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Is James Harden the Best Offensive Player of All Time?

Ryan Murphy

by Ryan Murphy in NBA Basketball

Mar 29, 2018 · 1:59 PM PDT

James Harden
James Harden has led the NBA in scoring in back-to-back seasons. Photo by David Santiago/Zuma Press/Icon Sportswire.
  • Mike D’Antoni has called James Harden the greatest offensive player he’s ever seen. Is he onto something or just on something?
  • How does Harden stack up with all-time greats like Michael Jordan and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar?
  • Is Harden a shoo-in to win his first NBA MVP award?

Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni raised eyebrows around the NBA recently when he declared that James Harden was the “greatest offensive player” he had ever seen. “The way he can pass and see the floor, get fouls, layups, floaters, maybe a lob, maybe out to the corner, he has so many weapons, and now he’s shooting those step-back threes, it’s impossible to guard him,” he gushed. “It’s impossible.”

That’s high praise coming from a man who’s coached Kobe Bryant, Carmelo Anthony, and Steve Nash, but is it actually true? Is the Beard really the GOAT?

It’s a simple question, but it requires a lot of research to answer. Luckily for you, we have WAY too much time on our hands, and have sifted through every imaginable metric to reach a definitive conclusion. As we did our research we eliminated Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson and other legendary stat stuffers from the 50’s and 60’s and focused instead on players that D’Antoni may have physically seen as a player or coach.

In Defense of Harden’s Offense

Before we dissect Harden’s game like a frog in a grade nine Biology class, it’s important to give him his due. The 28-year-old guard is leading the NBA in scoring, player efficiency rating, win shares, offensive win shares, and usage percentage, and is the unquestioned leader of a 61-win juggernaut. He’s broken more ankles this season than a pair of six-inch stilettos and will almost certainly be named the league’s MVP in June.

It feels good to get that out of the way. Now let’s slice and dice some numbers!

Scoring Average

Harden’s 30.7 points per game are tops in the NBA this season, but they’re a far cry from the lofty averages posted by Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant years ago. They even pale in comparison to the 32.9 PPG average established by four-time All-Star Bernard King in 1984-85.

Player Team Year Average
Michael Jordan Bulls 1986-87 37.1
Kobe Bryant Lakers 2005-06 35.4
Michael Jordan Bulls 1987-88 34.9
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Bucks 1971-72 34.8
Bob McAdoo Braves 1974-75 34.5

Since 1970, 15 different players have averaged more points per game than Harden is averaging in 2017-18.

Michael Jordan
Michael Jordan led his team in scoring 867 times during his career. Photo by mccarmona23 (Flickr) [CC License]

Win Shares Per 48 Minutes

Win Shares Per 48 Minutes is an all-in-one statistic that measures a player’s total contribution to his team’s win total. Harden presently leads the NBA in this category, but his .295 would rank a distant 15th all time. That doesn’t bode well for his GOAT candidacy.

Player Team Year Win Shares
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Bucks 1971-72 .339
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Bucks 1970-71 .325
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Bucks 1972-73 .322
LeBron James Heat 2012-13 .322
Michael Jordan Bulls 1990-91 .321

Effective Field Goal Percentage

Effective field goal percentage measures a player’s shooting from inside and outside the arc, and accounts for the fact that three-point shots are worth 50-percent more than two-point shots. It’s an especially handy metric for someone like Harden since he’s leading the NBA in three pointers made and taken.

Player Team Year Effective Field Goal %
DeAndre Jordan Clippers 2016-17 .727
DeAndre Jordan Clippers 2014-15 .710
DeAndre Jordan Clippers 2015-16 .702
Tyson Chandler Knicks 2011-12 .678
DeAndre Jordan Clippers 2013-14 .674

However, his relatively pedestrian .367 three-point percentage works against him in this instance, giving Harden a ho-hum effective field goal percentage of .540. Not only does that fall outside of the top ten marks of all time, it’s not even in the top 250. You know who is in the top 250? J.R. Smith, Chuck Person, and Dana Barros, thereby proving you can be a high-volume chucker and still have a historically good effective field goal percentage.

In fairness to Harden, 19 of the top 20 all-time leaders in effective field goal percentage are centers. The lone exception is Steph Curry, who posted an effective field goal percentage of .629 in 2015-16.

SOP Rating

Let’s put fancy stats aside for a moment and look instead at the three pillars of offense: scoring, offensive rebounding, and passing. We’ve combined all three into a single stat we’ll call SOP and have included below the top aggregate numbers since 1970.

