Are James Harden and Dwight Howard the Best 1-2 Punch in the NBA?

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistMarch 11, 2014

HOUSTON, TX - DECEMBER 08:   Dwight Howard #12 and James Harden #13 of the Houston Rockets greet each other during a timeout during the game against the Orlando Magic at Toyota Center on December 8, 2013 in Houston, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images)
Scott Halleran/Getty Images

James Harden and Dwight Howard have changed the Houston Rockets.

On the back of their superstar dyad, the Rockets aren't just contending for a championship. They're chasing totality.

"I think so," Chandler Parsons told's Fran Blinebury when asked if the Rockets were the league's best team. "We're playing well. "We don't think we're done. We're not getting arrogant or conceited or anything, but we think we can play with anybody and we've proved that this week."

"Yes. Yes," Harden echoed. "We are."

One would be hard pressed to argue otherwise at the moment, with the Rockets stringing together victories in bunches, positioning themselves within striking distance of the Western Conference's top spot.

At a time when the lines between confidence and arrogance are often blurred, Houston emits a certain bravado that is neither humble nor haughty. Leading that balance is Harden and Howard, who have not only thrust Houston into the No. 1 conversation but forged an alliance already toppling most others.

All one-two punches are not created equally. The partnership Houston houses is already great, maybe even the best.

There exists a top dog of twosomes, and the connection shared between Harden and Howard could be it.

Already Dominating

OAKLAND, CA - DECEMBER 13: James Harden #13 and Dwight Howard #12 of the Houston Rockets warm up prior to the game against the Golden State Warriors on December 13, 2013 at Oracle Arena in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and
Rocky Widner/Getty Images

Building a rapport is difficult, especially one like this.

Ball-dominating guards and athletically inclined big men cannot always shack up successfully. Last season proved as much when Howard struggled to coexist alongside Kobe Bryant with the Los Angeles Lakers.

Similar concerns presented themselves once Howard signed in Houston. But the fractured Bryant-Howard relationship was ego-based. Neither player was prepared to concede anything. Not their control, not their influence.

Identical issues don't exist in Houston, where the easy-going Howard meshes perfectly with the soft-spoken and ductile Harden. Theirs is a placid marriage immunized against the self-serving and problematic agendas that defined Howard's stay in Tinseltown.

Simply put, this is working. Really, really well.

Of all two-man combinations in the NBA, Harden and Howard rank 18th in minutes played together (1,727), which is more impressive than it actually seems. Harden and Howard have played alongside one another in 55 games this season, the fewest of any tandem in the top 20 of total minutes.

Broken down per game, Howard and Harden average 31.4 minutes of court time together, the fifth-most in the NBA. And when they're both on the floor, Houston outscores opponents by an average of 5.4 points, which is the sixth-best mark among all pairings who log at least 30 minutes per game.

Familiarity isn't an issue in Houston. Harden and Howard play together. A lot.
Familiarity isn't an issue in Houston. Harden and Howard play together. A lot.Bill Baptist/Getty Images

Frequency is important here. The best combinations are typically going to play together. A lot. And don't confuse "best" with statistically dominant. That's a different story.

Luol Deng and Kyrie Irving play over 30 minutes together, and the Cleveland Cavaliers are being outscored by 1.2 points per game in those situations. "Best" merely refers to a team's best players. How they jell is a different thing entirely.

In Houston's case, Howard and Harden are jelling quite nicely. They have the frequency and plus-ratings to prove it.

Stacking Up

Mar 7, 2014; Oakland, CA, USA; Golden State Warriors power forward David Lee (10) reacts after a dunk after a pass from small forward Andre Iguodala (9) against the Atlanta Hawks during the first quarter at Oracle Arena. Mandatory Credit: Kelley L Cox-USA
Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

We know that Harden and Howard are generating results, but just how good are those results?

Pretty darn fantastic.

