Kevin Durant has a point.
Entering the 2013-14 NBA season, we can take a number of things to the bank. The Boston Celtics are tanking no matter what Danny Ainge says. Defense is still a part of the game despite what the Los Angeles Lakers' roster looks like. And James Harden is a better shooting guard than Dwyane Wade.
That last one has already caused quite an uproar. Sports Illustrated unveiled their top 100 players leading into 2014. Upon being informed that Harden checked in at No. 11—three spots behind Wade at No. 8—during an interview with CineSports' Noah Coslov, Durant wasn't the happiest camper.
“I think you’re missing on James Harden,” Durant said politely.
Asked who Harden should replace on the list, he replied "Dwyane Wade," without batting an eye.
Because the NBA is like a small community that feeds off of gossip, word of Durant's assertion reached Wade. The three-time champion responded via his Instagram account, posting a picture of handwritten note.
“Kevin Durant said James Harden should replace me in the top 10… Note to self: Make him respect your place in history… again … “
In response to Wade's rebuttal, Durant hit Twitter with some thoughts of his own.
“Show me, don’t tweet me," he wrote.
It didn't end there either. During an interview with Comcast SportsNet Houston, Harden was asked whether he thought he was a top-10 NBA player.
“For sure,” Harden replied. “For sure. Last year I got a chance to prove it, I kind of broke out of the shell a little bit. Even though it was my first year [as a starter], I’ve got a lot more to prove."
Harden's right, he is a top-10 player. He has a lot more to prove as well. But Durant is right, too. Right now, at this very moment, Harden is better than Wade.
Dwyane Wade Isn't Dwyane Wade.
Keep the hater comments to yourself if you have them, because I'm not budging.
Wade isn't Wade. Not the Wade of old. He's closer to just plain old. And I don't care that he underwent the same OssaTron shockwave treatment he had in 2007. Some things there just aren't a cure for, and age is one of them.
Pushing 32, Wade can't be held to the same standard anymore. It's not that he isn't good or even great. I'd list him as a top-15 player without thinking twice. And I'd even entertain a top-10 finish as long as he wasn't in front of Harden.
Wade was quick to defend his place in "history," but that's not what we're here to discuss. There's no question he'll go down as one of the greatest shooting guards ever. But that has nothing to do with what Durant is talking about.
The past has no place in current arguments; Durant is under no obligation to wax nostalgic. Wade's 21.2 points, five rebounds and 5.1 assists on a career-high 52.1 percent shooting last season attest to how talented he still he is, but they don't negate everything else at play.
Age, injuries, poor postseason performance—those all take precedence as well. He was almost nowhere to be found during the playoffs. His 15.9 points per game were a career playoff low. LeBron James was left to guide the Miami Heat toward another title essentially on his own.
When taking the immediate future into consideration, that can't be ignored. The good and bad must both be taken into account, and to dismiss the Harden of today because of what Wade did yesterday is a great disservice to both players.
Appreciate Wade for who he is—a great player—not who he was. Don't make him out to be something, someone he's not.
Especially at the expense of someone else.
Wade's Lack of Advantages
Let's play the per-36-minutes numbers game:
Before guessing who's who, ask yourself which player you'd rather have on your team. Player Y is more efficient from the field overall, but Player X can hit the three. Everything else is so close it barely matters.
I'm going to assume the three-point percentages gave it away. Wade has never been much of a shooter and is clearly Player Y.
That he was able to keep pace with Harden (statistically) last season is something to tout. Harden became the fifth player in NBA history to average at least 25 points, four rebounds, five assists and 1.5 steals per game in a single season before his 23rd birthday.
In some ways, Wade deserves just as much credit as Harden. Most 30-something-year-olds with bad knees aren't going to keep pace with a 23-year-old prodigy who just inherited his own team and is playing at a historical pace.
Yet that's just the thing—its not going to get any better for Wade. Whereas Harden has yet to graze his ceiling, Wade, at best, will remain perched atop his. There's no room for upward movement.
Knowing that, Harden is put in a position of power. If he can rival Wade's best at only 32, he's going to have the edge leading into tomorrow. Not exceed; contend with.
Look at how the two matched up in win shares last season:
Harden had 3.2 more total win shares on a Houston Rockets team that won 21 fewer games than the Heat. It's not like Wade was absent enough to count for the difference, either. He appeared in 69 games to Harden's 78.
To which some will say: Wade plays next to LeBron; Harden was on his own. And to which I respond: That's the point.
Wade plays second fiddle to LeBron James and fewer minutes, and that 's not going to change. There's no advantage to be had in importance because he isn't the alpha dog. Even next to Dwight Howard, Harden still sits atop Houston's hierarchy.
As for offense, forget it. You saw the difference in win shares, and while Wade was more efficient last season, he doesn't shoot threes. Moving forward, that's only going to hurt him.
Part of what allowed Kobe Bryant to remain so effective prior to his injury was his shooting. And Wade isn't a good shooter. He's never shot above 32 percent from beyond the arc in his career. Attacking the rim isn't going to get any easier as times goes on. Harden's ability to knock down the three-ball in addition to attacking the rim gives him the edge as the more potent scorer.
Below you'll see the number of points Harden and Wade averaged per possession last season, courtesy of Synergy Sports (subscription required):
Harden has the advantage in just about every category. Again, Wade is more efficient overall, but Harden simply puts the ball in the basket more.
Which leaves Wade with defense, where he's most certainly better.
Per Synergy, he allowed 0.85 points per possession to Harden's 0.92. And while Harden made a 16th-ranked defense 4.2 points worse per 100 possessions when on the floor, Wade made Miami's ninth-ranked defense 3.5 points better.
But what other areas does Wade have the clear edge in? Scoring? No. Shooting? Nah. Playmaking, rebounding, facial-hair growing? Nuh-uh.
Remember, minor advantages (like the ones above) aren't really advantages for Wade. His PER has declined in three of the last four years; he himself is on the decline. Failure to indisputably distance himself from a rising stock puts him in a deficit, even if he is slightly ahead, because we must take into account potential.
No matter what has already happened, or where Wade has the edge, Harden's stock is on the rise while his is at more of a standstill.
Just look at the pair's percent differences in major statistical categories between 2011-12 and 2012-13:
Where Harden's output jumped dramatically, Wade's dipped significantly in most cases. And where Wade improved, it was nowhere near the degree to which Harden.
Wade still has Harden in one spot—defense. That's not likely to change next season. Kind of like everything else for Wade. What we've seen is the best we'll get; he's not going to get better.
Therein lies his downfall in this matchup.
I could string off a series of other statistics that prove my point. Numbers don't tell the entire story, though, and after awhile, can become so jumbled they resemble some morphed form of binary code.
Thus, I urge us all to take the numbers out of the equation for one second. Loyalties, too. What evidence is there, then, to suggest that Wade, going on 32 and operating on a set of fragile knees, will be better than a spry 24-year-old superstar just entering the prime of career?
To this point, Wade has been the better shooting guard. His reputation and longevity speak for themselves.
But this isn't about who has been the better shooting guard thus far. Or historical context. Or reputations. Or championship rings. This is about the here and now. And right now, Harden is better.
Youth is king in a league where age causes decline. There's no shame in admitting that. It doesn't take away from what Wade has done or what he can still do.
All it does is acknowledge incoming greatness beats out a fading legend.