Why James Harden is Not as Good as You Think He is
You’ve read the title, you know what this is going to be about. Let me preface it by saying that I am a hater of James Harden. I’ll admit it, I’m not going to disguise my intentions here. I’ve heard everyone talking about how great he is for a few seasons now and how he is “quite possibly the greatest scorer of all time”. Now, I took issue with that statement, and, being a Harden hater, figured there was no way it was true. So, I set off on a three-day research journey directed at proving that James Harden was not only not the greatest scorer of all time, but not even one of the greatest scorers of this era. Confused? Shocked? Abhorred? Let me explain.
Before we start and before you get your panties in a bunch, let me say that I will only be using statistics in this argument. No eyeball tests, no pure opinion. I am simply going to lay out the numbers and say what they mean to me. You might have a different interpretation, but the numbers are the numbers. Let’s begin.
A big part of my argument is that, sure, Harden is scoring at unprecedented rates, but he is doing so in a wildly inefficient manner (at least for a star player), which undermines his greatness. Let’s start by looking at his vanilla shooting numbers. This season, Harden is averaging 25 shots per game. Don’t know whether that’s big or small? Well, for comparison, Harden is first in the league in that category, and it’s not even close. The guy in second place, Kyrie Irving, is putting up about 23 shots per game, and there’s only eight others after him who are averaging at least 20 shots per game. What’s more, almost all the guys on that list (which includes Kyrie, Giannis, Bradley Beal, Donovan Mitchell, Trae Young and Pascal Siakam) are solo-star types whose teams rely on them generating the lion’s share of the offense every night. Harden is not in that situation; he has his backcourt mate Russell Westbrook who is a great scorer, and he has other good scorers like Eric Gordon and Clint Capela. On those 25 shots per game, Harden is shooting 44.9 percent. Again, for frame of reference, that places him 38th out of non-bigmen (which I defined as guys playing point guard, shooting guard or small forward) in field goal percentage. Not great, not bad, but for “quite possibly the greatest scorer of all time” it needs to be better.
Speaking of all time...why don't we bring in the top six scorers in NBA history for comparison? This list (in order) includes Michael Jordan, Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor, LeBron James, Jerry West, and Kevin Durant. In order to appropriately compare everyone, I used career averages, except for in Harden’s case: since he didn’t become a starter until he was traded to Houston, I only used his averages for the seasons which he has played for the Rockets. In that case, Harden’s average FG% is 44.3 percent. Compared to the six guys on this list, that would place him ahead of only Baylor, who shot 43.1 percent for his career. However, the next lowest percentage on the list is Jerry West at 47.4 percent, a full three points ahead of Harden.
Want some more comparisons? I got you. There are six guys in the NBA right now (excluding bigmen) who are averaging at least 20 points per game and are shooting at least five percent better from the field than Harden is. Basically, there are six volume scorers who are significantly better shooters than Harden is. Also, the league average for FG% is 45.4 percent, so about half a point higher than Harden.
Now onto three pointers. Let me start by saying I do acknowledge how Harden has transformed this part of the game. His stepback three is second-to-none, and it has made him a much better scorer. But, this is a blog of numbers, not opinion.
Harden is averaging about 14 three point-attempts per game, which you could probably already guess is astronomically high. Still, I’ll provide you some context. Only two (that’s right, TWO) other guys are even attempting double digit threes per game: Buddy Hield (10.6) and Paul George (10.2). This season, Harden is shooting 36.3 percent on threes. Those other two? Hield is shooting 37.6 percent and George is shooting 39.9 percent, both significantly better than Harden (which rules out the argument of “you’re bound to be less efficient if you shoot more”). The NBA average this season is 35.6 percent, so based off 3P% Harden is only a slightly better shooter than average from deep.
This section is hard to compare to the greats (as some of the others will be) because Baylor, Chamberlain and West did not play with a three point line. In addition, Jordan was never much of a three point shooter and neither was LeBron (until recently). That leaves us with Durant, who has a clear advantage over Harden: while Harden’s average as a Rocket is 36.4 percent, Durant’s career average is 38.1 percent.
