By Kelly Scaletta
I know we’re supposed to act like the MVP race is really close and every one of the four top candidates has a legitimate case for the award. In most years, Kawhi Leonard, Russell Westbrook or LeBron James would be running away with it. But even in a year where historic performances are everywhere, James Harden’s is the most historic of them all.
I don’t say that to diminish what the others are doing, but what Harden is doing is on another level. In fact, you can make a very solid argument that he’s having the greatest offensive season in the history of the league.
Let’s look at what Harden is doing, specifically compared to the best arguments for each of the other three to see why.
Harden vs. Westbrook
It’s easy to look at Harden’s box score numbers and compare them with Westbrook’s and think that they’re about the same, but they’re really not for a combination of reasons.
Harden has .9 more assists, but Westbrook is averaging 1.7 more points and 2.5 more rebounds. Looks like a win for Russ, right? But this is a good example of why just raw box-score numbers can be a poor way of measuring performance.
According to NBA.com, Harden is generating 27.4 points per game through his passing compared with 23.8 for Westbrook, so in sum, he’s averaging 56.9 points while Westbrook is contributing 55.0. So passing and rebounding combined, the Beard is actually accounting for more points than the Tasmanian Devil.
The next point is efficiency. Look at the shooting numbers and you already see a big difference. According to NBAWowy (which counts actual possessions, not just estimates), Harden uses 22.8 true shooting attempts per game. Westbrook uses 28.3. So, Westbrook is using 5.5 more possessions per game to score that 1.7 more points.
When you factor in the potential assists, Harden utilizes 44.5 possessions to score his 56.9 points while Westbrook uses 47.7 to score his 55.5. On possessions Harden uses, the Rockets score 1.28 points. On possessions that Westbrook uses, the Thunder score 1.16 points. That’s a difference of 12 points per 100 possessions.
Not only is Harden producing more points more efficiently than Harden, he’s producing more points than anyone in history and he’s doing it far more efficiently than anyone in the top 10.
Combined scoring and passing, Harden has a pretty good argument for the greatest offensive season in NBA history. pic.twitter.com/riq48YjgFz
— Kelly Scaletta (@KellyScaletta) March 25, 2017
Westbrook advocates like to belabor the posthoc argument that Harden just benefits by having better teammates (an argument which no one was making before the season). But maybe the reality is teammates are better because of him, and not the other way around. After all, not a single one of his teammates has ever made an All-Star game or been named an All-NBA team.
Maybe he’s the reason they’re better. His ability to create and confuse defenses is the best in the league.
Westbrook has one speed–fulls steam ahead all the time. But Harden uses his change of speed to leave defenses constantly guessing what he’s going to do next, whether that’s crossover a defender and drive to the rim, hook a would-be shot blocker to draw a foul, stop and pop for a three, rifle a pass to a teammate for an open three, nutmeg a big to get pass to Nene or Clint Capela or just alley to their oop.
He can damage a defense in so many different ways and his approach to them is always the same, so defenses have no idea how to stop him.
All of this is to say that Houston is better because of him, and it’s disingenuous to take the fact that he’s made his teammates better as an argument to detract from his value. If nothing else, it should clinch it.
Harden vs. LeBron
While LeBron James is having a nice season, statistically, it’s not as good as Harden’s.
At a glance, James seems to be a lot more efficient, but Harden’s true shooting percentage (62.0) is pretty close to idenitical to LeBron’s (62.1). James has .4 more rebounds, but Harden has 2.5 more assists and 3.4 more points.
Back to the subject of “teammates”, let’s ponder the Cleveland Cavaliers. LeBron James lamented the Cavaliers’ woes earlier this year by declaring that the Cavs didn’t have another shot creator other than Kyrie Irving after Kevin Love went out.
Can I point out that none of Harden’s teammates are better than Irving or Love?
Let me break this down to another level. Can you name me two players on Houston (other than Harden) who would be fair trade value for Irving or Love?
LeBron complaining about not having enough help is like if Mark Cuban complained about not having enough money.
And sure, LeBron was without Kevin Love for 21 games. But it’s not like Harden’s key teammates haven’t been out at all this year. Patrick Beverley missed 14 games and 21 from Clint Capela. And of course, he’s played all of his games without Irving or Love.
Now maybe there’d be some sort of conversation here if LeBron’s team was better, and we were trying to excuse it, but it’s not. Houston has a better record.
Harden has better numbers and a better record while LeBron has better teammates. That makes Harden more valuable.
That’s not to say Harden is a better player; he’s not. Give me a Game 7 in the Finals, and I take LeBron over anyone. But this isn’t the conversation for the MVP. It’s which team has provided the most value to his team this season in the regular season, and based on the better numbers and better record with worse teammates, that distinction goes to Harden over LeBron.
