That's certainly a pretty stellar place for a 24-year-old shooting guard to find himself in, but it's not good enough. Not when Dwyane Wade is in the top 10.
When Kevin Durant was interviewed by CineSports' Noah Coslov, he said that Harden needed to be in the top 10. And the man he should replace? That would be Wade.
Of course, in this information age where everything that gets said and done goes viral, the story took off. Wade responded with a handwritten note on his Instagram account.
And then Durant tweeted right back at him.
Show me don't tweet me..— Kevin Durant (@KDTrey5) September 25, 2013
So, who's right? I'm not particularly worried about whether they fall in the overall top 10 or not, but which dynamic shooting guard is better?
Case for Harden
If you want a player to produce offense both in volume and efficiently, then Harden is your man. Although Wade is by no means a slouch in the offensive department, he's clearly inferior to the bearded 2-guard who has quickly taken the league by storm.
From Harden's first outburst with the Houston Rockets, we knew that he was going to be special. In that game against the Detroit Pistons, he debuted on the road with 37 points and 12 assists.
But the next game is seared into my brain. I had to witness him take down the Atlanta Hawks to the tune of 45 points and two assists on just 19 shots from the field. That's an insane level of efficiency, and it's a more impressive scoring output than anything Wade has produced.
The closest the Miami Heat superstar has come to matching it was in 2006 when he recorded 42 points on 20 shots against the Golden State Warriors. In a loss.
But one game obviously isn't enough proof. Fortunately, we have an entire treasure trove of data, thanks to Synergy Sports (subscription required). Below you can see the points per possession that each shooting guard produced in all major situations:
That doesn't leave much room for doubt, does it?
Harden thrives as a scorer, and he's just more effective than Wade at putting the ball in the basket. Unless we're talking about post-up plays, he reigns supreme over his 2-guard counterpart across the board.
My pure scoring metric tells the same story after accounting for how shots were created. To make a long story short, it only gives players half credit for shots they made that were assisted, and it also incorporates team offensive rebounding where necessary.
Wade finished the 2012-13 campaign with a score of 8.99, which left him ranked No. 11 among all qualified players. And yet, Harden still left him in the dust, finishing fourth with a score of 13.26.
Even though the ranks are fairly similar, that's a massive difference.
The Heat shooting guard does make up some of the difference with his superior passing skills and ability to maintain control of the rock and minimize turnovers, but not enough to take the lead as an offensive player.
Quite frankly, it's still not even close.
Also working in Harden's advantage is his role on the Rockets.
Even though Dwight Howard has joined the Houston squad thanks to the recruiting prowess of General Manager Slim Thug Daryl Morey, this is still the bearded man's team. He calls the shots on the court, and all the plays are going to run through him.
Howard will ease the defensive pressure because teams can't afford to leave him alone in the paint, and his rolling skills will make it even easier for Harden to thrive in the Rockets' pick-and-roll-heavy system. He's just the perfect complementary player.
Additionally, everything that Houston does fits in perfectly with Harden's skill-set.
Kevin McHale's offense is comprised almost solely of three-point tries and shots at the rim, the two areas from which the shooting guard truly excels. Harden looks off mid-range shots whenever possible, and that's what he's asked to do for Houston.
Wade can't say the same thing.
Although he's become a remarkably efficient offensive player, he's still clearly taking a backseat to LeBron James. The Heat only took that proverbial next step when Wade was willing to become the beta dog instead of the alpha dog, and it's tough for him to win this competition as a result.
While plays are still run for Wade, he's quite obviously a secondary option in Erik Spoelstra's offense. LeBron won't hesitate to look him off if there's a better play to be made.
When thinking about roles, I like to turn to NBA 2K13's "My Career" mode and think about what happens when you call for the ball. Once you're established, your teammates won't question your decision and will do everything possible to feed you the rock. But as a rookie, it's tough for that button to work properly.
This basic principle applies to the NBA as well.
If Carmelo Anthony called for the ball, the New York Knicks would give it to him. Even if he were sitting on the bench at the time. But if Kendrick Perkins called for a possession while standing wide open under the basket, the Oklahoma City Thunder might still laugh at him.
Harden is in the same category as 'Melo. He has complete control over the Houston offense, and his decision-making trumps everything else.
Wade used to be up in that group, but not since LeBron took over South Beach.
When two players are separated by this little, that's a big deal.
