Once, James Harden and Kevin Durant were only mentioned in the same sentence because they were on the same team, but now they've both become synonymous with offensive dominance.
Durant has long been the king of point-totaling. He's won the NBA scoring title for three consecutive years and has never averaged under 20 points per game during his career. The scary thing, though, is that he keeps getting better.
Unlike plenty of other scorers (Kobe Bryant, Carmelo Anthony), Durant doesn't just put points on the board, but does so efficiently. He's currently shooting a career-best from the field (52.5 percent) and from deep (40.2). His conservative conscience allows him to score just as much as most without taking nearly as many shots.
Just ask Kobe and Carmelo.
Bryant leads the league in scoring (29.8 points) and Anthony is a close second (29.3). But both attempt 21.8 shots a game. Durant (28.7 points) is a not-so-distant third to his counterparts, yet hoists up just 18.1 shots a night.
Enter James Harden.
The Durantula is lanky proof that scoring in excess without shooting in excess is not only plausible, but effective. Again, I point you to his three scoring titles. Harden spent three-years playing in his shadow, and in his first season with the Houston Rockets, it's become clear he subscribes to the same set of ideals.
Houston's bearded cornerstone is fourth in scoring (26.3 points), yet attempts just 17.7 shots a bout. That's fewer than Kyrie Irving (18.4), Russell Westbrook (18.6) and the ever-conscious LeBron James (18.3), all of whom total fewer points per game than he does.
How, though? How are Harden and Durant able to score the way they do without taking as many shots?
Is it their penchant for three-point shooting?
While I won't pretend either of them are strangers to shooting the three-ball, neither them of them are inside the top 10 of threes attempted or made per game.
No, it's their methods of attack.
They're at their best when they're dribbling through traffic and carving up defenses at the rim. Their athleticism, coupled with their agility and willingness to absorb contact—is key here, the "absorbing contact," especially.
Because that leads to free throws.
What has made Durant so great over his career? What has allowed him to win scoring titles without throwing 20 or more shots up per game?
Durant has never attempted fewer than five per game, and hasn't attempted fewer than seven a night in four years. Harden is following that same blueprint. The reckless manner in which he attacks the paint has him attempting a league-best 9.9 free throws per game.
Durant is currently third in free-throw attempts (8.8) behind Howard and Harden. In each of the three seasons he won the scoring title, he never finished outside the top five in that department.
Harden has already proved to have that same potential. It's not just that he's the primary offensive option on his team (finally), but that he's attacking in a manner similar to that of Durant. The free-throws and scoring jump from last season alone is enough to tell us that.
But while Harden is the same breed of shooter, can he dethrone the league's most potent scorer? Will he ever claim one or more scoring titles?
Far be it from me to say never, but I don't see it happening. Harden very well could win a scoring title, but not three consecutively.
Because Houston's dynamic won't allow it.
Though the Oklahoma City Thunder have called on Durant to become more of a facilitator, he doesn't need to be a team-serving catalyst as much as Harden does.
Yes, Durant's 4.2 assists a night are a career high, but so are Harden's 5.3.
Remember, Durant plays alongside a trigger-happy point guard and prolific scorer in Russell Westbrook, yet still manages to get off more shots a game than his former teammate. Harden—though the Rockets' primary scorer—is also expected to be a leading distributor. Houston doesn't have a point guard who can dish out eight or more assists consistently (not even Jeremy Lin).
No matter how much Durant is leaned upon to further the production of his teammates, Harden (in Houston) will always be depended upon more.
Theoretically, Harden's playing style and offensive tendencies suggest he is capable of stealing the scoring crown from Durant, and he is.
But will he?
Realistically, no. Not as long as he's a combo guard who can score like Durant, but is tasked with deferring to others like a point guard.
In this case, though, knowing Harden is capable of scoring at that level, knowing he is a comparable scorer to that of Durant, is enough.
More than enough.
*All stats in this article are accurate as of January 16, 2013.