NBA Alternate History #1: Could James Harden Be a 2x MVP?
When it comes to analyzing the NBA’s most notable “What If?” scenarios, it won’t take too long before arriving at the case of James Harden. Due to his career’s seismic impact on the modern-day basketball landscape, I chose his story to lead off my “NBA Alternate History” series. If you have to ask why, then quickly read this headline, or this one, and then come back to me.
The trade of Harden from Oklahoma City to Houston serves as one of the tent pole moments in recent NBA history. So many legacies changed from this one transaction, from Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant to Chris Paul and Stephen Curry. However, most impacted of all is “The Beard” himself. To that, I present a data-based look into the alternate paths that James Harden’s career very easily could have taken.
First of all, it is necessary to establish what Harden is before analyzing what Harden might have become. To help illustrate that, I present to you the following graphic showcasing his current season statistical breakdown…
… as well as his 2015–2017 three-season combined averages, showcasing his amazing peak play as a playmaker and team leader…
Despite receiving superlatives for Harden’s spectacular play in 2017, his numbers from the previous two seasons were similarly awe-inspiring. Switching to the point guard position has led to a noticeable increase in assists and rebounds, but otherwise the Rockets’ star’s percentages and ORtg/DRtg are consistent. Simply put, Harden is neck-and-neck with Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant for the mantle of “basketball’s premier offensive player.” James’ combination of height/strength, perimeter shooting efficiency, willingness to involve teammates and stellar court vision elevates “The Beard” to the top of his class.
In fact, it even elevates Harden among his historical counterparts. In the graphic below, I compare him to a select group of all-time great combo guards during each players’ 3-year peak statistical output:
Essentially, “The Beard” has peak play equivalent to Tracy McGrady… plus 3 more assists and plus 8% free throw shooting. Compared to Jason Kidd’s best New Jersey seasons, Harden matches him in rebounds, steals and blocks, shoots 4% higher across the board, and adds 12 points per game (!). The only cost for this is < 1 assist per game. Even standing toe-to-toe with Kobe Bryant’s historic 2006–08 output, Harden comes to a draw by nullifying Mamba’s 3.2-point scoring advantage by dishing out 3.5 more assists, pulling down one more rebound and shooting equivalent percentages. In other words, he is already matching or surpassing the statistical output of NBA legends.
In present day, James Harden is certifiably the best combo guard in the NBA. He is also far from being a sure fire Hall-of-Famer, although is on his way, as he lacks the titles and accolades to etch his name into that hallowed group. So my next question is: what could he have become?
Scenario 1: James Harden is a 2x MVP Winner, Top 5 All-Time SG, Rockets legend & a “Lock” Hall-of-Famer
This first scenario is certainly open to the Houston superstar as his career progresses. However, it was very possible for James to have already reached this status by the end of the 2017 season.
Looking back to the 2014-15 season, Harden was battling Curry neck-and-neck for the MVP trophy. Each player had a legitimate case, but Curry ultimately won the award. Despite that result, there remains a large contingent of fans who believe that Harden deserved to win MVP instead.
This is worth looking further into, so refer below for an in-depth peek at each player’s case for being named the 2014–15 Most Valuable Player.
Below are my initial takeaways from the Curry-Harden MVP comparison:
- Minutes Played: Harden played 368 more minutes than Curry in the 2014–15 regular season. This averages out to +4.1 MPG, which is a massively significant difference. Factoring in the standard 48-minute NBA contest, this equates to “The Beard” playing 7.5 MORE GAMES than “Chef Curry”. If all other stats are relatively equal, then shouldn’t the MVP go to the player who played significantly more on the court? I understand this difference was largely in part to the Warriors’ dominance and frequent sitting of Steph in fourth quarters, but that is more a testament to the striking talent disparity between each team. Houston could not afford to let Harden sit for long, as they were much more reliant on his play to win games. ADVANTAGE: HARDEN
- Per Game Averages: Simply put, James Harden has more impressive per game averages than Stephen Curry. Granted, I have to give credit to the “Baby-Faced Assassin” for averaging such impressive figures in only 32 minutes per game. It is quite an achievement! However, I want to reward the MVP based on a player’s actual output on the court. Harden significantly outscored and outrebounded Curry every game, while drawing 3 more fouls on his opponents per game. As for Stephen, he obviously plays a different style and puts immense pressure on a defense with his perimeter shooting. If you compare their shooting percentages, Curry wins handily. So although I do not want to penalize Curry for his incredible style of play, Harden’s ability to draw fouls is supremely underrated just because it is not as “pleasing to the eye”. Between the two, give me the player who plays 4 more minutes, scores 4 more points, nearly matches in assists, grabs 1.5 more rebounds, only shoots 1 less three-pointer and draws 6 more foul shots per game. ADVANTAGE: HARDEN
- Advanced Statistics: This is admittedly where the Warriors’ superstar shines over the Rockets’ playmaker. Curry leads (not by a significant amount) in PER, True Shooting %, WS/48, and ORtng/DRtng. Harden’s figures are very close and are impressive in their own right. I am amazed by his significant lead in FT rate, as well as earning more total Win Shares and showcasing MVP traits with a higher Usage Rate. In the end, though, the advanced stats favor the game’s best shooter. ADVANTAGE: CURRY
Another key factor that plays into the MVP award is team success. This was the key driver in Stephen Curry taking home the hardware, as his Warriors were by far the league’s premier team. Refer below and your eyes will pop at Golden State’s 67–15 record, one of the best in history. There is certainly no issue in voting for the “best player on the best team” for Most Valuable Player, and Curry fit that bill in 2014–15.
