James Harden vs. Kobe Bryant: Who's Higher on the All-Time SG List?

Andy Bailey@@AndrewDBaileyFeatured ColumnistAugust 9, 2019

HOUSTON, TX - DECEMBER 12:  James Harden #13 of the Houston Rockets and Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers wait on the court during their game at Toyota Center on December 12, 2015 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

There's a fairly significant (and often vocal) segment of NBA fans that will entertain no argument for "top two shooting guards in NBA history" unless it reads: Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant.

But there may be some arguments for 2s like Dwyane Wade (check out this comparison), Clyde Drexler (and this one) and current perennial MVP candidate James Harden.

Now, there's a line of thinking that basically goes: "You can't compare those numbers because Kobe's first couple and last few years dragged down his career marks. Look at his peak."

That's fair. Kobe's peak was wild. And it lasted a long time. There's a reason he's widely regarded as one of the best of all time. And it's not just his rings.

But in a blind statistical poll, free of context, James Harden's 10-year career walloped Kobe's 10-year peak:

And the gap was even greater when five-year peaks were used:

The obvious retorts from Kobe backers are:

  • Five rings to zero; and
  • Defense!

Those are both fair. But they may ignore context as thoroughly as those polls did. Kobe won his first three titles with one of the most dominant bigs in the history of basketball. Prime Shaquille O'Neal was about as close to unstoppable as any player we've seen. He's 19th all-time in career box plus/minus.

Pau Gasol wasn't bad, either. He's 49th all-time in the same stat. And though he was never as dominant as Shaq, his skill from the low and high posts was a critical component of Kobe's last two titles. Pau led the 2008-09 Los Angeles Lakers in box plus/minus and the 2010 squad in playoff box plus/minus.

Of course, Harden just spent the last two seasons with Chris Paul, one of the most statistically dominant players ever (fifth all-time in career box plus/minus and fourth in career win shares per 48 minutes). But few would argue Harden caught CP3 at his peak, though he was still quite good in Houston.

For defense, it's not enough to simply say reputations may not be a perfect representation of either player. We'll need an entire category for that end of the floor.

The same goes for scoring, playmaking and accolades.

Deep breath...here goes.

   

Scoring

LOS ANGELES, CA - OCTOBER 28: James Harden #13 of the Houston Rockets shoots over Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers at Staples Center on October 28, 2014 in Los Angeles, California.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by do
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

Harden is athletic and strong and has good size for his position, but he's probably not at the very top of the list of all-time shooting guards in any of those attributes. 

Whatever he lacks there, though, he more than makes up for with on-court intelligence, timing and cleverness.

Yes, that's partially a reference to the free throws. And, yes, the parade of free-throw attempts in many of his games isn't aesthetically pleasing to everyone, but that's the most efficient place to score. And Harden's ability to get there is absolutely a skill.

"James Harden is spectacular at drawing fouls, perhaps the greatest in the history of the sport," The Ringer's Rodger Sherman wrote. "He has led the NBA in free throws attempted in each of the past four seasons and five of the past six."

That stat was published in May of last year. And we can now say he's led the league in attempts in each of the past five and six of the past seven.

In those seven seasons, Harden has averaged 10.2 free-throw attempts per game. And his free-throw percentage in that span is 86.1. That's around 1.7 points per possession (if we estimate that a possession at the line is around two attempts).

The league-average offense this season (and it was a good season for offense) scored around 1.1 points per possession.

That much extra value is significant. And it's not the only area where Harden is squeezing out extra points.

Harden used 1,280 possessions out of isolation this season, over 3.5 times more than second-place Russell Westbrook's 353. His 1.11 points per isolation possession ranked him in the 93rd percentile. And again, it was above the league average for all play types.

On his 540 step-back threes alone, he scored 1.17 points per possession.

(As an aside, prior to 2018-19, 540 would've ranked tied for 58th all-time in total threes attempted in a single season.)

And to complete the Moreyball trifecta, Harden scores at the rim, too.