For those who don't know, EFG% basically takes into account that three point shots are worth more than two pointers. This should work in Harden’s favor then, right? Wrong. Harden’s EFG% this season is 55.2 percent. That places him 140th out of players averaging at least 28 MPG, in between the likes of T.J. Warren and Danilo Gallinari (don’t know those names? Exactly).
What’s worse, Harden’s EFG% over his time in Houston is not quite as shiny. That number comes out to 52.7 percent, a mark that is slightly better than the league average of 51.1 percent over that time. But again, if Harden is “quite possibly the greatest scorer of all time”, he needs to be better than slightly above average.
The only guys we have EFG% numbers for on the top scorers list are Jordan, James and Durant. Jordan’s mark of 50.9 percent is oddly low, but James sits at an average of 54.1 percent while Durant is at 54.2 percent (though it should be noted that Durant’s EFG% has not been lower than 56 percent since 2012).
For more reference, a great shooting season would be an EFG% of 60 percent. This is acheived by your Currys, your Thompsons, your Redicks, guys that can flat out shoot. A number of 55 percent would be considered pretty darn good, more in the range of a LeBron, a Doncic or a Booker.
USG, which is short for usage rating, basically calculates what percent of a team’s possessions a player ‘uses’. It is what it sounds like: how much does a player have the ball in his hands during a game? Harden’s mark here stands superior, at a gaudy 37.7 percent. The next closest player is Giannis at 37.1 percent, then Doncic at 35.8 percent, then….a huge dropoff. There are 13 total players (including Harden) with a USG over 30, but 10 of those guys are sub-34 percent. Basically, Harden is running away with this category, which is not a great thing. Common sense would tell you that the guy who gets the ball the most does the most, ie scoring, assisting, whatnot. This is exactly true for Harden, who we can see has the ball the most and shoots the most. So, using a little logic, we can say that it’s not as impressive that Harden is leading the league in scoring given he has so many more opportunities to score than the next guy.
Onto historical context, we again only have the numbers for Jordan, James and Durant. Harden’s Houston career USG is 33.3 percent, which exactly equals Jordan’s mark. LeBron and Durant are much lower, with The King registering a mark of 31.6 percent and The Durantula sitting a tad lower at 30.1 percent. So even if we average all of Harden’s seasons (which includes the three seasons he spent as the sixth man of the Thunder), he still rises to the top of the greats, but the numbers are even more staggering if we look at Harden’s highest-scoring seasons. The past two seasons and this present one, Harden has eclipsed 30 points per game, so we’ll just use those as his “peak offense seasons”. In each of those three seasons, Harden has led the league in USG, and his average over this span is 38.4 percent. ¡Ay caramba! That mark is so high, we might have to drug test it. Jordan’s average over his best three years? 35.4. James’s average? 33.5. Durant’s average? 31.9. None of these numbers even compare to Harden’s mark, which is comical given all three of these guys are known for having the ball in their hands quite often. Harden makes them look like second options.
So, have I convinced you? The numbers paint a clear picture: Harden has the ball, and he has it A LOT. How efficient is he with the ball? Well, he’s not bad, but he’s certainly not great. Overall, I rest my argument with this: sure, Harden is scoring at historical rates, but he’s also shooting and dribbling and handling the ball at historical rates. Surely that waters down his greatness, as he has not been efficient and is the epitome in today’s NBA of the “ball hog”. You might think differently, and that’s okay. I am just a messenger of the numbers, and a Harden hater.
Oh and one last nitpick on Harden: only 2.6 percent of his shots this year have come from the midrange. As a midrange enthusiast, this absolutely disgusts me! How can you be a complete scorer if you eliminate an entire area of the floor from your arsenal? LeBron over his career has averaged 30.3 percent of his shots from the midrange, and KD has averaged 38.9 percent. What’s worse, Harden is only shooting 38.9 percent on those shots! C’mon James.