Both James Harden and Damian Lillard have been in the news a lot this year. Harden started last season with the Brooklyn Nets. With a triple-threat of Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, and Harden, the Nets were pegged as the leading contender for the NBA championship. Instead, Harden lasted 44 games before he was traded to the Philadelphia 76ers. After declining his player’s option, Harden resigned from the team for less money.
As for Lillard, he was once seen as a trade target by the 76ers. A combination of Lillard and Embiid could have been a lethal dynamic duo. With Portland on the decline, it seemed that Lillard was going to be traded. Instead, Lillard doubled down and signed with the team for two more years, making it unlikely that he will ever be dealt. If you are a 76ers fan, was Harden the better pickup?
Let’s take a look at the full-player comparison between Harden and Lillard.
Scoring - James Harden
Lillard once averaged 30.0 points per game, but Harden did that three seasons in a row. On top of that, Harden once averaged 29.0 and 29.1 points per game in consecutive seasons before his three-year run, where he led the league in scoring with 30.4, 36.1, and 34.3 points per game. His 36.1 points per game average were one of the best averages since the days of Wilt Chamberlain.
Both players own six years of scoring excellence. From the 2015-16 season to the 2020-21 season, Lillard never averaged less than 25.8 points per game. If you look at that same stretch, Harden averaged 24.6 points per game the final year, but he also won three consecutive scoring titles.
Shooting - James Harden
One might think that Lillard is the better shot, but statistically, Harden is superior. For example, Harden owns a higher career field-goal percentage at 44.2% in comparison to Lillard’s 43.7%. Harden also shoots better at two-point range with a 51.1% shooting clip compared to Lillard’s 48.8% shooting. Lillard does own a better three-point shooting clip at 37.3%, but it’s not that much better compared to Harden’s 36.2% shooting.
Let’s dive into their shooting just a little bit more. Advanced stats measure field-goal percentage shooting by distance from 0-3 feet, 3-10, 10-16, 16-3-point field goals, and 3-point field goals. Harden leads the stats by owning a better percentage from 0-3, 3-10, and 10-16 feet. Lillard might be the better outside shooter, but Harden is the better overall shooter when it comes to finishing at the rim and midrange.
Passing - James Harden
Lillard is pressing his way towards Terry Porter’s all-time assist mark with the Trail Blazers, but that doesn’t mean that he is a better passer than Harden. When it comes to Lillard, he owns a career assists mark of 6.6 per game. The last three seasons have seen him average the best of his career, which features averages of 8.0, 7.5, and 7.3 per game. Lillard has never averaged double-digits.
As for Harden, he owns three seasons of double-digit assists averages. Had he played the whole season in 2020-21, he would have pressed for leading the league in assists. Instead, he owns back-to-back seasons with averages of 10.3 and 10.8 per game. On top of that, he does own one season of leading the league in assists with 11.2 per game during the 2016-17 season.
Defense - James Harden
Both players are not All-Defensive players, so this came down to advanced stats. Harden gets the nod here, but let’s take a look at Lillard first. Defensive win shares played a huge part in this. Lillard owns 15.5 defensive win shares for his career. His career high of 3.3 came during the 2014-15 season, while his last three seasons have compiled a total of 1.6 total defensive win shares. His steal percentage is low at 1.3% per game, while his overall rebounding percentage is at 6.3%.
Harden owns 37.5 total defensive win shares. We could take away the three seasons that he has in front of Lillard and he would still have more. Harden’s steal percentage is at 2.2%, while his rebounding is at 9.0%. Overall, Harden has the stats to back up that he is the better defender.
Athleticism - Damian Lillard
If you are not a fan of Lillard, that is a problem. The athleticism that Lillard brings to the table is why he is a superstar. There are a lot of scouts out there that underestimate this player. Lillard was not highly sought out of high school and he eventually played at Lehigh University. He then became a scoring phenomenon in college and then was drafted with the No. 6 overall pick.
Harden can do many great things, but all of it seems natural to him. He was a solid player in college and then, eventually, a lottery pick in his own right. With that said, Lillard knows what the grind means. He has proven that he can outwork players when healthy. His athleticism is off the charts and reigns supreme in this comparison.