In that same seven-season sample, Harden has attempted over a quarter of his shots from within three feet of the rim. His field-goal percentage in there is 64.0 percent. This season alone, he was 16th in total attempts from that range.

Altogether, over those seven seasons, Harden has scored 8.8 points per game from the line, 9.3 points per game from three and 4.5 points per game from within three feet of the rim. That 22.6 points per game makes up nearly 80 percent of the total 29.0 points per game.

And focusing so heavily on those high-efficiency areas is a big part of why his relative true shooting percentage (seen as rTS% in the polls above) is so good.

And, lest we forget, if it was easy to get the number of shots Harden does from those areas, everyone would do it. No one is at his volume.

To drive this point home, we'll look at just two more numbers.

Harden had a 39-game stretch in which he averaged 40.0 points this season. And his relative scoring average over his five-year peak is a whopping plus-20.2 (his average of 30.4 subtracted by the league average of 10.2).

That's where we'll start with Kobe, another one of the game's greatest scorers (he's 12th all-time in career points per game, compared to Harden's 16th). Harden may bridge that gap over the next few years, and another monster season will break a relative scoring average tie (Kobe's five-year peak is also plus-20.2).

Kobe had a scoring streak that was almost as impressive as Harden's, as well. In 2005-06, he averaged 37.3 points over 32 games. He capped that run with his legendary 81-point game against the Toronto Raptors.

Kobe discussed that night with ESPN.com:

"It's really a testament to the power of imagination, honestly. There's a lot of players who come up now who don't think 80 points is possible. You think 50, and if you're really hot -- 60. I never had that limit. Ever. I never, ever thought that way. I always thought 80 was possible. I thought 90 was possible. I thought 100 was possible. Always. I think that game is a testament to what happens when you put no ceiling to what you're capable of doing."

That confidence was a hallmark of Kobe's game. He seemingly approached every matchup with the mindset he detailed above.

And while it made him one of the best scorers of his era and all time, it doesn't quite make up for the gap in efficiency. As seen in the blind polls, Harden's comfortable lead in relative true shooting percentage gives him the edge here.

That remains true if you break it down across some play types from the top scoring seasons of each:

2018-19 James Harden vs. 2005-06 Kobe Bryant
James HardenKobe Bryant
PossPTS/possRatePossPTS/possRate
Isolation1,2801.105Excellent9980.926Excellent
P&R Ball Handler5810.974Excellent3950.962Excellent
Transition3481.089Average3921.202Very Good
Spot Up851.188Excellent2021.030Very Good
Post-Up241.208Excellent2110.915Very Good
Synergy

It's impossible to say whether Kobe would've been different had he come along later and been coached in an era where efficiency is so heavily emphasized. Without that ability, Harden's cold, calculating approach defeats Kobe's relentlessness.

Harden 1, Kobe 0

   

Playmaking

Eric Christian Smith/Associated Press

Kobe's passing is probably a little underrated. Or, at least, it isn't talked about nearly as much as other aspects of his game.

For his career, he averaged a solid 5.0 assists per 75 possessions. His 24.2 assist percentage ranks inside the all-time top 150.

Having said that, he's just not in Harden's league as a passer and creator for teammates.

Harden has averaged 6.8 assists per 75 possessions over his career. His career assist percentage of 31.8 ranks 41st all-time.

Over the last five seasons, his 8.4 assists per 75 possessions ranks eighth leaguewide.

And his passing ability is why he had comfortable leads in the polls above in points plus points generated by assists.

"Making sure I find guys and making the right pass is all I think about each game," Harden told FiveThirtyEight's Chris Herring in 2017. "As long as they get to their spots and are ready to shoot, I'll find them."

While Harden's emphasis may have changed a bit in the years since that quote, you can still see his quarterback mentality on plenty of possessions during Rockets games.

Whether he's in transition, coming off a ball screen or breaking a defender down in isolation, Houston generally has the floor properly spaced around him. And his ability to deliver on-time, on-target passes to his shooters is a major component of his team's attack.

