Luka Doncic recently hit one of the most exciting playoff buzzer-beaters of any young player in NBA history. The unbelievably exhilarating shot sent the basketball world into a frenzy, with fans and media members proclaiming the Mavericks’ sophomore as “Luka Legend.”
Doncic’s rapid stardom naturally draws comparisons to the game’s current and former superstars. Larry Bird is the easy comparison (for obvious reasons), but James Harden has become Doncic’s current parallel in terms of style and statistical output.
You can argue for or against the comparison being fair or accurate. There’s no denying, however, that both players are amongst the league’s top playmakers, scorers and ball-handlers. Here’s how they currently stack up in several basketball categories.
Scoring - James Harden
This one is clear. Doncic did increase his scoring to 28.8 points per game this season — good for one of the highest sophomore-season averages ever — but Harden is now the NBA’s leading scorer for the third season in a row, according to basketball-reference.
Harden has no weaknesses in his scoring ability. His tight handle allows him to get wherever he wants on the floor. He’s one of the best-contested shot-makers ever. He’s led the NBA in free throws made and attempted in each of the past six seasons. Harden is unguardable.
Doncic has greatly improved his finishing in his second season, yet he still ranks as one of the worst high-volume 3-point shooters in the league. He shot just 31.6% from behind the arc this season. Although this is mainly because he takes several long step-backs each outing, Doncic’s shot selection also needs to improve.
Athleticism - James Harden
Neither of these two is considered a superb athlete by NBA standards. Harden, however, has built his body up over the years and seen his game improve greatly from his increased strength, agility and quickness.
Harden’s blows by his defenders almost without even trying, and he has a unique ability to draw contact and remain controlled when attempting his shot. Doncic displays similar characteristics — especially with his balance and body control — just does everything at a slightly lower level.
The biggest difference athletically between these two is speed. Doncic’s top speed simply isn’t elite. Harden has an extra gear he can accelerate two and often does so in transition. Harden also has historically dunked more often, for what it’s worth.
Defense - James Harden
These stars aren’t considered stellar defenders, either, but both have quietly improved on this end. Harden, in particular, has shed the reputation of being an “open door” on defense and now is a legitimate plus-defender when he’s engaged, which is more often than not these days. He even led the league in steals this season with 125.
Both guards are especially adept at using their strength and positioning to keep their matchups out of the lane. Harden and Doncic are strong and not afraid to get in the way of a driving opponent. They just don’t always put forth 100% effort, which is partly because they’re asked to do so much on offense.
Harden gets more steals per game, has better Defensive Win Shares and Defensive Box Plus/Minus numbers and has overall been a better defender for longer than Doncic. Doncic, however, could develop into a comparable or even superior defender with more experience.
Clutch - James Harden
Before you fall victim to recency bias and appoint Doncic as the more clutch player, don’t forget the caliber of superstar that Harden is and has been. Harden has carried Houston for eight seasons, and while he’s had his share of postseason shortcomings, it’s not all his fault. Doncic has been the Mavericks’ main man for just two seasons, and in the only year they were a playoff team, he’s led them to a record of 2-11 in games decided by three or fewer points.
Harden also scores more in the clutch than Doncic, according to NBA. Harden notched 3.6 clutch points per game in 30 regular-season games this year, helping his team win 19 of them. Doncic scores just 2.8 clutch points per game in 31 contests, and his team went 14-17. Both shot about 36% from the field, though. Yikes.
Neither of these stars is necessarily the first person you’d pick to bring a game home. Doncic, however, displays a willingness to shoulder late-game responsibilities, and he’ll undoubtedly improve as he gets older.
Leader - Luka Doncic
Harden seems like a solid leader, and it’s hard to judge from a distance when you’re not around these teams all the time. But Doncic has a special quality to him that is hard to describe, and you can feel it even when watching him on T.V.
Doncic visibly inspires his teammates to elevate their games. When you watch Dallas play, Doncic’s teammates play with such confidence and cut with a purpose. This is no coincidence. When a team’s best player is consistently making the right pass and never giving up on a game, the supporting cast rallies around that player. If a player plays for himself all the time and doesn’t try to make the team-concept work, then players stand around and look lifeless.
