James Harden compared to the best players in NBA history (it’s much closer than you think)

Basketball is the only sport where you can pretty reliably predict which teams will be playing in the Finals just by looking at where the best few players are located. History has shown that unless a team has at least one of the all-time greats playing in his prime, they are extremely unlikely to win a championship or even make the Finals. (Evidence here if you need it.) The implications for the Rockets are clear: To be legitimate contenders, they need James Harden or Dwight Howard to play like not just an all-star, not just like a future hall of famer, but more like one of the three or four best players in the league and one of the twenty-five best players of the past half century.

Dwight Howard hasn’t played close to that level since his back surgery 635 days ago (for evidence, see here, here, or here), so I would be willing to bet that the Rockets will never win a championship if Dwight Howard is their best player. (That’s not to say he won’t be extremely valuable and important to the cause, just that he probably won’t be the primary contributor to a Rockets’ championship.)

James Harden is a different story. He’s clearly not top-3 level yet, but the data I looked at last week gave me optimism that he could get there before long, so this week I am taking it a step further and directly comparing Harden’s young career to the all-time greats.

James Harden compared to the best players in NBA history


The dashed gray line in the chart above represents the following players: LeBron James, David Robinson, Tim Duncan, Shaquille O’Neal, Chris Paul, Michael Jordan, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Dwight Howard, Dwyane Wade, Magic Johnson, Kevin Garnett, Dirk Nowitzki, Charles Barkley, Manu Ginobili, Larry Bird, John Stockton, Hakeem Olajuwon, Karl Malone, Kevin Durant, and Tracy McGrady. According to the method I used, those are the players with the best statistical careers over the past 50 years. (My method in brief: I looked at how many standard deviations above average the players were for each year of their career based on RAPM, PER, and WS/48, where RAPM is given the most weight. Of all players who entered the league after 1963, the players listed above are the only ones who were more than 2 standard deviations above average over their whole career.)

The Really Good News: The first four years of James Harden’s career were on par with the best players in NBA history. That’s a fact. Not some blogger’s opinion. People are severely underestimating James Harden. (That is some blogger’s opinion.)

The Not-So-Good News: Harden’s numbers have fallen this year. Whereas the all-time greats were about 3 standard deviations above average at his age, Harden has “only” been about 1.5 standard deviations above average this year. Here are some possible reasons for the decline:

  • Harden has (or had) a nagging injury. (We know he did for at least the first part of the year.)
  • Harden has been overconfident with shot selection and/or playing too much heroball.
  • Opponents are learning how to guard Harden.
  • Harden has struggled to mesh with Howard.

All of those reasons are pretty harmless from a long-term perspective. They are fixable. But here’s another potential reason for the decline, and unfortunately this might be the likeliest one:

  • Harden was playing above his head the past couple of seasons and has regressed to his normal level this season.

Let’s hope for the sake of the Rockets’ future that Harden’s relatively poor performance this season is an aberration and that his spectacular performance the past couple of seasons is the norm, not the reverse.

The bottom line is that Harden could very well become one of the all-time greats, thus making the Rockets a legitimate contender, but his relatively poor performance this season downgrades my optimism to the “cautious” variety at best.

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