It's hard to overstate the offensive excellence of James Harden, who is playing the best basketball of his life and is locked in as this season's MVP.
But Houston Rockets head coach Mike D'Antoni did what he could to up the ante, telling Sam Amick of USA Today that Harden is "the best offensive player I've ever seen."
D'Antoni, 66, has seen a lot. So we can assume the scope of players included in his assessment is broad enough to cover anyone you'd think to mention for comparison's sake. And anyway, it's more fun to consider a proposition like this with an open field. It's a broad claim, so we might as well keep the parameters that way too.
Harden hasn't been around long enough to be a factor on cumulative, all-time stat lists. He's 17th among active players in total points and won't crack the overall top 100 until sometime next season. It seems best, then, to assume D'Antoni was talking about the version of Harden we're watching right now.
In light of Harden's season so far, D'Antoni's claim has some serious support.
At Home Among the Greats
The only other player to match Harden's average of 31.2 points on 62.5 percent true shooting is Kevin Durant, who scored 32.0 points per game on 63.5 percent true shooting in his 2013-14 MVP season. It's a quick and dirty approach, but raw scoring volume and a measure of how effectively a player utilizes his attempts from the field and the foul line is as good a way to gauge a scorer's worth as any.
Stopping here would be a disservice to Harden, though, because he already has over 100 more assists than Durant managed in that 2013-14 season. So while it's not quite as simple as crediting Harden for creating a bunch of extra points and giving him the clear nod over KD and that monster 2013-14 campaign, we do get an illustration of what makes Harden so special.
He doesn't have to put the ball in the hole to destroy a defense.
Dig around a little, and you'll find several other pieces of evidence that show Harden is performing like one of the best offensive players ever.
For example, Stephen Curry posted an offensive box plus-minus (an estimate of the offensive points per 100 possessions a player contributed above a league-average player) of 12.4 in his unanimous MVP season two years ago. That's the highest figure ever recorded, and Russell Westbrook, last year's MVP, comes in second at 10.9. Harden is on track to record a 10.2—historically awesome, but not the best ever.
If the production alone isn't enough to get Harden into clear "best ever" territory, the unique means by which he achieves that production help get him closer.
No one has ever averaged 10 attempts per game from the foul line and the three-point line in a season. Harden is on track to be the first. In addition to establishing a new style of offense, he's also mastering an old one by becoming the most dominant isolation threat in the league.
In the three years of play-type data available on NBA.com, no one matches Harden's isolation frequency (33.3 percent) or points per play (1.24). In fact, nobody's even close.
Some of the more narrowly sliced numbers are flat-out sick:
There's also the matter of Harden's tactical evolution to consider. He's consistently added wrinkles to an already expansive offensive game—becoming the post-Manu Ginobili perfecter of the Eurostep a few years ago, drawing contact in ways that forced the NBA to tweak its definition of a shooting foul and adding a step-back three-pointer (in bulk) that renders him unguardable to defenders rightly terrified of those first two weapons.
Eras and the Subjectivity Problem
A critic could argue that part of Harden's statistical case suffers because we're currently in the midst of the best offensive season in NBA history. That a rising tide of points and scoring efficiency skews things in his favor.
But it's hard to penalize a guy who best exemplifies the reason offense is exploding. He's thriving in space, shooting tons of threes, drawing fouls and basically never taking low-expected value shots. Harden isn't a product of the way offense has changed. He's more like the driving force behind the change itself.
Still, subjectivity—whether attached to era, specific team situations, coaching, style or skill sets—counts for a lot in a discussion like this. It's not as simple as throwing out catch-all metrics and calling it a day. D'Antoni said Harden was the best offensive player he'd ever seen, not the best he'd ever determined through rigorous analytical study, double-blind taste tests or whatever else.
He's basically done what all of us have done this year, albeit from a closer vantage point: watched Harden bury defenses that don't have an answer for him.
Maybe it's ironic, then, that there might not be an answer to this question—one which necessarily includes several others.
Is Harden really tougher to stop than Wilt Chamberlain?
If Michael Jordan played in a three-crazed era, would he have been even more dominant?
What about Curry, who altered shot norms and ushered in the three-ball revolution before Harden?
What about LeBron James, whose contributions go so far beyond the box score as to be almost metaphysical?
Good luck sorting those out.
First Is Best
It should be enough that D'Antoni can say what he said, and the initial reaction has to be: "Well, that seems reasonable. Better look into it."
Even if we're not going to get clear proof that Harden is the best offensive player D'Antoni or anyone else has ever seen, maybe that's not the point. Maybe we should focus instead on how he's forced himself into the conversation in such a novel way.
Harden borrows from the sheer physical strength of dominant big men like Chamberlain, incorporates the "stare down and destroy" mentality of predatory isolation guards like Jordan, fires away from great distances like Curry, controls and facilitates like Nash. The ingredients are all in there.
That's basically what D'Antoni said in his extended explanation:
"There are other players who might be better at this, or a little bit better at that. But when you put everything together, and the way he passes, the way he sees teammates, the way he can lob, the way he can fight through a foul. I mean even on an off night, he’s probably getting 30, 40 points, and I mean efficiently. And he doesn’t even have anything going."
If Harden's not the best to ever do it, he's the first to do it like this. And that counts for something.