Harden vs. Leonard
My second-place vote would go to Kawhi, but even he doesn’t have as good of a case as Harden. First, let’s look at the box score comparison:
Harden has 3.5 more points, 3.1 more rebounds and 7.8 more assists. While Leonard has a somewhat better field-goal percentage, Harden’s higher free-throw rate and three-point rate more than offsest. His 62.0 true shooting percentage is slightly higher than Leonard’s 61.4 percent. So Harden isn’t just scoring more points, he’s getting them more efficiently.
Furthermore, you have to look at how each is getting his points. It’s one thing to create points and quite another to have someone else create the shot for you. There are two ways to generate points for yourself: scoring off the bounce and drawing fouls. Here’s how the stars break down:
In fact, Harden has created more points through unassisted shots and free throws than Leonard has scored period. And he’s created nearly twice as many points off the dribble as Leonard has before you start screaming “flop” as though that’s the only reason.
Furthermore, while Leonard is relying on his teammates to help set him up for a sizeable percentage of his point, Harden is doing the bulk of the creating for his teammates. He’s created 1,974 points passing the ball; Leonard has tallied 559. Let’s look at how the two compare when we look at points generated for their team:
Harden as generated over twice the points Leonard has. While I would readily concur that there is inherent value in what Leonard does and that his shooting adds gravity, and that does significantly improve the Spurs’ offense, I would add that value isn’t on par with the shot creating that Harden does. That’s why Stephen Curry won the last two MVPs and not Klay Thompson.
This is even more significant when you remember that Harden actually has a higher true shooting percentage as we know that assisted buckets are generally much more efficient than unassisted ones. Harden is enjoying the highest true shooting percentage in history from a player with 30 percent usage and a 40 percent assist percentage.
Harden’s not just a better offensive player; he’s a significantly better offensive player.
The one caveat that I’d like to add is that some will point to turnovers as a meaningful issue. But it’s really not. Looking at whole turnover numbers is just bad basketball logic. First, it makes far too much over a few possessions.
If you look at Synergy’s point plus assists numbers, which include turnovers, Harden is still averaging 1.407 points per possession compared with Leonard’s 1.285. So just from the outset, turnovers don’t offset Harden’s advantage offensively. But beyond that, looking at turnovers as though they’re equal is disingenuous.
Obviously, the more you handle the ball, the more you’re going to turn it over. Harden has dribbled the ball 34,239 times this year, based on NBA.com‘s tracking stats. Leonard has dribbled it 10,630 times. Harden has passed the ball 4,813 times. Leonard has passed it 2,057 times.
NBAMiner breaks turnovers down into several types. For the sake of simplicity, lets’ call a bad pass turnover a passing turnover and anything else a ballhandling turnover.
Here’s how the numbers compare if you look at how many turnovers each has per 100 passes or 1,000 dribbles:
The first thing worth noting is that if Harden dribbled the ball 1,000 times and passed it 100 times, he’d have 10.3 turnovers while Leonard would have 10.5. So, relative to how often they actually do things with the ball that can cause turnovers, they’re relatively even. But even that isn’t quite fair because Harden is usually operating against defenses with traps and double teams while Leonard is typically running in sets designed to spring him open.
Relative to usage, Harden actually has slightly better turnover numbers in spite of the fact he’s facing far more hostility from opposing defenses.
Leonard has the advantage is on defense, in spite of what his weird on/off stats might say. And frankly, that’s hard to measure. I want to make sure that I’m being unequivocal about this because people sometimes read into things that go beyond what I’m saying. Kawhi Leonard is a much better defender than Harden. I am not trying to “compare” them.
What I will say, though, is that Harden is not as bad of a defender as his reputation suggests.
James Harden gives up .909 points per possession (ppp) when he’s the initial defender on the play, according to Synergy, which places him in the 52nd percentile, while Leonard is in the 68th percentile at .876 ppp. I will add that those numbers probably make Harden look better than he is and Leonard’s understate is value. But the fact that Harden is within 16 percentile of Leonard is still eye opening.
When you look at the play-type breakdown, it’s even more surprising. Harden is even better than Leonard on certain play types. But more significantly, I’d like to point out that he’s at least close to the 50th percentile in most play types. And in the two he isn’t (big defender on pick-and-roll ball handler and defending the roll man) he’s only defended a combined 58 plays.
Leonard is a much better defender. But Harden is a vastly superior shot creator, and shot creating is about the most valuable skill in the NBA.
When you factor in Harden’s scoring and facilitating, both in terms of the volume and efficiency he’s providing, he’s not just having the best season as a creator this season, he’s having the best one ever. And it’s balanced. If he’s not already (he needed 26 points passing at the time of writing), he soon will be the first player in NBA history to score and pass for 2,000 points in the same season. For perspective, the closest anyone has come is Magic Johnson in 1986-87 who scored 1,909 and passed for 1,954, and 1972-73 Tiny Archibald is the only other player to top 1800/1800 (2,719/1,820).
Offensively, Harden is having the greatest offensive season we have ever seen, and it would be ridiculous to deprive him of the MVP because he’s playing merely “average” defense.