Harden’s 2016-17 season is the sixth highest SOP of all time, and his current season cracks our top ten.

Here’s where it gets interesting. Unlike our other metrics, Harden actually does appear in our SOP rating. Multiple times, in fact. Harden’s 2016-17 season is the sixth highest SOP of all time, and his current season cracks our top ten. The Beard also achieved the 22nd highest SOP rating in NBA history in 2015-16 when he averaged 29 points and 7.5 assists and finished ninth in MVP balloting.

Player Team Year SOP
Tiny Archibald Kings 1972-73 46.9
Michael Jordan Bulls 1986-87 43.7
Russell Westbrook Thunder 2016-17 43.7
Michael Jordan Bulls 1987-88 42.6
Michael Jordan Bulls 1989-90 41.6
James Harden Rockets 2016-17 40.5
Allen Iverson 76ers 2005-06 41.0
Kobe Bryant Lakers 2005-06 40.8
Bob McAdoo Braves 1974-75 40.7
James Harden Rockets 2017-18 40.0
Michael Jordan Bulls 1992-93 39.8
Allen Iverson 76ers 2004-05 39.3
Tracy McGrady Magic 2002-03 39.3
LeBron James Cavs 2009-10 39.2
LeBron James Cavs 2007-08 39.0
LeBron James Cavs 2005-06 38.9
Russell Westbrook Thunder 2014-15 38.6
Kevin Durant Thunder 2013-14 38.2
Kobe Bryant Lakers 2006-07 38.0
George Gervin Spurs 1979-80 37.7

SOP is admittedly not a sophisticated metric, but it does a nice job of cutting through the clutter and focusing on the stats that matter most on offense. It also rewards players who excel at scoring and distributing the ball, hence the appearance of Nate “Tiny” Archibald, who led the league in scoring and assists in 1972-73.

LeBron James
Who did Mike D’Antoni say was the greatest offensive player of all time?!. Photo by Keith Allison (Flickr) [CC License]

Player Efficiency Rating

Player Efficiency Rating is a pace-adjusted metric that measures a player’s per-minute productivity. Unlike other stats we’ve discussed, it factors in positive accomplishments like field goals and free throws, as well as negative ones like missed shots and turnovers.

Player Team Year PER
Michael Jordan Bulls 1987-88 31.7
LeBron James Cavs 2008-09 31.6
Michael Jordan Bulls 1990-91 31.6
LeBron James Heat 2012-13 31.5
Steph Curry Warriors 2015-16 31.4

James Harden is leading the league with a 30.1 PER, but that number doesn’t even crack the top ten all-time. Part of the problem is that Harden is notoriously careless with the ball and has led the league in turnovers four times in the last six years.

Harden’s nonchalance with the rock knocks his career PER down a few notches and puts his GOAT status in serious jeopardy.

His nonchalance with the rock knocks his career PER down a few notches and puts his GOAT status in serious jeopardy.

Offensive Box Plus/Minus

Offensive Box Plus/Minus taps into a player’s box score data and his team’s overall performance to evaluate his contribution. It’s a particularly telling number since the player who finishes first in Offensive Box Plus/Minus also typically finishes in the top five in MVP Balloting.

Player Team Year Offensive Box Plus/Minus
LeBron James Cavs 2008-09 14.8
Dwyane Wade Heat 2009-10 11.3
Michael Jordan Bulls 1989-90 11.2
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Lakers 1976-77 10.9
Michael Jordan Magic 1990-91 10.7

Harden is second this season in Offensive Box Plus/Minus behind Curry, and his 9.7 mark ranks in the top ten all-time.

Is Harden the Greatest Offensive Player of All Time?

No. No he is not.

What was D’Antoni Thinking?

For starters, he was probably thinking he wanted to keep his job. D’Antoni saw what happened when Kevin McHale and Harden had a falling out two years ago, and understands the importance of aligning himself with his star player. He wasn’t contractually obligated to gush about Harden, but it was definitely in his best interest.

Will the Real GOAT Please Reveal Himself

It should come as no surprise that the greatest offensive player since 1970 is Michael Jordan. MJ’s list of career accomplishments is longer than Manute Bol’s inseam and includes ten scoring championships, six titles, six Finals MVPs, and five regular season MVP awards. Sure, his facial hair was a little underwhelming, but in every other respect he’s Harden’s superior.

We also have to give Kareem his due. The 7’2” Hall of Famer is the NBA’s all-time leading scorer and the progenitor of its most unstoppable and unblockable shot. He lacked Jordan’s charisma, but he was every bit as dominant during his prime.

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