The state of the league, and hitting the James Harden piñata

More on this chart later

More on this chart later

I don’t think I’ve exactly concealed my feelings for James Harden these past few years. Nevertheless, just in case people are in doubt, I don’t particularly like his brand of basketball and what it represents (note, this has nothing to do with Harden himself). Now that the critical-of-Harden bandwagon is growing a bit, I think it’s my time to reassert myself on this train. But first, a long digression about the state of the NBA.

On a recent Zach Lowe podcast, David Thorpe talked about how the relentless pursuit of superstars is a fool’s errand. There are so few superstars that can legitimately change the course of a franchise that relying on acquiring MANY of them–at the same time and while they’re in their primes–as a formula to success is like relying on winning the lottery to retire. Instead, suggested Thorpe, teams should focus on nabbing players with ceilings higher than their current performance and coaching them up to their potential. With time, chemistry, and lots of luck, these types of teams can also compete. Thorpe concluded by providing the example of the Heatles, the last (and maybe only) team to find championship success by acquiring superstars. Though they won two championships, they also lost two (and probably should have lost one of their championships) to teams who were far less talented but far more cohesive.

Now, this year’s Warriors and, to a lesser degree, this year’s Spurs are proving just how far cohesion can take a team. I think it’s very important to note that players on these teams openly acknowledge that their individual successes are products of their teams’ systems. On any other team, Draymond Green is a borderline 6th man. He would be a hustle-and-defense undersized 4 who plays hard for ~22 minutes and has a few games in which his tenacity and a matchup earn him crunch time minutes. And it’s hilarious to even think about what Kawhi Leonard would be if he were drafted by ANY other team. A quiet wing who can’t shoot and won’t assert himself… he’d be a defensive specialist at best. Maybe expiring contract trade fodder at worst? Play with this question in your head–is there any player on the Warriors or Spurs who would be BETTER on another team?

Even Steph Curry, the best individual talent on either team, would be dramatically less successful on another team. His playing style requires complementary teammates in a way that Kevin Durant’s, LeBron James’s, or Russell Westbrook’s do not. The latter three can join on a team and do their thing. Curry, less so. If you were playing a life-or-death pickup game without any familiarity with your teammates, you would pick those three players (and probably a dozen others) over Curry. It’s not because they are necessarily better than Curry, but because they require less team-level organization and coordination to be successful.

Now, play with this question in your head. Is there any player who is BETTER because he is on the Rockets? Answering this question is, in my opinion, the direction of modern basketball. Fifteen years ago, we talked about players making their teammates better. Now, we should talk about teams making their players better (all of them, especially the stars).

Through this lens, Harden and the Rockets in general are a dinosaur. The team is built around Harden, when Harden should, in fact, be built into the team. “Harden needs to get his teammates involved.” That’s a LOL statement and completely misses the premise. There are four other guys on the court with Harden at all times. They are involved by default. If Harden has to make them involved, then Houston we have a serious problem.

And that there is the rub. Houston is less of a team with Harden than without him. His presence alters the Houston Rockets without improving the team beyond just being a bigger sum of individual parts. Let me put it this way:

Harden + Rockets = Meat + Bread

Curry + Warriors = Sandwich

Don’t believe me? Let me try from a statistical perspective.

Statistic Rockets Rank
Passes per possession 26th
Distance traveled per possession 23rd
Touches per possession 24th

None of this should surprise anybody. The Rockets pass little, move little, and not very many players touch the ball. I think we all know who is at the center of these stats. Yes, Harden is a star and a tremendous talent. But other stars and tremendous talents exist, and their teams pass more, move more, and their teammates touch the ball more. And there’s this.


Click for full-sized, interactive version

This shows the difference in team assist percentage (the percentage of a team’s FGs that are assisted) with players on and off the court according to players’ usage. Let me explain that. The y-axis is player usage. A positive number on the x-axis indicates that a player’s team has more assists when he is in the game. A negative number indicates that a player’s team has fewer assists when he is in the game.

The trend line is basically flat, suggesting that, maybe surprisingly, there is no relationship between a player’s usage and the difference in his team’s assist percentage with him on or off the court. So even if a player uses possessions a lot, the team as a whole can still be involved (as measured by assists). Curry, James, Westbrook, and Dame Lillard are all high usage players with positive assist% differences. James Harden’s assist percentage difference is -2.9%. His peers, aka high usage but negative assist% difference players, are Carmelo Anthony and Kobe Bryant.

I’ll end with this.


Click for full-sized, interactive version

This is the difference in team pace with players’ on or off the court plotted against players’ usage. A positive number on the x-axis indicates that a player’s team plays faster with him on the floor. A negative number on the x-axis indicates that a player’s team plays slower with him on the floor. The trend line shows a significant positive relationship between these two variables. In other words, teams play faster when their high usage players are on the floor. That makes sense. If a player is going to dominate possessions, then there better be more possessions to go around for everyone to still be happy.

Curry leads the way with a whopping positive 7.4 pace differential. The Warriors play a lot faster when he’s in the game. So even though he uses 30%+ of his team’s possessions, he also develops more possessions for his teammates (and himself) to use. This is consistent with the NBA trend. Harden has the opposite effect on his team. When he is on the court, the Rockets have fewer possessions than when he is off the court. This is against the NBA grain.

Imagine playing with a teammate who not only uses the ball a lot, but also reduces team passing, reduces team movement, and the number of players who touch the ball. And he does this while decreasing the number of possessions to go around! That sounds like so much fun. When do I get to play with this guy? Meat and bread, but no sandwich. Again, is there any player who is better because he is on the Rockets?

About the author: Richard Li is an independent researcher and consultant. He likes numbers and pictures.

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