Not to say Harden is a selfish player, but he doesn’t seem to galvanize the Rockets like Doncic does the Mavericks. Part of that has to do with Houston’s style of play that asks Harden to isolate 24/7, yet Doncic handles the ball a similar amount of time. The difference is that Doncic tries to make the right basketball play more often than Harden, while Harden — because he’s such a talented scorer — tries to make plays for himself most of the time.
Harden also has the burden of career shortcomings to overcome in terms of leadership. Doncic is currently the “next big thing,” an excitement that isn’t lost on his teammates. Does Harden make his teammates better? The answer isn’t clear. Doncic, however, certainly does.
Basketball I.Q. - Luka Doncic
Harden and Doncic are both supremely-skilled passers and playmakers, so it’s hard to quantify who has the higher basketball I.Q. Doncic gets the nod for now because he appears to make passes on a LeBron James-type level; you consistently are impressed by his vision and anticipation. Even Dallas head coach Rick Carlisle says Doncic sees the game in “6G.”
Harden is a great pick-and-roll passer and developed into a strong drive-and-kick playmaker, but he doesn’t make as many of the cross-court passes to the corner or the dribble-penetrations to specifically set up a swing pass that leads to an open triple. There are a couple passes/plays each game that make your jaw drop when watching Doncic, if nothing else because you’re astounded at how a 21-year-old seemingly unathletic white guy is so dominant. With Harden, you’re more impressed with his skills than his command of the game.
Impact - Even
The main reason this article exists is that both players are two of the most impactful superstars in the league. They each manufacture offense for their team on nearly every possession and tally absurd stat lines night after night.
Harden accounts for slightly more points on a per-game basis, but it’s clear Doncic is just as necessary to his team’s success. If you’re basing impact on how the team performs without a player on the floor, then Harden gets the edge. The Rockets are 9.1 points per 100 possessions better with Harden on the floor than not. The Mavericks are just 1.7 points better with Doncic in the game.
Dallas is 7-7 in games without Doncic this season, while Houston is 1-3 without Harden. The numbers indicate that Harden should win this category, but the Rockets have been constructed around Harden over the last eight years. Dallas, conversely, is merely a perimeter-oriented roster with Doncic as it’s star. If you give the Mavericks a few more seasons of building around Doncic, his absence would be more noticeable in the statistics than it currently is.
1 on 1 - James Harden
Harden gets a clear victory in this category. He’s virtually unstoppable in a 1-on-1 scenario. His handles are elite, his shooting is stellar, his finishing is consistent and strong and he draws fouls like none other. The only single person who can stop Harden from scoring is himself.
Doncic is improving as an isolation player but lacks both the shooting and ball-handling to be at Harden’s level. He’s adept at getting around his defender by using angles and body position, but his tricks work better in a 5-on-5 setting than a 1-on-1 battle. Doncic simply isn’t this type of player, while Harden is the epitome of this style in the NBA today.
Career - James Harden
Seeing as Doncic is just in his sophomore season, it’d be impossible for him to eclipse Harden’s career accomplishments outside of an improbable Finals MVP run.
Harden has an MVP, is an eight-time All-Star, a three-time scoring champion, a six-time All-NBA selection, the 2016-2017 assists champion, the 2011-2012 Sixth Man of the Year and was Second-Team All-Rookie.
Doncic — not counting this season’s awards ballot — is just a one-time All-Star, the 2018-2019 Rookie of the Year and made First-Team All-Rookie.
This isn’t close.
As much as everyone wants Doncic to be the next all-time great NBA player, he still has a long way to go to reach even Harden’s level. Harden is a more efficient, skilled and dangerous player than Doncic right now, but Doncic is already way ahead of almost every 21-year-old in league history.
It’s hard to fathom just how good Doncic can be. Harden, on the other hand, can greatly elevate his legacy with a championship. The window is closing to do so for him and the Rockets. Dallas should contend for a long time.