The latest NBA Twitter debate is Houston Rockets-related, and it’s pitting two franchise greats against one another in James Harden versus Tracy McGrady. But a simple look at the careers of both players show that this shouldn’t even really be a debate. Harden is the better player, and it’s not particularly close.
I’ve been a Rockets fan since 1986. I’ve watched the careers of both very closely, and there’s simply no argument to be made for McGrady. None. Zilch.
Now you may like T-Mac better, and that’s okay. No one can police your personal preferences. McGrady was a star, there is no doubt, and he meant a lot to a generation of fans who grew up watching him play. There’s also plenty of people out there who dislike James Harden and would take Ryan Bowen over him in a popularity poll. None of this has anything to do with who the better player is/was, however. We’ll take a look a three different areas to make this determination: Numbers, team success, and intangibles.
First, the numbers. Since this is a prime vs. prime debate, we’re going to look at James Harden’s time with the Rockets, plus his Sixth Man of the year award year in Oklahoma City, so 8.5 seasons (would be nine at the completion of this year), and compare it to Tracy McGrady’s time as a starter in Houston (so eliminating the 2009-2010 season) along with his four years with the Orlando Magic (nine total seasons). That’s about as even a cross-section as you can get, encapsulating both player’s finest seasons, and eliminating their worsts. We’ll call it their “prime nine”.
Harden averages 28.4 points, 5.8 rebounds, 7.3 assists, 1.7 steals, 0.6 blocks, and 4.3 turnovers, while shooting 44.4 percent from the field and 36.3 percent from deep. He took an average of 18.7 shots per game over that time frame.
McGrady averages 25.8 points, 5.4 rebounds, 5.3 assists, 1.4 steals, 0.8 blocks, and 2.2 turnovers per game on 43.4 percent from the field and 34.1 percent from beyond the arc. He took an average of 21.5 shots per game over those nine seasons.
A few things stand out. For anyone out there saying Harden’s better scoring clip is simply the result of volume (and they’re out there, I’ve seen you), it’s important to point out that McGrady took an average of 2.8 more shots per game over Harden during their prime nine seasons.
Harden does take more threes, but McGrady’s never been a better three-point shooter than Harden. In fact, T-Mac is just a 33 percent shooter from deep for his career, which is well below average. Give T-Mac more triple attempts (if he played in today’s game), and what does that look like?
Secondly, the rebounding numbers. McGrady was a swingman, meaning he did spend some time technically in the front court at the small forward position, and he’s 6’8” to Harden’s 6’5”, but Harden owns a slight edge in the boards category. Rebounding can often be a result of effort, and we’ll have more on effort or lack thereof later on.
In addition, the only categories McGrady finished better than Harden is blocks and turnovers, and while a lot of categories are close, Harden holds a noticeable advantage in both points and assists.
In advanced metrics, Harden led the league in win shares five times during his prime nine, offensive win shares three times, offensive plus-minus three times and total box plus-minus twice. McGrady never led in total win shares, led in offensive win shares once, offensive plus minus twice and total box plus-minus once.
Harden's also won an MVP and finished runner-up three times. Neither has happened for T-Mac. The highest he’s finished was fourth.
For anyone out there screaming, “But the defense,” both McGrady and Harden finished their prime nine with defensive box plus-minus ratings of +0.9. T-Mac was a little better as a perimeter defender due to his quickness and athleticism, while Harden is better in the post due to his sturdiness and strength.
But it’s also important to note that McGrady played on better defensive teams than Harden throughout his career, which often artificially influences individual defensive metrics since that end of the court is so dependent upon full-team synergy and integration.
For instance, during T-Mac’s time as a Rocket, Houston finished 4th, 6th, 3rd, 2nd, and 4th in the NBA in defensive rating. Harden’s Rockets teams finished 16th, 13th, 8th, 7th, 3rd, and 13th. So if anything, the better team play on the defensive end likely propped up T-Mac’s defensive metrics just a smidge, not to mention, despite still carrying some flaws, Harden has blossomed into a truly elite defender in the post. Elite and defense have never been mentioned the same sentence as T-Mac in any capacity.
The major knock on McGrady is that he never made it out of the first-round of the playoffs. Harden takes a Twitter drubbing for his lack of playoff success as well, but it’s important to mention that even though Harden’s teams have lost three times in the first round as well, they’ve also made three Western Conference Finals appearances.
Meanwhile, the Rockets didn’t win their first playoff series since the mid-‘90s heyday until 2009, and that happened with McGrady on the bench with an injury and an offensive attack built around All-Star center Yao Ming.
In McGrady’s three playoff appearances with the Orlando Magic, they were swept out of the first round on two occasions. Harden’s teams have never been swept.
And while it is true that McGrady didn’t have a ton of support on those Magic teams, the mid-2000s Houston teams T-Mac piloted often had similar levels of talent to the versions Harden worked with.
