Harden Week: A Very Special Fridays With Fenrich
Fridays With Fenrich is a weekly feature here at Hickory-High, the aggregation of an extended, week-long email conversation on a single basketball theme, between myself and Kris Fenrich of Dancing With Noah.
Ian: Among other things this season, James Harden has been a gloriously shaggy, bearded prism. Hold him up to the light, and sparkling new narratives pour out. One of those narratives that has slowly unfurled throughout the season is how Harden represents the endgame of Daryl Morey’s team building approach. For years we watched him stockpile assets and furiously hump the leg of any star player on the trading block. This whole process was about nabbing a foundational, transformational star and watching the Rockets’ play this year it’s hard to argue that things haven’t gone exactly the way he drew them up.
Do you ascribe to the belief that teams must have a star player to win a championship? Is Harden a player of that caliber?
Kris: I think the first question: “Do teams need a star player to win a championship?” is the more pertinent of the two (even if this is about James Harden). This is a question we touched on a couple times last year and it’s something history shows us that teams are much more likely to win championships if they do have star players. If we look at NBA champions over the past 30 seasons we see 28 teams that had one or two stars, one team that had a unified star structure (2008 Celtics) and then the 2004 Detroit Pistons; a team that dared to defy the conventional laws of astronomy.
If we want to be more nuanced with how we classify these teams, we can break out teams like the Kobe/Shaq Lakers, the Magic/Kareem Lakers, the Bird/McHale Celtics and even the 2007 Parker/Duncan Spurs that thrived in a two-star system. If we want to nitpick, we can look at Isiah Thomas and the repeat Pistons of the late 80s and early 90s. Was Thomas a “superstar?” He was a first ballot Hall of Famer, so yeah, I’d say that qualifies. But Chuck Daly’s title teams did compare favorably to the Larry Brown Pistons.
*Editor’s Note: Tim Duncan is incorrectly listed as the star of the 2001-2002 NBA Champion Lakers. I’d like to say that it was just to make sure you were paying attention, but really I’m a lousy editor.
In the past 30 seasons, we’ve seen a single team win the championship without at least one superstar. One team. To answer the original question, Yes teams can win without a star, but the odds, history and reality are against that approach. I think it takes a unique chemistry, a special coach, hungry players (this was a veteran team that was starved for success and played with a massive chip on its shoulder) and favorable circumstance (which isn’t to say the 2004 Pistons were lucky by any means, but they finished second in their division that year, needed seven games to get by the Nets in the Conference quarterfinals, and happened to catch a self-destructive Lakers team at the perfect time). Can a team like the 2004 Pistons be built or designed? That’s the more pertinent question.
On to the second: Is James Harden a player of this caliber? Before I sat down to write this, my answer was going to be a confident Yes, but now that I’m looking at that list above, I’m not nearly as confident. If you would’ve just asked “Is James Harden a superstar?” I would’ve said Yes, absolutely. A player doesn’t perform at that consistently high level while donning what’s becoming an iconic beard and not reach superstar status. But is Harden of the ilk of the players above? Not today, not for me. Can Harden get there with a better supporting cast? With time, bumps, bruises and failures, I think he has a chance, but it’s a long one. The way the Rockets are constructed today, they’re a low-end playoff team that happens to be entertaining to watch. For Harden and the Rockets to climb into that contending echelon, a second (super) star is necessary.
Ian: You’ve just presented the standard ‘need a star’ argument, one that holds a lot of truth. But I feel like the truth is carried by the wisdom of hindsight, and just looking at a list like that is misleading. My first complaint is the common characterization of the 2004 Detroit Pistons as a team without a star. Ben Wallace’s defensive production that season was absolutely star-quality. It doesn’t get recognized as such because it didn’t involve offense. This strikes me as a more than a little hypocritical since several players on the list you provided were exceptional offensively, but as inept and limited on defensive as Wallace was on offense. What I think makes the Pistons unique is that their star was a defensive one, balanced by a ‘good-enough’ offensive system. Whereas essentially every other team has the inverse construction, an offensive star and a ‘good-enough’ defensive system. They didn’t lack talent, it was just organized differently. I think the reason we find so many commonalities in the construction of championship teams is that there is a dominant template for team construction in the NBA. We can’t point to a balanced team like the Nuggets winning a title, not because it’s impossible, but because there haven’t been many teams built like the Nuggets.
My other complaint is that the whole concept of a ‘star’ is a mythical construction of hindsight and our imagination. For example, Dirk Nowitzki’s playoff track record indicated he has not a star of suitably potent quality to win a championship with, until he actually, you know, won a championship. I think most anyone would say that Carmelo Anthony was the type of star player you can build a championship team around, but the fact that hasn’t actually happened would seem to indicate otherwise. You don’t become part of this ‘championship-level-star’ club until you’re actually a championship-winning-star. The question of whether a team has a single player, talented enough to lead their team to a championship, is ultimately much less important than questions of system, depth, health, luck and chemistry.
I think to win a championship you need very good players, who perform at their very best when the opportunity demands it. In that context I think James Harden absolutely has the potential to be the central cog in championship chase.
Kris: I agree with your comments on Ben Wallace; that he was a star defensively that season (his d-rating of 87.48 was the lowest in league history, but I also think it’s a stretch to put him at the caliber of the other players on that list. His offense was utterly putrid (TS% .441, eFG% .422). It was bags of garbage stacked high on scorching NYC sidewalks in the dead of summer wretched. It was less refined than Reggie Evans’s offense and just fractions better than Dennis Rodman’s. To further your point, there’s a huge opportunity for us to reassess our views of defensive superstars like Wallace, Dennis Rodman or Dikembe Mutombo, etc. while simultaneously re-defnining what “superstar” means. At present, it feels as arbitrary and vague as the MVP criteria.
