Americans have a love affair with top-10 lists.
Google "top 10" and you'll find more than just songs and movies. Everything and anything is ranked from one to 10. Top 10 most beautiful celebrities. Top 10 news stories of the year. Top 10 ways glasses will help in a zombie attack. (You won't see that one on Letterman anytime soon.)
In the NBA, though, being one of the league's top 10 talents carries weight and substance. To fans, it means your team always has a chance not only at winning it all, but at landing the league's top free agents—because everybody wants to be on a team with a top-10 player. To players, it can mean more salary, more exposure, more endorsements and more money—often much more.
Let's consider the question objectively first with a look at the facts.
Harden is fifth in the league in points per game, 24th in assists per game. Among shooting guards, only Kobe Bryant has as many double-doubles (4) as Harden. And one more thing: For those of you who think Harden doesn't play defense, he's ninth in steals per game and even blocks the occasional shot, as the video below attests.
Conversely, Harden's field-goal percentage and three-point percentage were the lowest of the top five.
Still, overall, it's mighty impressive for a player in his first year as a starter.
Now, let's go deeper and consider Hollinger stats.
In player efficiency rating (PER), Harden is eighth in the league. In estimated wins added, Harden is sixth, contributing 7.3 additional victories based on his performance. In value added, Harden is also sixth in the league.
In true shooting percentage (TSP), Harden is 28th—impressive considering that only LeBron James and Kevin Durant outrank Harden in both value added and PER. Also, of the top eight PER-rated players, Harden's assist ratio trails only those of Chris Paul and James.
What about on the minus side?
Look at the top eight players by PER and consider the percentage of each player's possessions that result in a turnover. Harden's average, though low by league standards, is the highest of the bunch. Harden is also second-to-last of the group in rebound rate.
Statistically at least, there is clearly a case to be made for Harden as a top-10 player.
Harden is a throwback in a lot of ways, but perhaps most of all because he understands the value of getting to the line, and exploits it with by far the most free-throw attempts of any of the top five scorers.
Save for a wide-open slam or layup, there is nothing more high-percentage than a free throw. The great players know this and milk the stripe for all the scoring it's got. Though the other four scoring leaders have played far more games than the comparatively young Harden, James has mastered this art, using his long arms to draw more contact than Megan Fox at rush hour on a Manhattan subway line.
In addition, though I don't advocate this style of play, Harden is doing this all with an assist percentage of 29, second among scoring leaders only to Kobe. Yes, it indicates that Harden is probably handling the ball more than he should, but it also demonstrates that he's making the most of his on-ball situations.
Granted, it's the job of a shooting guard to create his shot, but it's still impressive that Harden, again in his first year as a starter, creates his shot on the order of someone as accomplished as Bryant.
Watching Harden play, he has that ability to change speeds, which is almost always present in elite guards. He has an effective isolation game and is even more devastating coming off screens on a pick-and-roll. He also passes well, as you'll see from the video at right.
Just as important, Harden is unselfish and comes to play every night—qualities that cannot be underestimated.
Yes, he handles the ball too often, but slowly that role seems to be shifting toward a more even distribution between Harden and Lin. Harden cannot completely be faulted for this, since clearly he's been working within the confines of the offensive strategy the Rockets have in place.
What about the subjectives? That is, the gut feeling one gets watching Harden play?
For me, Harden's biggest drawback is the way he draws fouls. Watch this video and see how Harden careens into the lane—and into other bodies—more often and with more momentum than most players I would consider top-10.
In addition to draining his energy and potentially shortening his career with increased risk of injury, Harden's sometimes out-of-control attacking makes him dependent on the referees, and I wouldn't depend on Joey Crawford for a stick of gum if he had a pocketful of Fruit Stripe.
Harden would be well served to perfect a mid-range jumper. Logic says Harden, a generally good outside shooter, possesses the talent to master the pull-up jump shot. He's shooting 25 percent from 10-15 feet and in fact rarely even attempts this shot.
Harden is not alone in lacking a mid-range game as a part of his arsenal—since Reggie Miller retired, it's a bit of a lost art—but Harden seems perfectly suited to bury pull-ups, giving him an effective alternative to taking one on the chin. He'd lower his turnovers, lessen his chances of injury and drastically increasing his unstoppable-ness (let's just pretend that's a word).
Plus, the mid-range jump shot would absolutely solidify Harden as the NBA's throwback leader. Until, that is, someone brings back the sky hook.
Other than those two areas, though, I can't find many holes in Harden's game and in his skill set.
Okay, okay, you say. So is he top-10 talent?
I guess the best way to answer that is, who would you choose over him around which to build your team? After all, that's what one does with elite talent—and that's how championships are won.
Disregarding attitude, Carmelo Anthony would beat out Harden, as would James and Durant. Dwight Howard, even though he hasn't been the same in L.A., would almost certainly make the list. Let's say Kevin Love too, even though his shots aren't falling.
Point guards Deron Williams and Rajon Rondo, who by design won't beat out Harden on scoring, might edge him as franchise centerpieces. Derrick Rose certainly would, as would Chris Paul (thank you, @Johan).
Now who? Kobe Bryant is very iffy because of both his age and the massive amount of minutes he's logged. Ditto for Tim Duncan, Dirk Nowitzki, Kevin Garnett and Dwayne Wade. Greg Monroe's defense is still questionable, a concern in a big man. And statistically, Harden dominates former teammate Russell Westbrook.
Amazingly, that puts Harden tenth.
And if you disagree, name me another player who trumps Harden for scoring ability, skill set, team orientation and overall ceiling.
Even though Harden is just 23 years old, by this final, statistics-be-damned yardstick...yeah, he's top-10.
Which only leads one to wonder just how high on this list Harden can climb.
Stats are accurate as of 1/2/13.