Some stats that hint at just how good James Harden could become

If you had asked me yesterday whether I think James Harden might reach the stratospheric level that LeBron James, Kevin Durant, and Chris Paul are currently playing at, I’d’ve probably just looked at you funny. But then I plotted his Game Score data over his entire career (just as I did last week for Dwight Howard), and now the idea doesn’t seem so wild.

Harden career in summary_1-8-14

(Reminder: Game Score is a statistic invented by John Hollinger and available from Basketball-Reference that aggregates all of a player’s box-score statistics into a single performance metric.)

There are two really encouraging things about this chart:

1) The trend. Look at how dramatically upward that thing climbs! James Harden has been getting better his entire career and there’s no reason to expect he’ll stop now.
2) The heights he reached last season. For perspective, LeBron, Durant, and CP3 are collectively averaging a Game Score of 21.8 this season. Last season, Harden played at or above that level for exactly one-third of the year.

These data convince me that not only could Harden reach the stratospheric level of the league’s best few players, but that it’s actually pretty plausible given the trajectory of his career.

One concern for many Rockets fans is Harden’s defense. While it’s a valid concern, I think it’s more than a little overblown. I have been manually tallying good and bad defensive plays for every game I’ve watched this season, and Harden has been below average but not as bad as some of the Rockets’ guards. And a lot of his below averageness can be attributed to his remarkably atrocious first game against the Clippers, which was far and away the most bizarrely bad defensive performance I have personally witnessed. Take away that game and he has been close to an average defender.

Rockets defensive performance as of 1-8-14

A bigger concern for me is Harden’s intangibles. Is he a good leader? Is he even a good teammate? I have no idea how Harden interacts with his teammates in practice or on the plane, but from what I see during games, it doesn’t look good. How many times do you see Harden celebrating for things his teammates have done rather than for things he has done? How many times do you hear him complimenting his teammates in interviews when not asked directly? One of my favorite moments from this season was when LeBron angrily confronted Chalmers during a timeout and then 20 seconds later called over to him, looked him in the eye, and said, “My bad, I was wrong.” Is Harden the type of guy who can say, “My bad, I was wrong”?

The bottom line is that I’m optimistic Harden can become one of the league’s best few players, but I’m not optimistic that he can take the next step, which is to be the type of guy whose teammates want to chew through walls for him.

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The Rockets Daily – January 8, 2013