Per-game plus-ratings can be misleading, which is why we turn to extrapolated analysis for additional clarity. Just like their per-game dominance, Harden and Howard's partnership stands the test of advanced analytics.

Of all two-man coalitions that have logged at least 1,200 minutes this season, Harden and Howard rank 20th in net rating; the Rockets are outscoring opponents at a rate of 9.8 points per 100 possessions with them on the floor. With 127 two-man combinations having reached the 1,200-minute benchmark, that puts them in the top-16 percentile.

Cracking the top 20 is an incredible accomplishment. Eighteen of the top 20 two-man lineups come from either the Indiana Pacers, Golden State Warriors, Miami Heat or Los Angeles Clippers. The Oklahoma City ThunderKevin Durant and Reggie Jackson (plus-10.4)—and Rockets are the only other two teams with a hat in the ring.

Howard and Harden are up there.
Howard and Harden are up there.Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

So while Howard and Harden's rating noticeably trails that of the best pairing—which is Andre Iguodala and David Lee (plus-16) right now—they've creeped into an exclusive club dominated by mostly four teams. And if we were to weigh playing time even more heavily, their standing would increase dramatically.

Only 23 duos have played 1,700-plus minutes this season. Harden and Howard's rating ranks fifth when boiled down to those parameters behind Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson (plus-10), Paul George and David West (plus-10.1), Curry and Lee (plus-11.4) and Lee and Thompson (plus-11.9). Of those top five, Harden and Howard check in third in total minutes played.

Even with added restrictions and filters, they don't finish atop the pack. But do they have to?

Still Pretty Darn Fantastic

Feb 12, 2014; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Rockets shooting guard James Harden (13) and center Dwight Howard (12) react after defeating the Washington Wizards 113-112 at Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports
Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

There is no exact science to answering the question at hand, no one measurement that can determine which one-two punch is the NBA's best, be it Harden or Howard or another doublet.

Minutes matter. Plus-ratings matter. So much matters.

Above all else, though, wins matter. And Harden and Howard have generated wins, otherwise the Rockets wouldn't be battling for a top-three playoff spot or have the San Antonio Spurs—who have the NBA's best record—in their sights.

Together, Howard and Harden have combined for 16.9 win shares, accounting for roughly 36.3 percent of Houston's total victories. Not every twosome can say the same.

Using the top 20 two-man lineups that have logged at least 1,200 minutes from before, here's how Howard and Harden's win-share total stacks up:

Only five of those pairings have totaled more win shares than Howard and Harden, even though 19 of them have "better" plus-ratings. One of those four—Durant and Jackson—are skewed, since Durant leads the league with 15.1 win shares, and the two total 18.4.

That's not balance. In fact, the Rockets and Clippers are the only two teams with multiple players finishing in the top 17 of win shares. There's that to consider, too.

What does it all mean?

A whole mess of something. 

Sep 27, 2013; Houston, TX, USA;  Houston Rockets shooting guard James Harden (13) and center Dwight Howard (12) pose for a picture during media day at Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports
Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Statistically, Howard and Harden aren't the best one-two punch in the NBA. And statistically, heralded duos, such as James and Dwyane Wade and Durant and Russell Westbrook, are disqualified from consideration because of playing time.

While that's not necessarily fair, balance is important. Harden and Howard continue cropping up whether we're analyzing frequency, plus-ratings or overall win totals. We can't discount that, just like we cannot discount what the two of them have done for Houston.

Howard is defense and offense. Harden is offense and offense and even more offense. Both are superstars, and they complement one another in attitude and play styles better than most.

The Rockets are contenders because of them. Parsons can call the Rockets the NBA's best team without sounding hyperbolic because of them.

In more ways than one, statistics cannot measure the impact they've had in Houston. It's an affect that doesn't trounce every other two-man amalgam, but it's one that comes pretty close.

So close that naming five other two-man bands better and more profoundly and statistically significant than them isn't possible.

*Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference and (subscription required).


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