Without a doubt, James Harden is the best scorer in the NBA right now. In fact, he may have been the best scorer in the NBA for the past five seasons. Since joining the Houston Rockets, James Harden has been on an absolute tear in his career. He blossomed from a former Sixth Man of The Year to a consistent MVP candidate every single season. His ability to score and assist the basketball means he is in a unique class when ranking the all-time greatest shooting guards.
Harden’s stats are eye-popping and he’s truly the most impactful offensive player at the shooting guard position that we have seen since Kobe Bryant. But does his incredible offensive skillset mean he’s a top-five shooting guard of all time? The answer is no. Harden simply has too many arguments against him that prevent him from entering the top-five conversation.
Here are all the reasons why former MVP James Harden is not a top-five shooting guard ever.
5. Inflated Statistics
James Harden has incredible stats, and that is a testament to his greatness at accumulating points better than anybody in the league right now. He is averaging 34.3 PPG this season with 12.4 3-point attempts per game. He also averages 11.8 FT per game, meaning he gets his points from the line and from three.
For his career, he averages 25.2 PPG on 44.2% from the field. He also shoots 36.3% from three in a whopping 7.7 attempts per game. Clearly, Harden’s usage rate is at an abnormal level and he is benefitting greatly from the modern NBA. It will not be surprising if modern players break every NBA record that was set in the past, because the league is geared towards offense and lack of defense.
Harden can shoot threes as much as he likes and can opt to dominate the ball when he feels like it. This is also a benefit to playing under legendary offensive coach Mike D’Antoni. D’Antoni managed to turn Steve Nash into a two-time MVP because of how he could accumulate stats with his high usage rate. Imagine replacing Steve Nash, a 6’3″ relatively unathletic guard with a 6’5″ powerhouse like Harden. His stats are benefiting from both the modern style of play and D’Antoni’s unique offensive system.
This has been a topic that has gone back and forth around James Harden. To the masses, Harden is possibly the worst defender in the NBA. To others, he has a ton of workload on offense and he makes up for it with his post defense which is actually above-average. But we have seen Harden give up on defensive plays far too many times over his career. Harden can turn it up on defense and be excellent on the floor when he wants to, but he simply does not care about that end of the floor in a consistent manner.
When talking about a top-five shooting guard of all time, you are comparing him to the likes of Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, and Dwyane Wade who were defensive specialists that played hard on both ends. A superstar like James Harden who is also the undisputed leader of the Rockets simply has to show his teammates that he plays harder on both ends better than anybody. While guys like Jerry West and Allen Iverson weren’t known as defensive stoppers, they made an effort on that end and it is hard to find highlight reels where they just give up on D as Harden has.
3. Killer Instinct
James Harden has had the stigma of being a poor pressure performer on him his whole career. Harden has the skills to dominate a game offensively, but he doesn’t seem to replicate this ability in critical moments. There are legitimate doubts about his killer instinct because he doesn’t seem hungry enough to take and make big shots to gain the victory.
While modern-day NBA players might not share the same passion as older players, because they are making far too much money to worry about that, Harden doesn’t seem to share the same killer instinct as the other guys in the top-five shooting guard conversation.
MJ and Kobe? As ruthless as can be. Wade and Iverson? Stone-cold killers in the clutch and did everything to win. Jerry West is the NBA Logo and one of the greatest sharpshooters and leaders in history. James Harden just doesn’t compare to the killer will of these greats. Even Clyde Drexler, an athletic scorer, did not face the amount of criticism that Harden faces as a clutch performer. James Harden has not convinced the NBA masses that he can be trusted to make big plays when it matters most, especially when compared to the players mentioned above.
2. Playoffs Struggles
Harden’s postseason struggles are well-documented. The very first piece of evidence came in his first NBA Finals appearance in 2013 as the Sixth Man for the Oklahoma City Thunder. Harden only averaged 12.4 PPG on 37.5% shooting, sparking conversation on why he didn’t perform up to his level when his team needed him. Kevin Durant did his part and so did Russell Westbrook but Harden simply did not perform. The media gave him a pass as perhaps he couldn’t find his footing as a sixth man and needed more minutes.
Fast-forward nearly a decade later, and this conversation is still going. James Harden has not lived up to his regular-season self and his struggles seem to be consistent in the Playoffs. Harden’s Game 7 against the Golden State Warriors in 2018, when the Rockets had the best chance to beat them, went sour as he shot from 2-13 three in a losing effort. A year later, Harden had a chance to lead the Rockets against the Warriors again, this time without KD. Harden failed to lead the Rockets against only Curry and Klay, and was bounced out of the playoffs.
This season, James Harden went 2-11 from the field in a pivotal Game 4 against the Los Angeles Lakers without attempting a single shot in the 4th quarter. He now has to find a way to climb back from a 3-1 hole. This is abnormal behavior for a superstar like James Harden and it doesn’t help his reputation as a postseason dud.
James Harden is still an incredible talent, one of the greatest shooting guards ever, and one of the best one-on-one players we have ever seen. This piece is not meant to bash one of the greats, but it is only natural to compare a great player to the ones who came before him. As good as he is offensively, he does not have the pure leadership intangibles that any of the top-five shooting guards have.
Michael Jordan is the greatest leader and winner in sports history. Kobe Bryant was essentially Jordan 2.0 and had a killer will that was unique. Jerry West is too great of a leader and player to not be mentioned, while Dwyane Wade has 3 rings and 1 Finals MVP Award. Allen Iverson, the miniature superstar, did the unthinkable by carrying a weak 76ers team to the NBA Finals and stealing Game 1 against the Shaq and Kobe Lakers. James Harden has one Finals Appearance and only got there as a player coming off the bench. He has time to win an NBA title and start putting these criticisms away, but until then, James Harden is not a top-five shooting guard of all time.