With time running down against the San Antonio Spurs, James Harden took the ball around an Omer Asik screen and rose up for a mid-range jumper. Nothing but net. Harden has made that move a hundred times in the last year or two, but this time it was different. That shot was not just any shot; it ended up being the difference between a disappointing home loss and a huge victory over the conference leaders.
In just a few months, Harden has transformed from third fiddle on the conference champion Thunder to the NBA's fifth leading scorer and the legitimate first option on a playoff team and media darling. Now, as he continues to carry the Rockets past older and more experienced opponents, some are starting to believe that Harden, not Kobe Bryant or Dwyane Wade, is the league's top two guard. Is this true? Let's dig into the numbers.
In our comparison of Kobe, Wade, and Harden, we'll start on the offensive side of the ball.
This obviously is just a sampling of a few statistics, but it does underscore just how close this race is offensively. It's extremely tight, but across the board, you have to give Harden the advantage. He is just .7 points behind Kobe in PPG, and is doing so while taking three and a half shots per game. His volume and efficiency are nearly unprecedented and give him the edge on this side of the ball.
What's truly remarkable is that Harden is fifth in the league in scoring while leading ALL guards in true shooting percentage. That 61.3 true shooting percentage is remarkable on its own, but given that he is doing so as a number one option taking nearly 20 shots a game is unbelievable. Watching Harden fight through double teams against San Antonio on his way to a workingman's 29, 9, and 6 was impressive, and it underscores his growth in the past year.
Against Miami in the Finals, Harden seemed to wilt under the spotlight, but this year, he's embraced the attention and harnessed it to his advantage. At least on the offensive end, I'm comfortable saying that he is the top shooting guard in the NBA.
Defensively, things get a bit more complicated. Defense is difficult to quantify with traditional stats, but anybody who has watched much NBA basketball would tell you that neither Harden, Wade, nor Kobe are particularly involved defenders. Wade, though aging a bit, would seem to have the best reputation on that end, but Harden has gotten a great deal of flack for undisciplined help and lazy closeouts.
Looking at the stats from mySynergySports, the reputations tend to hold true. Overall, Harden ranks last among the trio with .93 PPP (points per possession) allowed to his man, ranking him 329 in the league. Kobe and Wade, with .84 and .79 PPP allowed respectively, rank much higher.
Many of Harden's problems come from spot-up shooters, where he allows 1.08 PPP, 8% worse than Kobe's mark on spot-ups and 30% worse than Wade's. With his inability to put a hand up to contest jumpers, Harden is hurting the Rockets and not helping his cause to be the top shooting guard in the league.
All in all, Wade appears to be the top defender of the three. He's playing in a good scheme for him, and it's clear that not having to carry the load offensively is helping his defense last into his 30's. Harden and Bryant, both asked to carry heavier loads on the offensive end, are sometimes struggling to bottle up their marks.
When it comes down to it, the race appears to be between Wade and Harden for the top shooting guard in the league. Wade has been excellent on both ends of the court, but if he were asked to carry as heavy a load as Harden offensively, I can't imagine he would excel to the same degree defensively. That's why I predictably choose Harden as the top shooting guard in the league.
The case could be made for any one of the three, but Harden's unbelievable offensive game carries him past Wade and Kobe for the win. With Harden being just 23 years old and the other two into their thirties, it seems like the top shooting guard throne is Harden's to keep for the foreseeable future.