Clutch - Damian Lillard
Lillard once led the league in clutch points. During the 2020-21 season, he was once shooting 60% from the field and over 50% from three-point range during clutch situations. That included a 100% clip at the free throw line. Before that season, Lillard earned NBA Bubble MVP honors for his performance, which featured high-scoring games that helped the Trail Blazers win multiple games.
Without Lillard, the team didn’t make the playoffs in 2020. With Lillard out last season, it proved that the team was incapable of winning games in high-pressure situations. Lillard is going to go down as the greatest player in team history. That’s saying something with Clyde Drexler once wearing the jersey. That said, it’s not Lillard’s fault that the team didn’t build around him efficiently to make a run towards an NBA title.
Leadership - Damian Lillard
First of all, put some respect on Harden’s name. When Harden left the Thunder, it was because he believed that he was more than a sixth man. He wanted a different role, and he wasn't going to get that at the time. He left to become the face of the Houston Rockets, who hadn’t had a true face of the team since Tracy McGrady, Yao Ming, and Hakeem Olajuwon. Harden transformed the Rockets back into contenders. That included two Western Conference Finals appearances, which were lost to the Warriors.
While Harden might have one more appearance in the Conference Finals, you have to recognize he had more help. Harden had Dwight Howard and Chris Paul during those runs. Both are Hall of Fame players. As for Lillard, he had C.J. McCollum and Meyers Leonard. Nobody ever thought the team would make the Conference Finals in 2019, but they did, and Lillard’s leadership likely had a hand in that.
Basketball I.Q. - James Harden
No disrespect to Lillard, but Harden has a basketball IQ that is off of the charts. Harden was once a scoring machine with the Rockets, but what people forget is that he was the prime playmaker for those teams. Harde led the league in usage percentage for two years in 2018 and 2019, assisting on nearly two-fifths of the team’s offense.
Harden owns a career assist percentage of 33.4%, while Lillard owns an assist percentage of 30.6%. From a number glance, Harden owns this category. If you watch Harden’s game, he was excellent at drawing contact and abusing a rule for contact that sent him to the free throw line multiple times. His free throws helped him score more points and his ability to draw contact a few years ago was second to none.
Impact - James Harden
We just talked about Harden’s usage percentage. For two years, Harden led the league in usage percentage with 36.1% and 40.5% on offense. That was a part of a three-year window where Harden led the league in offensive win shares. Funny enough, Harden led the league in total win shares from 2017 to 2020. During the 2016-17 season, Harden assisted on 50.7% of the team’s offense.
When you think of the Portland Trail Blazers, you think of Damian Lillard. The problem is that Harden is truly a more impactful player. Lillard led the league in offensive win shares with 10.9 during the 2019-20 season. Harden led the league three straight seasons before that.
1 on 1 Game - James Harden
This is a fairly difficult category to assess. Both players are efficient at finishing at the rim. Both players are also successful three-point shooters. It comes down to a mere few percentage points. For example, Harden owns a career field-goal percentage of 44.3% in comparison to Lillard’s 43.7% shooting. Harden has a higher percentage of converting between zero to 16 feet. Lillard owns the better percentage from 16-feet to three-point range.
Here is the deal breaker. Lillard’s three-point field-goal percentage is only one percentage point better than Harden's. It’s not enough to assume that Lillard would make the three-point run. Both would likely go tic for tat from that range. Given that Harden is more efficient on the drive and converting at the rim, one has to assume that Harde would ultimately have more tools to win this one-on-one matchup.
Career - James Harden
Ultimately, both careers are going to go down as Hall of Fame worthy. Had Harden stayed with the Rockets, he would have likely passed Hakeem Olajuwon for the record in all-time points. Instead, he saw the writing on the wall and realized he failed in leading the Rockets to a championship. As for Lillard, he has yet to make the NBA Finals with the Trail Blazers and owns one Conference Finals appearance. If you count the NBA Finals appearance in 2012 with the Thunder, Harden has played in that element at least three times.
Lillard will be an all-time Portland great, but his legacy will be a great player that never won. Harden hasn’t won a championship either, but he can say that he has played on higher stages than Lillard three more times. Again, both of these players will be in the Hall of Fame one day. With that said, Harden has won an MVP, led the league in various statistical categories, and has played in the NBA Finals.