But when the knockout blow finally came for the Black Mamba—a torn Achilles tendon—writing an article proclaiming James Harden as the league's top shooting guard instantly became both easier and more difficult.
Despite the Lakers' struggles, Bryant has had a marvelous season by any standard. There were many times when he didn't just turn back the clock—he reset it. It breaks my heart to see such a cruel ending to such superlative play.
As tough as Kobe talked after the injury, saying in a surprisingly vulnerable post on Facebook (via The Washington Post) that "today is NOT" the last day of his basketball career, the minimum recovery time after his successful surgery is six to nine months (via The Huffington Post).
Kobe will be facing major and grueling rehabilitation. Even if he were to come back, he'll be 35, an age at which even skills as preternatural as his would likely begin to erode. Moreover, he will have nothing really left to prove.
For these reasons, Kobe may yet elect to retire, and no one could blame him if he did.
My point is, a discussion about the best shooting guard in the NBA could be seen as being in poor taste after this unfortunate turn of events. It is not in any way meant in that spirit. Therefore, I will include Kobe in our conversation. I'll also refer to him in the present tense: in other words, "scores" versus "scored."
There are many top-drawer candidates—Manu Ginobili, Joe Johnson, Andre Iguodala, etc.—but three stand head and shoulders above the rest:
Let's discuss aspects of the game and decide who's superior in each.
First, the statistics: all will be per 36 minutes, to put everyone on a level playing field.
The stat most fans care most about is points. Bryant is averaging 25.5 points per 36 minutes; Harden, 24.4; Wade, 21.9. That gives Kobe just a slight advantage over Harden, but not nearly enough to declare victory, since, for example, Harden takes 3.4 fewer shots per game than Bryant.
A more telling analysis would be to consider true shooting percentage.
Let's start with conventional shooting percentage. Wade has by far the best, at .519. Kobe is at .463; Harden is at .439. Of course, this stat is misleading, because Wade only takes one three-point shot per 36 minutes. Kobe takes 4.9; Harden, 5.8.
If you factor in three-point shooting, it virtually eliminates Wade from the discussion. A subpar long-distance shooter his entire career, Wade has a three-point shooting percentage of .258. Kobe's is .324. Harden's is a sparkling .372.
The final aspect of true shooting percentage is the ability to get to the line. Bryant is able to draw 7.5 attempts per 36. Wade is at 6.2. Harden, who has put a premium on this aspect of his game, draws 9.5.
Lots of fans express their discontent about it, but free-throw shooting counts, pure and simple. It's not the most exciting part of the game, to be sure, but drawing fouls is an art, and Harden has mastered it. Moreover, Harden hits his free throws at an .860 clip. Kobe is just behind at .839, and Wade comes in third at .737.
When all those factors are combined, we have the following true shooting percentages:
Harden: .604 Wade: .571 Bryant: .570
Harden has the clear advantage.
Other Offensive Contributions
Many of the other categories are too close to declare a clear-cut leader. One-tenth of a percentage point separates Harden and Bryant in both assists and turnovers, and both have the exact same number of offensive boards per 36 minutes.
So for the rest of the offensive contribution, it's probably best to consider player efficiency rating (PER).
PER essentially sums up all a player's positive accomplishments, subtracts the negative accomplishments and returns a per-minute rating of a player's performance. The three are bunched together: Wade's PER is 23.87, Harden's is 23.20 and Bryant's is 23.09. Wade has a slight edge.
Another way to compare the trio is with offensive rating. This complex stat measures points 'produced' per 100 possessions. Using this metric, Harden wins hands down: His rating of 116.9 dwarfs Bryant's 112.1 and Wade's 111.7.
Personally, I consider both true shooting percentage and offensive rating to be more accurate indicators of offensive mastery than points per game and player efficiency rating, so I give the edge to Harden. Offensively, I consider Harden to be the premier shooting guard in the league.
Defense is tougher to quantify. It's something you best get a sense of by watching. I'm going to throw up some statistics, but at best this category is still subjective.
Harden is in no way known for his defense. In point of fact, he has been much maligned for his lack of prowess in this area: His intensity is there, but too often he splits his attention, trying to outthink his man. This approach works wonders for him on offense, but on defense it results too often in uncontested jumpers and an overall chaotic defensive approach.
I have at times been among those maligning Harden's defense. However, it helps the Beard's case that none of the three contenders considered are elite defenders at this point in their careers.
There is no question who wins in certain areas. Wade, always a good shot-blocker for a guard, has a blocking percentage of 1.8, compared to 1.0 for Harden and 0.6 for Bryant.
If, however, you consider the defensive-plays stat (via ESPN)—that is, steals plus blocks plus charges—Wade's lead is narrowed. Wade's score is 2.66, but Harden is right behind him at 2.49. Kobe is a distant third, at 1.73.
If you look at defensive rating (via Real GM)—the expected amount of points a player will allow over 100 possessions—the order remains consistent: Wade is at 103.2, Harden follows with a 106.3 rating, and Bryant brings up the rear at 107.9.
It appears that any way you stack it up, Harden finishes second defensively.
There are few statistical measurements for overall performance. One of the handful, floor impact counter (FIC), gives Bryant the nod with a 1,269.75 score, followed closely by Harden at 1,237.75. Wade trails with a 1,000.25 rating (via Real GM). My problem with this rating is that it treats all aspects of the game equally, and I don't personally value them equally. For example, I'm not looking to my shooting guard to block a huge number of shots.
Overall, I gave Harden the nod on offense, with Wade coming in second. Defensively, Wade is first, followed by Harden. However, Harden to me is significantly ahead offensively. The difference is much less clear cut on offense.
Now we factor in intangibles. Kobe is already in third place according to the metrics I consider most telling, without considering his injury and age.
Though his salad days are clearly behind him, Wade is just 31. I will admit that after the hammering Wade took during his rookie season, and the injuries he sustained in the 2006-07 and 2007-08 campaigns, I doubted he would be as durable as he has been.
However, Wade has played nearly three times as many minutes in his career as Harden.
Further, because of their ages, it's certainly reasonable to assume that both Wade and Bryant have hit their ceilings. Considering that Harden is an odds-on favorite to win most improved player, it's also reasonable to assume Harden can still elevate his game to an even higher level.
For all these reasons, I have to conclude that Harden has assumed the position of top shooting guard in the NBA. I only hope he will continue to be as worthy of the title as Messrs. Wade and Bryant have been.
And I sincerely hope Kobe gives us reason to revisit this topic again a year or two from now.