January 16, 2019

James Harden had one of the greatest games in NBA history on Sunday night, accounting for 91 points on just 41 total shots. Only two games have accounted for more points, and one of them was Harden’s game last New Year’s Eve. But neither of those came close to the level of efficiency the Beard had Nov. 5.

As I wrote for FanRag, he averaged 1.97 points per true shooting attempt. In his 95-point venture, he averaged 1.30 points per TSA. Wilt Chamberlain went for 1.32 when he notched his 100-point game. And Kobe Bryant scored 85 points on 1.51 points per TSA when he blew up for 81.

And while all three of those games were against bottom-four defenses, the Utah Jazz came into the Rockets’ game as the No. 3 defense in the league.

Harden is now averaging 29.5 points, 9.7 assists and 4.4 rebounds per game. He also has 1.5 steals and 0.4 blocks.

According to Basketball-Reference.com, he’s second in win shares, third in box plus-minus and second in the infamous “VORP.”

The Houston Rockets’ offensive rating with him on the court is 112.4. With him off the court, it’s 96.5. Combining the 261 points he’s contributed passing and the 324 points he’s scored, he’s accounted for 48.4 percent of all the Rockets points, whether he’s on or off the court.

And to top all of that off, he has Houston owning the best record in the Western Conference, and second best in the NBA at 8-2.

In brief: It’s not hard to make an MVP case for James Harden.

But the man who has finished second twice in the last three years, with seemingly flip-flopping standards could end up No. 2 in the voting again this year if Stephen Curry keeps doing Stephen Curry things.

Curry had his own amazing night this week, albeit with a slightly different number; he had a plus-44, according to NBA.com.

Since at least 1983-84 (as far back as plus-minus can be searched, that it is tied for the ninth-highest plus-minus of any player who has scored over 20 points in a game (the best is 49 by the Phoenix Suns Amar’e Stoudemire against the Sacramento Kings on Feb. 2, 2009).

Curry has also been ridiculous this season, with 26.7 points, 6.6 assists and 4.4 rebounds per game. But while Harden might have a bit more volume, Curry has been more efficient, with an insane 69.0 percent true shooting percentage. He’s leading the league in win shares, win shares per 48 minutes and offensive plus-minus.

Finally, the Dubs have a net rating of plus-20.89 with Curry and are minus-6.3 without him.

Here is how Harden and Curry matchup head to head:

Stephen Curry vs. James Harden, 2017-18
1Stephen Curry2017-1829101032.
2James Harden2017-1828111135.59.520.4.4644.210.4.4045.310.0.527.5676.47.9.8050.
Provided by Basketball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 11/6/2017.

Which all goes to say that it’s really hard to say. Right now, I have Harden ahead of Curry for two reasons:

  1. The Rockets actually have a slightly better record (although, the Warriors have a better net rating and the Rockets have one more win because they’ve played one more game).
  2. More importantly, while Curry has had his “second-best” player, Kevin Durant, Harden’s No. 2, Chris Paul, has been out for all but the first game of the season.

Ergo, if we’re going to fiddle with that word value (which has worked against Harden before), perhaps it should work for him now. At least for now, he’s getting the No. 1 spot.

Wtih that–here are this week’s rankings.

1. James Harden (see above)

2. Stephen Curry (see above)

3. Kevin Durant – Here lies the biggest strike against Curry (as Curry is the biggest strike against Durant). Imagine you have two Mercedes and I have one Toyota; we both drive to work. I could argue that my one Toyota is more valuable to me than either of your Mercedes are to you because I need my one car to get to work, while if one of yours breaks down, you still have the other. Your car might be “better” and it might have a higher dollar value, but since  I need one more than you need two, my one actually has more value.

So, while Durant is averaging 25.2 points, 7.7 rebounds and 4.9 dimes, the fact that he’s playing alongside Curry actually diminishes both of their value. Last year when KD went down, the Dubs didn’t skip a beat and it’s not like they would this year, either.

4. Giannis Antetokounmpo – After a fantastic start, the Freak cooled off a bit last week, averaging 23.7 points on 47.4 percent shooting along with 8.3 rebounds and 3.7 assists. More importantly, his Milwaukee Bucks lost all three games they played. It’s hard to keep him at No. 1 when his team has a losing record.

5. LeBron James – Why do I have LeBron James fifth? Because I need to be yelled at more. Honestly, though, there’s no way around this. If you leave him off, you’re a hater. If you put him on, your a “stan”. It’s an awkward situation. While there’s no question that he’s putting up MVP-caliber numbers and just had one of the greatest games ever by a player over 30, the Cavs are an absolute sucks-storm right now–and they’re even minus-4.6 with LeBron on the court.

So, I opted for the compromise and put him last on the list.

Honorable Mention (in no particular order): Russell Westbrook, Anthony Davis, DeMarcus Cousins, Jimmy Butler, Kyrie Irving 


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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