There’s definitely value to constructing teams in the manner of the 2004 Pistons (or a variation of said model), but it’s a massive stretch to speculate other models can/would be successful. You cite two teams (2012-13 Nuggets and 2003-04 Pistons) over the course of 30+ seasons as possible alternatives and while I don’t disagree, it seems like a reach to go against the “dominant template” that’s proven successful (if done intelligently—which is no different than the approach of the 2004 Pistons or any other approach). And I don’t see it as an impossibility for these teams to win, but rather something that’s hard as hell to do. I have a hunch that you’d like to see teams that lack star power take a more intelligent analytical approach to constructing rosters and if that hunch is on point, I agree with you. I’d love to see radically different styles achieve success. As basketball fans, I hope all of us desire improvement, innovation, and (depending on your view of the game) variation.
I agree that Dirk’s championship victory (basically a 21-game streak of beatifically beautiful basketball highlighted by 48 points on 15 shots against OKC in the WCF) reshaped the historic view we have of him. That being said, there are counterarguments to be made that “stars” can be constructed through titles or in hindsight or imagination. Karl Malone and Charles Barkley come to mind when thinking of players who were clearly stars without winning titles. In the case of these two, and other great players from this era (think Clyde Drexler and Gary Payton), they were continually thwarted by superior teams/stars and while they took criticisms for their lack of titles or inability to win titles as “the man,” these were superstars both at the time and in retrospect. Looking at Barkley’s or Malone’s careers and stats (advanced or traditional), they match up favorably with players that won titles and the same goes for Dirk. By contrast, Carmelo Anthony fits absolutely no statistical criteria for being a star; not in terms of advanced or traditional statistics, not in terms of winning, but only in terms of public perception (driven by NBA, sponsor, and team marketing campaigns) and the assessment of his value by NBA front offices (which likely take a lot more into account than just stats and wins and losses). He is a contrived superstar, a chimerical superstar.
And again we return to the mystery man himself: James Harden. I compared his current stats to each of the “stars” associated with championships that I sent in my previous response and I was pleasantly surprised to see how favorably his impact this season compares with the previous “stars.” His win-shares/48 this season are on par with Dirk’s title season, Duncan’s 1998-99 title season and fall just fractions behind Bird’s ’84 and Magic’s ’85 championships while ranking higher than both of Olajuwon’s title seasons, Kobe’s two most recent titles and Isiah Thomas’s back-to-back titles. I’m not referencing ws/48 as the end-all for performance, but in terms of impact and in concert with off/def-ratings and off/def win-shares and shows Harden comparing favorably to other championship “stars” in all categories with the exception of defensive win-shares. Brief side note: Not to use Melo as a poster boy for the illusory NBA superstar, but in Harden’s single season as a team’s focal point, he’s already exceeding Melo’s best seasons in terms of off/def-rating, offensive win shares, win shares and ws/48.
Back to Harden: looking at the stats brings me closer to where I was before I sat down to write the initial response (asserting Harden is a superstar), but like so many young players, I’m not in a hurry to make that statement. I think he can be that guy, but still feel there’s work to be done on the defensive end and with the Rockets roster. And for full view to my doubts, my reluctance to pin the title on the Harden is likely due in part to the small sample size we have of him as the go-to guy. The playoffs will be a great insight into Harden’s current level of play and ability to make adjustments while also providing him with much-needed experience going against defenses routinely designed to make his basketball-playing existence more challenging than it is during the regular season. In my more selfish dreams, we’d be watching a Rockets-Thunder Western Conference Final in two years.
Ian: I think the sinkhole in this discussion is the word star, and the way it’s used as an enormous hammer to pound in all manner of nails. There are degrees of stardom, shaded by personality, media exposure, legacy and of course actual production. Carmelo Anthony was a star. From the moment he walked into the league he was one of the NBA’s most engaging personalities on and off the court, and a dominant scorer. He’s been the centerpiece of multiple playoff teams, but the lack of success after reaching postseason has started to mount and I think people have started to question whether he could be the centerpiece of a championship team. Melo is still clearly a star in the media exposure/popularity sense. He’s also probably still a star in terms of raw production. But the perception is that he’s no longer a ‘STAR’ of the kind you need to win a championship.
The whole thing is ridiculous. Could the Knicks win a championship with a roster built around Melo? Absolutely! Is it likely to happen this season? Almost certainly not. But if it doesn’t happen I don’t think it’s because he wasn’t enough of a ‘star’, in whatever sense of the word you would use it. There is clearly a delineation between the production of Melo or Harden and someone like Kobe or LeBron. But Kobe and LeBron don’t have rings just because of that chasm of ability. They have rings because they played with Shane Battier, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Udonis Haslem, Pau Gasol, Shaq, Robert Horry, Derek Fisher, Rick Fox and Brian Shaw; and when the moment demanded the entire team rose to the occasion. It would certainly help the Knicks championship chances if Melo played like LeBron, but ultimately it would demand extended terrific performances from his teammates, just like LeBron and Kobe have had.
My argument is that winning a championship requires a group of very good players who perform at their very best when they have to. Almost every team in the NBA chooses to structure that group with one or two stars and a collection of role players. But I think the essential elements are not how that group is structured, but instead the fact that the group needs to be very good and that they need to perform at their very best. In that context, the Nuggets are contenders if they can resolve the issue of performing at their very best. In that contest, James Harden is more than enough ‘star’ and the championship question in Houston will be answered mostly by the players around him.