However, there is no one way to win a MVP trophy. Another common criteria is to reward the “player who helped his team overachieve the most,” thus being deemed more “valuable.” The Houston Rockets were clearly inferior to the uber-talented and well-coached league leaders. Refer to the highlighted “SRS” columns above, which is a “Simple Rating System” used to calculate the grade of each team by factoring in point differential and strength of schedule. Zero is average.
According to this metric, the Warriors were the best team by a mile. Meanwhile, the Rockets were the 7th-best team in the league. Yet, they earned the 2-seed in the Western Conference playoffs and tied for the league’s 3rd-best record. This is a classic case of overachievement, and “The Beard” deserves the credit for this. Despite their team record, Harden was the only All-Star and All-NBA representative on the team. Conversely, the Warriors featured Curry and Klay Thompson as All-Stars, while Curry, Thompson and Draymond Green were All-NBA/Defensive team selections.
While both players have strong merits and arguments for the award, I believe Harden was the more deserving winner due to statistical superiority, significantly more minutes played on the court, and leading just a decent roster to a startlingly overachieving season record in the brutal Western Conference.
Also worth noting was a negative portrayal of Harden’s style of play and lack of winning a title. Many in the media criticized him for not playing with an “appealing” style of play, due to his insistence on either shooting 3’s or constantly drawing fouls. Combine this with him not winning the 2014–15 MVP trophy, and you had an incredulous future impact: he was not honored as an All-NBA player the following season. Yes, you heard me: James “The Bearded One” Harden was not even an All-NBA player during 2015-16!
You would think this would be the case if his numbers sharply fell off from the prior season, right? Well… let us shine a light on what truly occurred:
Do you see a “falling off the cliff” drop in impact? Are you aware of any shooting guards that season who suddenly surpassed him? No and no. His team finished worse, with a 41–41 record, but not because of Harden. This was the season of Howard’s decline and schism within the locker room. James himself raised his PPG, RPG and APG while his PER and other advanced statistics regressed slightly. Due to what you see above, how is it justifiable to go from 2nd in 2015 MVP voting and 1st-Team All-NBA selection to not even making the 3rd-Team in 2016?
So, Harden lost out on a 2014–15 MVP award and a 2015–16 All-NBA selection, at minimum, in real life. In this “Revisionist History” scenario, however, it is justifiable for James to have each of these honors added to his career accomplishments. With 2 MVP awards in his cap, James Harden would have become virtually guaranteed to make the Hall of Fame. There are only 12 players in NBA history to win multiple MVP awards, and they are all Hall-of-Famers or slam-dunk future members of the Hall. See below:
As fantastic as James Harden is now, he could have replaced Stephen Curry on that list. Think about that!
Scenario 2: Harden is a NBA Champion, a 2x Sixth Man Award Winner, a Thunder Fan Favorite… but Not a Top 100 NBA All-Time Player
As for this second scenario, let us imagine if the Thunder kept “The Beard” on their roster instead of trading him in 2012.
This is where other league superstars have their legacies drastically altered, in addition to Harden’s. For starters, the Oklahoma City Thunder star trio of Harden, Durant and Westbrook stay together. This could have altered the course of numerous franchises and playoff outcomes over the years.
In the 2012-13 season, the Thunder were the 1-seed in the Western Conference. However, their postseason dreams quickly dissolved when Russell Westbrook was injured in Game 2 of their opening round playoff series. The team ended up losing to the Memphis Grizzlies in the second round. This gave San Antonio a clear path to the Finals, where they ultimately fell to LeBron James’ Miami Heat.
What changes if Harden is able to play in place of the injured “RussGOAT”?
2nd Sixth Man Award
First of all, remember that Mr. Harden was the 2011–12 Sixth Man of the Year award winner. I find it very likely that he would have been the favorite to repeat as the award winner in this season.
Western Conference Finals — Down Goes San Antonio?
The Thunder would have likely reached the Western Conference finals and dueled against the Spurs. OKC’s elite athleticism presented a very difficult matchup to the aging San Antonio roster. This series could have gone either way, and perhaps the Spurs still would have won despite Harden taking on a leading role. However, the trio of Durant, Harden and Ibaka likely would have overpowered Popovich’s squad and won the Western Conference.
NBA Finals — Maybe a Ring for OKC?
With the Thunder advancing to their second consecutive NBA Finals, it is very possible that a championship could have been in their grasp. While this Miami Heat team was incredible, they were very fortunate to win this title over the Spurs. OKC would have been hungry and motivated to get revenge for their Finals loss from the previous year.
With that being said, I would still predict Miami winning due to Westbrook’s absence and Harden’s poor play in the previous Finals series. However, being back-to-back Western Conference champions would have officially stamped the Thunder as the “heir to the throne” moving forward.
