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Scaletta’s Summer Top 100 Countdown: 6 – James Harden

Houston Rockets guard James Harden heads to the bench during the second half of the team's NBA preseason basketball game against the Dallas Mavericks Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2016, in Dallas. (AP Photo/LM Otero)
AP Photo/LM Otero

Scaletta’s Summer Top 100 is a ranking of returning NBA players. For a full explanation of our methodology, read our intro.

James Harden is a rare talent on offense, and now he’s going to be running a system that not only emphasizes offense but one which caters to Harden’s particular array of skills.

Not only that, he has the benefit of better shooters around him now, such as Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon, who can help space the court for him and get to the rim. The early look is just preseason, and it’s a small sample size, but it’s nonetheless a real window into what Harden could do this year. But as I tweeted, that could be historic:

(NOTE: Harden recorded 23 points, 11 assists and five rebounds in 29 minutes on Wednesday night after this tweet)

Will he have one of the greatest all-around offensive campaigns in history? It’s quite possible.

Ceiling: 1

Harden has a legitimate chance at the MVP this year, particularly if he posts anything close to the kinds of numbers suggest he could, and even more if he can do it efficiently. He doesn’t even have to keep the pace that the preseason suggests to do that. He could quite possibly lead the league in points and assists in the same season (as could Russell Westbrook). If he does that (or even comes close) and carries the Rockets to one of the top seeds in the West, he should easily walk away with the MVP.

Floor: 8

Harden’s floor depends on one big thing: shaking the “bad defense” label. But as I wrote earlier, Harden’s defensive woes are exaggerated, almost to the point of hyperbole. That doesn’t matter, though, if voters still exaggerate it. The same voters made Harden the biggest slight in All-NBA team history (weirdly while he also finished ninth in MVP voting).

The big dig against Harden will be how much narrative hurts or helps him. If he shows consistent effort on defense, he could win the award. If he doesn’t, a repeat of last year is possible.

Offense

Twitics (Twitter critics) love to harp on Harden’s “flopping,” but a lot of that’s overstated as well. Yes, Harden does exaggerate the level of contact; there’s no question about that.

However, there’s actual contact drawn. He doesn’t flop in the sense of making a non-foul a foul. He just flops to the point of ensuring that an actual foul gets called. Like it or lump it, it works. He’s amassed 1,661 free throw attempts and 1,435 made freebies over the last two seasons — using roughly 731 possession on them.

That means he’s averaging 1.96 points per possession when he gets to the stripe, and he’s doing that more than anyone in the league. He’s also doing that while being reasonably efficient from the field.

When you combine his efficiency and volume, he’s in impressive company. Here are the most efficient volume scorers (20 points per game):

pts-and-poss-shooting

The blue dot there represents points per possession. Harden’s the third best, and when you factor in his passing, it’s easy to see how he can be viewed as the most important offensive talent to his team in the league.

There is one caveat, though: Harden turns the ball over a lot. Here’s what happens when we factor turnovers into the above data:

pts-and-poss-shooting-plus-to

Note that LeBron James also struggles here, as do Kyrie Irving and Damian Lillard. Part of that is because they’re also relied upon to distribute more, so their turnovers are going to be higher as they’re subject to both passing and ball-handling turnovers (a distinction often lost).

Still, Harden needs to be a little less charitable this year if Houston is going to be near the top of the standings.

Defense

I’m just going to quote myself here because I said everything that needs to be said in the aforementioned article.

I’m not going to try to paint Harden as a great defender, but the reputation as the worst defender in the league is just wrong. Yes, there are highlight reels of him playing defense, but bear in mind that he was on the court for 12,321 defensive possessions over the last two years. That’s over 700 more than anyone in the league. His teammate, Trevor Ariza, is second on that list. Andrew Wiggins is third with 864 fewer possessions than Harden.

Point being, if you have a video montage of even 100 plays last year, it’s still less than one percent of Harden’s defensive plays. It’s ridiculous to evaluate him solely on YouTube videos that show times where he gave up on a play or got beat, particularly if it’s to illustrate he’s “lazy.”

To illustrate this, let’s compare Harden with three other guards, one with a “good” defensive reputation (Klay Thompson), one with a controversial one (Russell Westbrook) and one with a poor one (Kyrie Irving).

Let’s look at three things for each player to get a bead on how active they are and how successful they are (stats via NBA.com and ESPN):

g-comp

While Harden does give up the highest differential in field goal percentage, he’s also by far the most active defender of the three. In fact, Harden was first among guards and fifth in the league overall in shots contested (meaning he was the closest defender on the play). He defended 20.3 percent of all opponents’ shots and accounted for 24.0 percent of the Rockets’ steals while he was on the court.

Now, there are a lot of variables in that particular soup, but at the very least it belies the notion that he’s lazy and beaten on every play. If those things were true, he wouldn’t be the closest defensive player on so many shots. He wouldn’t be swiping all those balls.

His DRPM was below average last season, even for his position. He’s not a plus defender, but he was 49th out of 92 shooting guards and only seven spots behind Thompson. Irving, however, was 73rd among 79 point guards. But there’s no viral video montage, so he must never get beaten.

No, Harden isn’t a good defender, but he’s not a lazy or horrible one. And there are times when he’s impressive. He switches well and guards the 4 surprisingly effectively because he’s so long and strong for his height.

And when you combine the fact that he’s the most ubiquitous defender with the onus he bears on offense, it’s impressive as a total package. Calling him lazy is preposterous.

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