Case for Wade
Defense is Half the Battle
The saying "defense wins championships" is a faulty one (there's a tremendous chapter in Tobias J. Moskowitz and L. Jon Wertheim's "Scorecasting" about this), but it's not like defense isn't important. In fact, here's how that chapter closes:
But the bottom line is this: Defense is no more important than offense. It's not defense that wins championships. In virtually every sport, you need either a stellar offense or a stellar defense, and having both is even better. Instead of coming with the "defense wins championships" cliche, a brutally honest coach might more aptly, if less inspirationally, say: "Defense is less sexy and no more essential than offense. But I urge it, anyway."
Defense, put simply, is half the battle. Nothing more, and certainly nothing less.
And just the fact that it accounts for 50 percent of the on-court evaluation works in Wade's favor rather significantly.
Below you can find another points-per-possession breakdown courtesy of Synergy, this time showing how many points the two shooting guards allowed in each major situation:
It might surprise you that Harden stayed close in many categories and even came out on top in some. But don't let it fool you.
Wade's decline as an individual defender has been the result of a changing role, not an eroding set of skills. He's fully bought into the Heat's defense-by-committee approach to the less glamorous end of the court, and it's working.
He's gambling more often than ever before, knowing that—more often than not—the swarming and suffocating Heat defense will pick up the slack if the gamble fails. He's willing to leave his own man to play help defense when that's more advantageous for his team.
While that's resulted in a lesser set of individual numbers, it's helped the Heat allow 3.5 fewer points per 100 possessions when Wade is on the court, according to Basketball-Reference. On the flip side, the Rockets allowed an additional 4.2 points per 100 possessions when Harden played.
I'd talk more about the bearded 2-guard's point-preventing prowess, but that would be illogical. After all, it's simpler to do what he does and treat defense like it doesn't exist.
Wade is the Incumbent
Don't overlook the fact that Wade is the established stud in the debate. It's Harden who is attempting to dethrone Wade, and not the other way around.
For about a decade now, Wade and Kobe Bryant have been the class of the position. They're the ones who have done battle and gone head-to-head for the right to be called the No. 1 player at the 2.
Let me put it a different way.
See that picture of Wade posing with the Larry O'Brien Trophy? Does Harden have anything similar?
Last I checked, there was no hardware on Harden's mantle other than the Sixth Man of the Year award that he won with the Oklahoma City Thunder. And he's no longer with the Thunder, nor is he coming off the bench to do his damage.
In legal circles, the Latin phrase "semper necessitas probandi incumbit ei qui agit" sometimes pops up. The best translation I can provide reads "the necessity for proof always rests with he who levies the charge."
It's essentially the "burden of proof" statement.
That undoubtedly applies here because Wade is the established player at the position. It's Harden who is attempting to shake things up, and he must definitively prove his superiority through a preponderance of evidence before it's assumed.
The burden of proof is on Harden, and that makes his job even tougher.
Unfortunately, this still isn't an easy decision. And it's not aided by any head-to-head matchups either, as B/R's Ethan Skolnick makes perfectly clear with this tweet:
In 2 Rockets/Heat games last season: Wade 37.5 mpg, 25.0 ppg, 48.4%, 5.5 rpg, 7.5 apg. Harden 40.5 mpg, 29.0 ppg, 47.2%, 7.5 rpg, 6.0 apg.— Ethan J. Skolnick (@EthanJSkolnick) September 25, 2013
The margin between the two is paper-thin, and it could change at any point during the 2013-14 campaign. Should one of the players enjoy a hot streak while the other goes cold, we could be in for a mix-up at the top of the shooting-guard rankings (and let's not forget about Kobe either).
Who belongs higher in the rankings going into the 2013-14 season?
Going into the season, though, Harden has indeed presented that necessary preponderance of evidence. His offense has just become that good, and it helps that he's going into his second season as a featured player.
Historically, that has come with an uptick in defensive performance thanks to the player in question growing more accustomed to exerting so much energy on offense. Any uptick would be enough for Harden to seal the deal in the competition with Wade, especially since the aging shooting guard isn't going to be featured as heavily in 2013-14.
The beard doesn't hurt either.
Harden has numerically pulled even with Wade right now, and given the non-statistical factors like responsibility and role on the team, he's ever-so-slightly ahead of his fellow shooting guard. But it's clear that he's still well on the rose, so expect the disparity to grow throughout the year.