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Is James Harden the greatest offensive player of all time?

James Harden is on a historic tear at the moment, which has caused the Houston Rockets general manager, Daryl Morey, to go on the record saying Harden is the greatest offensive player to ever play the game.

James Harden” by Keith Allison is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Obviously, this story has been the A-block for a lot of TV shows prompting a lot of questions. Is this simply an overreaction to his recent play? Are Daryl Morey and the mainstream media just prisoners of the moment? Does Harden truly matchup offensively to players such as Wilt Chamberlain, Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant? I will provide the answers to the above questions and more in the following paragraphs.

This topic became a big story about a week ago after Harden amassed 408 points over a 10-game span. The statistic that came from this storyline was that Kobe and Michael were the only two players to have scored 400+ over a 10-game span…in the last 30 years.

The reason that qualification has to be made is because Wilt Chamberlain AVERAGED over 50 points per game in the 1961 season. Simple logic tells you Wilt had 400+ over a 10-game span for probably most of that season. This is important to note because many statistics seen on ESPN or Twitter have qualifications such as “the last (blank) years” or “since this stat was tracked”. I believe those phrases are what makes us prisoners of the moment and have recency bias when it comes to players we watch now. By not comparing current players to every player from every era, it minimizes the comparisons and narrows people’s mindsets.

I do not think people are necessarily overreacting to Harden’s achievement. 408 points in 10 games is remarkable and he deserves all the credit in the world. The Houston Rockets started off horrendous and are now easily in the playoff picture and looking as scary as last season, all the while Chris Paul is still sitting on the bench.

The main reason for this turn around has been Harden’s historic offensive performances. Now to Daryl Morey. Having confidence and voicing his opinion of his best player to the world is absolutely what a general manager should be doing. If Morey truly believes Harden is the best offensive player of all time, which I believe he does, then why not make it public?

Morey is well-known for his statistics driven approach to running a basketball team. If you want to solely look at Harden’s offensive numbers in the regular season, a case can definitely be made for it. Including the 2018 season, his last four season’s points per game average are 29, 29.1, 30.4 and 33.9, respectively. To maintain those numbers over the course of four seasons is extremely challenging.

Which brings us to the final question: Offensively, is Harden in the same league, or even in a league of his own, when compared to Wilt, Michael and Kobe?

For me, the answer is a simple, no. But that does not mean he cannot be by the end of his career. James Harden is only 29 years old. I expect him to play at least 3-5 more years of high level ball and by then my answer may change. But, at this point he cannot be the greatest offensive player of all time.

In my opinion, the conversation is only between Michael Jordan and Wilt Chamberlain. A few statistics that support my opinion are scoring championships and points per game, both key offensive metrics. Even though Harden appears to be on track to run away with this season’s scoring title, he has only won it once before in the 2017 season. Wilt won the scoring title seven times and Michael won it 10 times. In terms of points per game, Harden’s career average is just under 23.6 and Wilt and Michael both retired with a 30.1 career points per game average.

Don’t get me wrong, James Harden and the Rockets have been must see TV the last two plus weeks, and I have tuned into every game just to watch Harden put on a show. He is unguardable this season and makes most defenders who try to guard him look dumb. He is my frontrunner for league MVP this season. With him leading this team, I believe the Rockets can and will make another push this year to dethrone the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference. And who knows, in 10 years maybe we will be looking back and confirming Daryl Morey’s belief that Harden is indeed the greatest offensive player of all time.

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2 Responses

  1. I totally agree with your assessment of Harden, and where he fits in the pantheon of great scorers. He is also benefitting from a very touchy-feely refereeing style in the modern game. But part of his legacy will be his ability to get maximum value out of the freethrows

  2. Joel Deering says:

    I agree that Harden is benefitting from a touchy-feely NBA, but he sure knows how to make the most of that!

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