillard was held back as a leader last season because he was on a team of veterans. It’s fair enough – what business does a third-year player have telling LaMarcus Aldridge what to do? But the Blazers’ clear-out has allowed Lillard to emerge as the team’s undisputed leader and face of the franchise, and he’s blossoming in the role.

Leadership can be a burden that can sink a star – see: James, LeBron, 2010 conference semi-finals – but it can also be invigorating. It can allow that star to shine at his brightest – see: James, LeBron, 2012 conference finals Game 6 in Boston. Lillard is the latter. He’s the ultimate ‘All-Star who works like the 15th guy on the roster’ and he seems to have that statesman-like Billups aura around him that teammates are drawn to. They seem almost in awe of him.

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Will Barton and CJ McCollum have spoken at length how much Lillard’s leadership affected them over the past year, and they’re the league’s two most improved players this season.

The Blazers have no business being above .500 as the sixth seed in the West. Their second best player is McCollum, who averaged 15 minutes per game last season, and their third best player is either Al-Farouq Aminu (averaging 9.4 points per game), Allan Crabbe (his last name is a crustacean) or Mason Plumlee (he’s Mason Plumlee).

And yet there they are, with most of the credit being devoted to Lillard’s stardom on the court and his superstardom off it. The fact that the Blazers don’t go to hell when Lillard hits the bench isn’t an indictment on their star point guard – it’s a testament to how far his influence has reached even when he’s not on the floor.

The most notable team behind the Blazers in the standings but well above them in the talent department is Houston. If the 2014-15 Rockets were the best ever argument in favour of analytics, then this 2015-16 version is the ultimate argument to the contrary.

Last year’s Rockets prospered all the way to a two-seed in a brutal conference because they played the numbers, attacking the rim and launching from deep, and they had one transcendent superstar who embodied that philosophy.

On paper, and in the machine, this year’s Rockets should have been even better. Ty Lawson fit perfectly into the paint and space mantra, and the team just made sense. You would have Harden and Lawson controlling the offence, Dwight Howard, Patrick Beverley and Trevor Ariza anchoring the defence and acting as role players on the other end, and a slew of high-octane energy guys off the bench to ramp up the pace. That was all fine. But then you looked at the team and saw that their three leaders were Dwight Howard, Ty Lawson and James Harden.

Lawson’s off-court issues are well chronicled, and Howard, while he has received some unfair criticism, is no longer good enough to set a team’s identity, and he was never exactly a presidential leader anyway (although the term ‘presidential leader’ means far less these days).

The Rockets were in a dangerous place this off-season, coming off a deep playoff run and a season of unlikely success. Either they would rest on their laurels or they would be even more driven to obtain a greater success. They did the former.

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James Harden set that tone. He spent his off-season dating a Kardashian and working on his brand and came to camp out of shape. He started the season like hot garbage and that set the tone for what has become 31-32 and a lost season.

Harden deserves all the credit in the world for last season, when he catapulted a mediocre supporting cast to a 56-26 record and had a legitimate argument to be the MVP. But leadership isn’t a year on, year off proposition, and when Harden started the season like he was sweating out gin and tonics, the Rockets were sunk.

Nobody is being inspired by James Harden. Stories don’t leak out about James Harden creating a winning culture and his teammates being in awe of him. Lillard jacks contested threes off the dribble and his teammates keep playing hard on defence and stay engaged on offence. Harden breaks his man down at the top of the key for what feels like an hour while everyone stands and watches and then the Rockets play transition defence like they have Kevin Spacey’s feet from The Usual Suspects.

The playoffs separate the champions from the stars, and the playoffs have been Harden’s undoing. He no-showed the 2012 Finals in spectacular fashion, collapsed with a record 12 turnovers in Houston’s final game last season, completely checked out of Game 6 against the Clippers before the Rockets momentous comeback while he was on the bench. He was woeful against the Blazers in 2014 (in his defence, he was magnificent in three games in the Golden State series last season, and he eviscerated the Spurs in 2012).

Lillard cemented his reputation as a stone cold killer in the playoffs in his first run, destroying Harden’s Rockets, ironically. That shot gives you a lot of leeway, and it overshadows how his three point shot totally abandoned him in his other two playoff series, against the Spurs and Grizzlies.

Harden is having an underrated fantastic individual season. Statistically, he’s been just as good as last season, and probably marginally better. He’s having a better season than Damian Lillard, in any case. But the numbers don’t add up here.

The statistical revolution in the NBA isn’t a fad, and it’s taking over the game for a reason. The old guys yelling about how Steph Curry couldn’t have survived back in their day are the same ones yelling about how numbers are just for guys that couldn’t get laid. It’s rude to call people stupid, but these people are stupid, on that front at least.

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But there will always be room for the intangible and the unquantifiable. Simply liking the guy next to you is an incredibly powerful thing on a basketball court.

James Harden is having a better season than Damian Lillard and he has much more talented teammates. His team is 18th in net rating and Lillard’s is 13th. Harden’s team is a colossal disappointment, sitting at 31-32, and Lillard’s is the season’s biggest success that isn’t being led by Jesus Christ Reincarnate, standing at 34-31.

So, who you got?