It may sound a little crazy, but this edition of “Who You Got?” with the Houston Rockets’ James Harden and the San Antonio Spurs’ Kawhi Leonard actually features a compelling case from both sides.
On its surface, this debate clearly favors Harden. He was the MVP runner-up (who earned 25 of the 130 first-place votes) and led the league with 16.4 Win Shares.
Leonard, meanwhile, garnered just one fifth-place vote on the MVP ballot. But as we know, that award is traditionally based mostly on offense, which isn’t where Leonard’s made his reputation. He was the 2015 Defensive Player of the Year, which essentially makes this another offense vs. defense debate.
In the first two installments of “Who You Got?” (which asks which of two players you’d rather start a team with for one season), defense trumped offense (Draymond Green over Carmelo Anthony and Rudy Gobert over DeAndre Jordan).
Whether or not offense gets off the schneid will depend on the facts and analysis on key aspects of each’s game in the present case of Harden vs. Leonard.
As is the case with most debates featuring an offensive specialist against a defensive specialist, the basic numbers clearly favor the former:
To better measure Leonard’s impact on a game, modern defensive metrics are critical.
Leonard and Harden have almost the exact opposite effect on their respective team’s defenses.
When Leonard was on the floor last season, the Spurs gave up just 97.1 points per 100 possessions. When he went to the bench, that number ballooned to 102.2, a difference of 5.1 points. On the other end of that defensive spectrum is Harden. Houston’s Defensive Rating (points allowed per 100 possessions) was 5.6 points better when Harden was on the bench.
Harden made marginal improvements in terms of his defensive effort last season, helping creep into the upper half of NBA players in both ESPN’s Defensive Real Plus-Minus and Basketball-Reference’s Defensive Box Plus/Minus, but momentary lapses were still fairly common:
The same casual approach seen above haunted Harden in off-ball situations, when his man was often able to get open off the most basic cuts. It also plagued him in pick-and-rolls and the occasional isolation as well.
On the bright side, Harden’s Defensive Rating was actually quite strong when he shared the floor with Dwight Howard. In 950 minutes together, that two-man lineup surrendered just 97.7 points per 100 possessions (another example of how many mistakes a great rim protector can erase).
If Howard’s healthy throughout 2015-16, some of Harden’s defensive issues could go largely unnoticed.
Leonard, though, is the one having the Howard-like impact on his teammates in San Antonio:
Manu Ginobili is the only returning rotation player who had a better Defensive Rating without Leonard than he did with him in 2014-15. Whether that’s anomalous or related to Ginobili facing second-units, it’s clear from the six other examples that Leonard makes his teammates better defensively.
Because of his versatility, Leonard can almost always defend the opposition’s best offensive player, allowing his teammates easier assignments. He relieves burden on rim protectors by not allowing his man to get to the rim. And he can mitigate the need for switching with his ability to fight through screens, thereby subjecting the Spurs to fewer possessions in which a mismatch can be exploited.
Not only is he better than Harden in this category, he’s better than the vast majority of the basketball-playing world.
While Leonard is clearly among the NBA’s most valuable defenders, Harden may be the league’s most unguardable player on the other end.
He’s essentially the embodiment of modern offense, getting as many shots as he can from the most efficient spots on the floor (near the rim, beyond the three-point line or at the free throw line):
To know why Harden wants his shots from those specific spots, it’s important to know how much each is worth.
The league average for points per attempt within three feet of the rim is 1.256. The average points per three-point attempt is 1.05. A trip to the free throw line is worth an average of 1.5 points. And everywhere else, it’s 0.78 points per attempt.
For context’s sake, the league got 30.2 percent of its points from within three feet of the rim, 23.5 percent from behind the three-point line, 17.1 percent from the free-throw line and 29.2 percent from everywhere else:
The rest of the league either is, or should be, striving to generate more Harden-like scoring. And that includes Leonard.
He got 19.1 percent of his points from the most efficient spot on the floor, the free throw line. That’s above league average, but still well below the Harden standard.
An even bigger problem for Leonard is where the majority of his points are coming from. He took over 50 percent of his shots from that “everywhere else” range where efficient offense goes to die. To his credit, he converted over 40 percent of those attempts, but they’re still clearly worth less than his shots within three feet, beyond the three-point line or at the free throw line.
Of course, most players can’t just choose where they want to shoot and then go shoot there. There’s always a defense there trying to force certain shots and contest just about everything. And herein lies the value of Harden’s scoring. He can get to those hot spots.
Harden has an incredible ability to change pace, reserving his burst of speed for the optimal moments, when a defender is slightly off balance or out of position. In those moments, he can either get the blow-by or use the defender’s own momentum against him, thus drawing the shooting foul. He also has the strength and low center-of-gravity necessary to punish defenders who can stay in front.
And if all else fails, there’s the Harden stepback:
Just as Leonard is among the best in the world on defense, Harden may have no equal as a pure scorer.
Harden’s value as an offensive player doesn’t end with his scoring. He finished eighth in the league in assists per game and 12th in Assist Percentage. And his assists generated 17.1 points per game.
That, plus his scoring average, equates to 44.5 points per game (42.8 percent of the Rockets’ total output). The only player in the NBA who created more points through the combination of his own shots and assists was Russell Westbrook (47.9 per game).
It may not be entirely fair to compare that with what Leonard does as a passer, as the latter wasn’t tasked with creating offense for the Spurs. But the sheer difference in raw numbers is worth noting:
Harden creates efficient looks for both himself and his teammates, making him one of the most complete offensive players in the league.
Other important aspects of the game include rebounding (where Leonard has a slight edge) and intangibles like leadership and demeanor (which are largely subjective).
While those are all important, none give a quantifiable overall edge to Leonard. His defense is extremely impactful, but not quite to the degree Harden’s offense is.
When Harden was on the floor last season, Houston scored 107.7 points per 100 possessions. That number plummeted to 93.7 when he was off, a MVP-caliber swing of 14 points.
That correlated to an Offensive Real Plus-Minus of 8.66, which was the best in the NBA. His overall Real Plus-Minus of 8.5 was third (Leonard’s 7.57 ranked fifth).
It’s certainly close, and the decision may come down to whether you favor offense or defense, but this edition of “Who You Got?” finds for Harden.
Andy Bailey is on Twitter @AndrewDBailey.