Kobe's passing ability may be slightly underrated, but Harden's has been among the best in the league for years. And with a few more seasons at this level, he might be viewed as an all-time great table-setter.

Harden 2, Kobe 0

   

Defense

West Team's Kobe Bryant of the L.A. Lakers (R) steals the ball from East Team's Dwyane Wade of the Miami Heat as he drives to the basket during the NBA All-Star Game February 20, 2011, part of NBA All-Star Weekend at Staples Center in Los Angeles, Califor
ROBYN BECK/Getty Images

We can set the stage here in a similar fashion to the preceding category. Harden is better on defense than people realize.

His career steal percentage is 125th all-time, way ahead of Kobe's 186th place (though 2.27 over 2.07 isn't a massive gap).

And no defensive possession ends without a defensive rebound. Harden has averaged 4.5 over his career and 5.5 over the last five seasons. That's a good rate for a shooting guard.

Harden's career defensive box plus/minus (0.3) also tops Kobe's (minus-0.6).

But, since that number is, as the title would suggest, based on box score numbers, it may not give the most accurate representation of a player's value on defense. After all, much of defense isn't accounted for in the box score.

There's no basic number for staying in front of your man, not missing rotations, taking on the opposition's toughest assignment, etc.

"Box plus/minus is good at measuring offense and solid overall, but the defensive numbers in particular should not be considered definitive," Basketball Reference's Daniel Myers wrote. "Look at the defensive values as a guide, but don't hesitate to discount them when a player is well known as a good or bad defender."

Kobe is a 12-time All-Defensive selection. Harden has yet to receive that honor, and his reputation suggests he never will.

And while that honor is a subjective one voted on by the media, subjectivity is still a big part of defensive analysis. And a 12-0 advantage is enough to overcome Harden's edges in the box score numbers.

Harden 2, Kobe 1

   

Accolades

David J. Phillip/Associated Press

This category may not be fair. Harden has only been in the league for 10 seasons, compared to Kobe's 20. But accolades will almost always be a part of these debates, especially if you're having them in a barbershop, restaurant or just hanging out at home.

Kobe is an 18-time All-Star, five-time NBA champion, 12-time All-Defensive selection, one-time MVP, two-time scoring champ, 15-time All-NBA selection and two-time Finals MVP.

Phew...say that five times fast.

Harden, meanwhile, is a seven-time All-Star, one-time Sixth Man of the Year, two-time scoring champ, six-time All-NBA selection and one-time MVP.

He has a long way to go to catch Kobe here. And really, that could be applied to a lot of numbers. Perhaps we can consider this a category that also accounts for general longevity.

Kobe, incredibly, had 17 seasons in which he played at least 500 minutes and posted an above-average box plus/minus. Sixteen of those campaigns came consecutively. Only seven players have more than Kobe's total of 17.

That level of consistency helped him rack up a resume of accolades that's nearly unparalleled—and one that Harden certainly can't stack up to yet.

Kobe 2, Harden 2

   

Who Ya Got?

HOUSTON, TX - DECEMBER 12:  James Harden #13 of the Houston Rockets (L) greets Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers on the court after the Rockets defeated the Lakers 126-97 in their game at Toyota Center on December 12, 2015 in Houston, Texas. NOTE
Scott Halleran/Getty Images

Congratulations if you made it this far and discovered a tie. And don't worry, we won't leave it there.

Statistically, Harden has the edge. And as ridiculous as the rings argument can be (does Robert Horry's seven mean he's better than Kobe, who has five?), breaking a tie with it feels fair.

No, Harden hasn't had a Shaq or Pau. And Kobe didn't have to face the juggernaut Golden State Warriors of the last five years.

But the ultimate goal in the NBA is championships. Kobe has five. Harden is still working for his first.

Would one be enough to silence the doubters, the way Dirk Nowitzki's 2011 title did? Would it be enough to leapfrog Kobe on the all-time shooting guard ladder?

Perhaps that's a discussion for next summer.

For now, Kobe has the edge. Barely.

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