Heading into this 2013 offseason, James Harden and Serge Ibaka were set to be restricted free agents. For a hilarious-in-hindsight analysis of the team’s offseason goals that season, read this article. Here are my favorite quips:
- On James Harden (#1 RFA): “It will be interesting to see if he chooses to stay with the Thunder (assuming they are willing to pay him in the ballpark of $13 million per year which is the max contract for a restricted free agent) or if Harden desires to go elsewhere where he can maybe be the go-to option. My guess is the Thunder extend his deal…”
- On Serge Ibaka (#2 RFA): “He can be a force on the glass and as a shot blocker, and at 22 years old will only get better with time…”
- On Stephen Curry (#3 RFA): “Injuries really held Curry back last season and as a result, Golden State has been in no hurry to extend his deal. We all know Curry can stroke it from deep but he still has not fully grasped what it takes to be a true NBA point guard…”
Isn’t that hilarious? I love hindsight! Compared to current figures, Harden maxing out at $13 million per year would have been the steal of the century! Meanwhile, it is so sad that we assumed Ibaka would improve with age, rather than regressing as he has. As for Curry… it is safe to assume the Warriors will be in quite the hurry to extend his next deal!
With that hilarity aside, the Thunder would likely have maneuvered their roster around to match any offer for Harden, due to their back-to-back NBA Finals appearances. This may have resulted in the loss of Serge Ibaka, but we have since seen the polar opposite directions of James’ and Serge’s careers since this point in time. I am sure Oklahoma City would have thrived by keeping the Durant-Westbrook-Harden trio intact.
Western Conference Finals — Back-to-Back-to-Back West Champs?
With Ibaka and without Harden, OKC ended up with the 2-seed and fell to the San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference Finals. Ibaka was injured to begin the series, which led to an 0–2 series deficit. He returned in Game 3 to spark consecutive Thunder victories, but they ultimately lost the series 4–2.
If Harden was in the fold, and possibly Ibaka as well, I find it very possible that the Oklahoma City Thunder would have won their third consecutive Western Conference Finals. This Spurs team tore through the Miami Heat, due to that roster’s aging lineup, but struggled versus OKC’s athleticism.
NBA Finals — Thunder Break Through as Champions!
This is the year in which Oklahoma City had the best odds of winning a NBA title, as Miami clearly ran out of gas in their fourth consecutive Finals series. Harden and possibly Ibaka would have been enough to push the Thunder franchise over the top, giving them their first NBA championship.
At this point, it is very difficult to project ahead what would have happened 3 years later in this scenario. I only point out this season because of its’ possible impact on Chris Paul’s legacy.
In reality, Harden’s Rockets tied Paul’s Clippers for the 2nd-best record in the Western Conference. If Harden instead played on OKC, and if Durant still missed the entire season due to injury as he actually did, there is a strong possibility that the Los Angeles Clippers end up as the West 2-seed instead. This could have led to a clearer path to Paul’s long-awaited debut in a conference finals series.
Instead, Harden and the Rockets faced off against LAC in the 2nd round of the 2014–15 playoffs. The end result of this series was an absolutely shocking series win for the Rockets, as they stormed back from a 3–1 deficit to win the series and advance to the conference finals. This crushing loss damaged Chris Paul’s legacy and yet again prevented him from reaching that ever-elusive conference finals stage.
Wrap-Up of This “Alternate History”
This has been a fascinating look into the two career pivot points of James Harden’s basketball career. Each of the two scenarios presented above are very plausible, if nothing else.
Scenario 1 takes Mr. Harden’s current self and ascends him to a higher plane, in which his legacy becomes individually legendary and Hall-of-Fame worthy. However, he is not likely to have become a NBA champion by this time. Legacy comp: Steve Nash
Scenario 2 charts an alternate reality in which he remains on the Oklahoma City Thunder, becomes a NBA champion, a 2x Sixth Man of the Year award winner, but not yet the current superstar and MVP-leader we have come to know him as. Legacy comp: Manu Ginobili
As this current 2016–17 NBA season nears its’ conclusion, we await to see if James Harden will be awarded his first NBA Most Valuable Player trophy. He is more than deserving, but also faces incredibly stiff competition in one of the tightest races since… well, the 2014–15 season. If he misses out on that award, Harden’s legacy will yet again miss on a chance to cement himself as an all-time legend.
What are your thoughts on James Harden’s current career trajectory? Do you have any significant takeaways on the scenarios presented above? Let me know in the comments section or on Twitter @PaulAblesCM.
This caps off the first entry in my “NBA Alternate History” series. The key purpose of these articles is to showcase the fiiiiiiine line between the “permanent history” we know and the “alternate history” that very realistically could have occurred instead. As the game’s best players are continually judged based on championships won and accolades earned, numerous secondary players are forgotten in history due to coming in second place, or narrowly falling in defeat. I want to resurrect those past scenarios in which a single bounce of the ball, a slightly different voting outcome or a modified management decision could have completely altered the way we remember the game. This is fun for me, so I hope you enjoy it as well!