Alex Egol – RSAC Writer
Two nights ago, Klay Thompson scored 44 points, every single one of which was assisted by a teammate. The same night, James Harden scored 37 points, with not a single point assisted.
January 21st, 2019 taught us two things. The first: James Harden is an incredibly talented solo scorer. The second: Klay Thompson is one of the most gifted off-the-ball players the league has ever seen.
I see the side-by-side comparison of Thompson and Harden as a microcosm of a bigger question coaches, managers, owners, scouts, and other workers around the league have to think about when deciding who to bestow the title of “franchise cornerstone” upon. The question is … is the score-first superstar going to be more valuable to us than the well-rounded star?
We will move away from Thompson and Harden, because, at least to me, it is pretty clear who is more valuable between these two – and that’s James Harden.
Instead, I want to look at John Hollinger’s Player Efficiency Rating (PER) and think about which player type maximizes efficiency. While I’m aware that PER has its flaws, I think it can be useful in our discussion on the “star-type” that creates efficiency for teams in this league.
I started out my investigation by looking at Advanced Stats – PER included – across various seasons on https://www.basketball-reference.com/leagues/NBA_2019_advanced.html. Useful suggestion: if you’d like to change the season, simply change the 2019 in the link I copied above to the year you’d like to view advanced stats for.
I then looked at another interesting stat – Usage Rate. According to Basketball Reference, Usage Rate is “an estimate of the percentage of team plays used by a player while he was on the floor.” Field Goals Attempted impacts Usage Rate to a significant degree, based on how the metric is calculated and weighed. See more information in the Basketball Reference Glossary with this link https://www.basketball-reference.com/about/glossary.html.
James Harden has a 40.6% Usage Rate this season, the highest among legitimate competition (the only players above him are players with extremely limited play time), and 7.5% higher than the next most used player, Joel Embiid. Harden also has the second highest PER among legitimate competition this season, behind Anthony Davis, with a rating of 30.8.
I began to think of other players known for being heavily “score-first”. As a Knicks fan, Carmelo Anthony’s 2012-13 season came to mind for me. Carmelo Anthony had the highest Usage Rate in the league in 2012 and the fourth best Player Efficiency Rating. The year Russell Westbrook won MVP, 2016-17, came to mind. He had the highest Usage Rate and the highest Player Efficiency Rating that year. Michael Jordan had the #1 Usage Rate and the #2 Player Efficiency Rating in ‘96. Huh, it’s starting to seem like the most efficient players, according to Hollinger, are the most involved players on offense as well, according to Basketball Reference.
The correlation I’ve been able to pick up on provides us with a simple conclusion: score-first superstars are still the most effective players. We can go further. They also create the most Offensive, Defensive, and per-48 Win Shares. They log the best ratings in essentially any player rating system.
In conclusion, Harden doesn’t deserve to be compared to Klay and criticized for being a ball hog. His style works for his team (win shares), and it works for his ability to play at a high level (PER). The score-first style might not be the style a rec league coach wants to teach its players, but data shows it works well in the pros.