January 20, 2019

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James Harden might not be the most aesthetically pleasing player in the NBA, but don’t let that fool you into thinking his position at No. 5 is unwarranted. He proves you don’t have to play pretty to be great.

In fact, his argument for MVP last year was every bit as warranted as the winner, Stephen Curry’s. And in some ways even more so. While Curry easily won the “best player on the best team” portion of the argument, Harden’s ability to be the sole point creator without giving up something in efficiency was extraordinary.

The man with the fully-follicled face fared extraordinarily well. Harden had a usage percentage of 31.3, an assist percentage of 34.6 and a true shooting percentage of 60.5. According to Basketball-Reference.com, in the history of the NBA, two other players who qualified for the scoring title are members of the 30/30/60 club: Michael Jordan and LeBron James.

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This combination of scoring, passing and efficiency is particularly noteworthy because it indicates a hefty reliance on a specific player for offense. Which, in turn means more defensive attention on that player. Yet, in spite of it, the player is still able to produce at a highly efficient level.

And it wasn’t just his scoring that was efficient, either. His passing was smart and equally lethal. As I noted here for Today’s Fastbreak, 85.3 percent of his potential assists were to the optimal “Morey Zones” (restricted area and three-point line), which was the most of anyone in the NBA. And his teammates had an effective field-goal percentage of 62.5 percent on those shots.

In essence, Harden was an offense in and unto himself. There are a couple of charts that dictate just how true that is. The first shows every 20-point game in the NBA by individual and by team. Note that Harden had by far the most 20-point games in the league. Also notice the wide gap (hover over any player to highlight him and his teammates) between Harden and Dwight Howard. That 50-game gap is the most extensive between any “Batman” and “Robin” in the league. The second thing to notice is that only two other teams in the league failed to have either two players log 15 20-point games or three or more to have 10 such contests. The other two were the New York Knicks and the Los Angeles Lakers. Do you see where I’m going here? The Rockets offense sans Harden is the New York Knicks without Carmelo Anthony or the Los Angeles Lakers without Kobe Bryant (or with him). I think at this point, it’s been established that Harden generated the highest percentage of his team’s offense in the league. That was a stat pounded on enough in the postseason. But what I think isn’t appreciated is that stat understates his value. The Rockets’ offense was 14 points better when he was on the court, according to NBA.com/Stats. Curry is the only high-usage player that matches that difference, and there’s little argument that the starters around Curry are better scorers than those starting Harden. And this is where the case goes from compelling to awe-inspiring. Because Harden was the only player on the Rockets who could create offense with anything resembling consistency, they ran a lot of isolation for him. And when I say a lot I mean a loooooot!

In fact, if you adjust for minutes, only two teams in the league—the Cleveland Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors—scored more points in isolation than Harden did.

And in spite of that frequency, Harden still averaged 1.01 points per play in isolation, which is in the 89.6 percentile. That’s an astonishing fact when you consider that stopping him was pretty much the goal of the entire opposing defense in every game. The scouting report had a beard.

Connect the dots. Harden had far less help than anyone (as indicated by the first chart) and was relied on more than anyone (as shown by the second), yet he had a season that was so efficient that only LeBron James and Michael Jordan have matched it.

I would venture to say that qualifies him as a top-five player in the league. His placement at the No. 5 position over the likes of Chris Paul is justified by the fact that Paul has far more help in the likes of Blake Griffin, J.J. Reddick and DeAndre Jordan.

His placement over Russell Westbrook last year is validated by the fact that he was as impactful without sacrificing efficiency in the process.

We can whine about how he scores and complain about how much he flops (which is a very subjective assessment anyway), but he does get to the line and score points. And he hasn’t been fined for flopping in two years. I refuse to condemn somebody for excelling at utilizing the most efficient area of the court in basketball: the free-throw line.

And while he’s not winning beauty pageants with it, his crossover, step-back is every bit as lethal as Curry’s or Kyrie Irving’s ability to beat players off the bounce. Harden has a surreal ability to get defenders going backwards and forwards at the same time, pulling them out of position and then charging into them like a bull gorging a broken-ankled matador. And when that happens, there’s nothing to do but watch him make his free throws.

All that said, while his performance on the other end of the court improved markedly in 2014-15, it had such a long way to go that he elevated it to “average”. His  perimeter defense is not horrid any longer, but it’s not special. He at least stayed engaged and made the effort on both ends of the court. And being fair, with his length and strength, he was quite good picking up the roll man on switches, and the Rockets’ defense relies on those as much as anyone east of Oakland.

Still, he is not on the defensive level as the four players ahead of him. And to surpass them, he’ll need to establish himself as more of a two-way player. And there is a distinct possibility that with Ty Lawson now on board to help him shoulder the offensive onus, he will be able to devote more energy to that cause.

Love him. Hate him. Just don’t deny that he’s a top-five player in the league.

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Kelly Scaletta

Kelly Scaletta writes for Vantage Sports, Bleacher Report and BBALLBREAKDOWN. He has the crazy notion that watching games and understanding stats are not mutually exclusive.

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