It’s Time to Recognize James Harden as a Top-Three Player

Brad Penner / USA TODAY Sports

James Harden is somehow still underrated.

Back in 2016, James Harden averaged 29 points, 7 assists, and 6 rebounds over the course of the season. He joined LeBron James, Oscar Robertson, and Michael Jordan as the only players to ever accomplish this feat.

He didn’t make the All-NBA First Team. Or the Second Team. Or the Third Team.

The national media laughably felt that Klay Thompson (averaged 22 points, 3 rebounds, and 2 assists) was better than Harden.

After his historic 2017-18 season, Harden was rewarded with the prestigious Most Valuable Player award. It seemed that he was finally getting the respect that he deserved. 33 games into the 2018-19 season, Harden has reached new heights. He’s putting up 33.3 points per game, the highest scoring average since Kobe Bryant in 2006. His true shooting percentage of 62.3% is his personal best since becoming a full-time starter seven years ago.

Yet, according to nba.com, Harden is just fifth in the race for MVP honors.

Fifth.

How is a top-3 player of the sport consistently disrespected like this?

Recent Heroics

Over the past 10 games, the Rockets have won 9 games with an average margin-of-victory of 10 points. The catalyst for this leap into the top of the Western Conference standings has been the legendary performance of James Harden.

Over this stretch, Harden is averaging 40.8 points per game with a true shooting percentage of 64.4%. A ten-game streak of 30 points scored has only occurred on eight occasions in the past 8 years. This is an incredibly exclusive list. For reference, Stephen Curry’s longest streak of his career is just five games.

PlayerSeasonPoints Per GameTrue Shooting Percentage
James Harden2018-1940.864.4%
Kobe Bryant2002-0343.159.0%
Tracy McGrady2002-0338.363.3%
Shaquille O'Neal2000-0133.762.5%
Kobe Bryant2012-1334.457.0%
LeBron James2005-0637.962.0%
Kevin Durant2013-1438.267.7%
Michael Jordan1990-199135.161.9%

No player in the modern era has scored at the volume of James Harden while maintaining his efficiency. Some players had streaks longer than ten games of 30+ points, so their best ten-game run within the longer streak was extrapolated onto the table.

Also, note that Harden’s current streak is ongoing. He’s scored 40+ in four consecutive games and 35+ in eight consecutive games. All of these numbers could continue to grow into the new calendar year. With a 40-point game against the Warriors, Harden would tie Kobe Bryant for the second-longest streak of games with 40+ points scored in the last 30 seasons.

Innovation in Isolation

Many legends in NBA history who lacked efficiency were isolation scorers. Players like Kobe Bryant and Allen Iverson would have their teammates back away as they beat defenders one-on-one. It was naturally inefficient.

There’s a common misconception that isolation play is bad. It’s not — it just requires the right personnel. The Rockets are averaging just 21.1 assists per game, ranking 27th in the league. Assists don’t correlate with success. The Rockets averaged 21.5 assists per game last year yet they scored the 2nd most points per game in the league. They finished the season with a 65-17 win-loss record, the best in the NBA.

James Harden does the impossible — he is an efficient isolation scorer.

Harden dribbles the ball at least 7 times before 55.4% of his shots, by far the most in the league. He attempts 12.1 field goals per game in these situations — the player with the second most has just 7.7 attempts per game. In fact, Harden’s is attempting the most shots in these situations since NBA started to track the stat in 2013. Despite this massive volume, Harden’s effective field goal percentage of 52.9% is the second-highest of any player in the top-15 in attempts.

Another way to understand Harden’s individual greatness is to take a look at his unassisted field goal numbers. He’s assisted on just 13.2% of his three-point makes. In other words, he’s scoring 11.99 points per game off of unassisted threes. Steph Curry holds the single-season record with 6.17 points per game off of unassisted threes. Harden will shatter that.

Most Valuable Player

Is anybody seriously going to question the value of James Harden?

Just compare the numbers to those of Giannis Antetokounmpo and LeBron James, players considered by many to be MVP frontrunners over Harden.

 James Harden On - OffGiannis Antetokounmpo On - Off LeBron James On - Off
Offensive Rating+5.8+2.6+2.1
Effective Field Goal Percentage+3.9%+0.1%+0.6%

It’s not that Giannis and LeBron aren’t incredibly valuable to their team. They certainly are. Harden is just that much more impressive.

The Rockets lean on Harden as much as any team has leaned on any player in league history. Harden’s usage percentage (the percentage of team plays using a player while he was on the floor) of 38.38% would be the third-highest single-season total in NBA history. Nobody in the top-10 converted on their chances as efficiently as Harden currently is.

PlayerSeasonUsage PercentageTrue Shooting PercentagePoints Per 100 Possessions
Russell Westbrook2016-1741.65%55.4%44.8
Kobe Bryant2005-0638.74%55.9%45.6
James Harden2018-1938.38%62.3%45.2
Russell Westbrook2014-1538.37%53.6%41.1
Michael Jordan1986-8738.29%56.2%46.4
Allen Iverson2001-0237.78%48.9%38.8
DeMarcus Cousins2016-1736.50%56.2%39.6
Dwyane Wade2008-0936.22%57.4%41.8
Jermaine O'Neal2004-0536.22%52.0%38.4
James Harden2017-1836.07%61.9%42.3

If you sort by true shooting percentage, Harden’s current season is first. Second by a close margin is Harden last season. Then there’s a major drop off. In terms of scoring volume, Harden ranks third, marginally behind Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan. However, Harden demonstrates vastly superior efficiency.

For some odd reason, Harden is often categorized as an inefficient chucker “like Kobe, Westbrook, and Iverson.” Ignoring how ignorant and narrow-minded this is, it doesn’t even make sense. Harden is one of the most efficient scorers in the history of the league and the stats show it.

According to NBA Math, Harden leads the league in Total Points Added by a wide margin. This isn’t a pure offensive metric — it combines Offensive Points Added and Defensive Points Saved. While Harden’s defense is often criticized by fans, this criticism has proven to be unwarranted. Harden’s Defensive Points Saved stands far ahead of other players who lead in Offensive Points Added — even if we adjust for minutes played.

Only Curry comes close to Harden on offense, and his numbers are with significantly fewer minutes played. Harden has somehow maintained is astronomical rate over a longer period of time. Defensively, Harden is the only player in the positive. Curry is so far in the negative that he’s not in the top-10 in the NBA in Total Points Added.

Conclusion

The Houston Rockets began the season with an extremely disappointing 11-14 win-loss record. Since then, James Harden has led the Rockets on a 9-1 run in the past 10 games to put the Rockets just three games back from the first seed.

Simply put, Harden has been dominant. He’s putting together one of the greatest scoring seasons we’ve ever seen. There shouldn’t be a Most Valuable Player debate. It’s time to start giving Harden the recognition that he deserves.

James Harden is certainly a top-3 player. There’s an argument to be made that he’s the best player in basketball. He certainly has been the best this season.