McGrady played with Shane Battier, Luis Scola, Kyle Lowry, Carl Landry, Aaron Brooks Chuck Hayes, Dikembe Mutombo, Juwon Howard, and had a constant All-Star teammate in Yao Ming (though things were often disrupted by injuries to both players).
Harden has had more big-name teammates overall, particularly in Oklahoma City, but during his Rockets days, he’s never had more than one All-Star teammate on his team. Dwight Howard, Chris Paul, and Russell Westbrook have all played in H-town separately from another. All three missed a fair amount of time with injuries as well. The setup has been Harden and sidekick, similar to McGrady and his sidekick (Yao).
The 56-win team James Harden led to the Western Conference Finals in 2015 consisted of Harden, Howard, Trevor Ariza, Patrick Beverley, Donatas Motiejunas, Terrence Jones, Josh Smith, and Corey Brewer. Kostas Papanikolau played in 43 regular season games. Pablo Prigioni was getting legitimate postseason minutes at backup point guard.
Not much different than the 55-win McGrady-led team in 2008 that lost to the Utah Jazz in six games in the first round. They featured the Yao-McGrady combo, Battier, Scola, Mutombo, Landry, and Hayes, along with Rafer Alston, Bonzi Wells, Luther Head, Steve Novak and Mike James.
Compare the talent on those two teams. You can make a real argument the 2008 squad was deeper.
Harden took his teams further, more times, and often dealt with similar challenges in the ancillary talent and depth department (though not always, the 65-win 2018 squad ran deep).
The first intangible is availability. Harden’s been one of the NBA’s ironmen through most of his career. He went through a three-year stretch from 2014-2017 in which he missed just two games. For the prime nine period I looked at in this piece, Harden played in 668 of a possible 718 games. McGrady played in 587 out of a possible 738 games (20 more due to Harden’s COVID-19-shortened current season).
T-Mac was hurt, he was hurt often, and it often happened when the Rockets needed him the most. Harden is always on the court.
The second intangible is work ethic, and this is my single biggest beef with McGrady. McGrady was regarded as poor worker, a guy who was just floating by on talent. In fact, McGrady himself has admitted to lazy habits. Just check out this write-up from Slam back in 2011:
“‘I just wasn’t a great practice player,’ McGrady said. ‘I just wasn’t. I wasn’t,’ speaking at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in Boston two weeks ago. Jeff Van Gundy, who coached McGrady with Houston from 2004-07, and current Rockets general manager Daryl Morey, who traded McGrady in February 2010 to New York, both said McGrady’s tremendous ability led him to not always work hard.
McGrady doesn’t deny his talent affected how he played in practice . ‘That could be it,’ McGrady said. ‘I just think I could cruise through practice and still be effective. Some guys have to really go (all) out to really have an impact on practice. My ability was just I had God-given talent to where I could just cruise through practice and still be an effective practice player… I was inconsistent. Some days, I have really good (practice) days where I just go hard and a lot of days where like, ‘Uh,’ and I just go through the motions. But I work hard. But I’m just not the best practice player.’
McGrady’s contention is he worked hard individually, if not in practice, to become a star and someone who still could land in the Hall of Fame. But Van Gundy and Morey were critical of his overall work ethic.”
Can you imagine how great T-Mac could have been had he just put in a better level of work? He was really, really good, but he could have maybe been the greatest ever had he just put in the extra effort (and stayed healthy, of course). If we could see T-Mac with Kobe’s work ethic? That’s a top five player all-time.
Consequently, Harden is known for being a relentless worker. He practices as hard as anyone on the team, and is often seen immediately back on the court after games, hoisting up a few hundred shots to tighten up his stroke, particularly after losses or in games he’s struggled.
There’s been some rumors of beef between Harden and Howard (later uncovered to be mostly on a sulking Howard), and some chatter about butting heads philosophically with Chris Paul, but mostly, we hear how guys love playing with The Beard. Austin Rivers admitted to being shocked when he found himself enjoying playing in Houston so much, which was contrary to the shit some in the national media talked about Harden not being liked.
P.J. Tucker, Eric Gordon, and Russell Westbrook love it in H-town. Clint Capela did too, as did Trevor Ariza, Nene, and others. James Harden isn’t the only reason, but he sure is a big part of it.
Let’s not get it twisted, McGrady was a phenomenal player, a generation grew up idolizing him, he’s a basketball Hall of Famer, and one of the most notable players of the last decade. He’s just not on Harden’s level in numbers, individual or team accomplishments, nor in intangibles. I get that it’s fun to argue this stuff on Twitter; it’s part of what people enjoy about social media. But Harden’s simply a full tier above McGrady as player.
As a Rocket only, Harden is top two or three all-time (depending how you rank Moses Malone), while McGrady is somewhere between 5-10 (closer to 10 in my book), and that’s if The Beard never played another game in his career. He’s still got more to go.
Harden > McGrady. Debate over.