Faceoff: Is James Harden the best scorer in NBA history? (Part 1)

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Recently, Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morrey came out with a statement that James Harden is a better scorer than Michael Jordan. “It’s just factual that James is a better scorer than Michael…You give James the ball and before you’re giving up the ball how many points do you generate, which is how you should measure offense, James is by far #1 in NBA history.” he was quoted to have said. It quickly caught fire and sparked disagreements and debates.

What’s a scorer?

Well, debate about topics like this needs parameters of the arguments. How do we define scorer as it could be interpreted in several ways?

For this piece, a scorer is somebody who can generate points while shooting efficiently when a team gives him the green light to go get one because they needed to score. Not who scores most, not who averaged most.

Not the one who makes buckets during garbage time. Some points of the NBA’s top scorers came when the defense has already backed up.

This is how I see a scorer. He is the player who can manufacture points when the defense is at its best. He is the one who responds efficiently to a coach who says “Here’s the ball, go get points. No matter how you do it, just give us baskets cause we need to win.”

James Harden is a great scorer, nobody is arguing this. It’s the “he is a greater scorer than” statement that is ridiculous to some. Let’s do a little refresher to check out some data about him and the other great scorers that ever played in the league.

The versatile ones

The kind of scorer I liked watching the most are the ones who can make clutch baskets in so many ways making the defense helpless even if they knew what was exactly going to happen. Here are my best of them:

Michael Jordan

Key stats: 30.1 PPG, 50.1% from 2-point range, 32.7% from 3-point land, 83.5% from the foul line and 118 offensive rating (an estimate of points produced by an individual for every 100 possessions).

Air Jordan dunks. He can post up. He was athletic. He was a good free throw shooter. He developed a decent three point shot later in his career. Can you come up with a better finisher when going to the basket in league history than this man?

Defenses could not stop him even if they knew he was getting the ball and was going to score. The Detroit Pistons had to make up what they call ‘The Jordan Rules’ in attempts just slow him down.

Nobody was better at putting the ball in the hole when needed and he consequently made a lot of defenses and opposing fans shiver whenever he asks for the ball. Just give him the ball and isolate him, he will get it done.

Larry Bird

Key stats: 24.3 PPG, 50.9% from 2-point range, 37.6% from 3-point land, 88.6% from the foul line, and 115 offensive rating.

Another guy who loves to demand the ball and made teams and opposing fans leave playing venues in tears when his work is done.

The Hick from French Lick got points on virtually every part of the floor. He could do it in the post, from the perimeter or way beyond and was a great finisher as well.

If you include the points his teammates made because of his ability to create shots for them in the crucial minutes, he would be way, way up on this list, along with Lebron James.

He was the first one who consistently use the three pointer as a dagger in the dying seconds. The only thing missing in his offensive arsenal is the lack of athleticism that should result to highlights above the rim.

He’s another who you just give the ball and wait for the scoreboard to change. He normally goes to score himself but could create the opportunity for his teammates to do it.

Kevin Durant

Key stats: 27.0 PPG, 53.2% from 2-point range, 38.1% from 3-point land, 88.3% from the foul line, and 117 offensive rating.

This generation of basketball fans witness how he would get the ball in critical moments and come up with crucial baskets during the Golden State Warriors and Oklahoma City Thunder runs in the playoffs.

What else could we say on this lanky, long forward’s ability to generate points? He could simply do it anywhere on the floor. The only doubt we won’t get a true answer for is can he use his speed against bigger, heavier opponents or take advantage of his size by posting up smaller defenders, both in situations where going to the paint is the primary option, hand checking is available, physicality level is higher, and the illegal defense is applied?

We could say he is today’s Larry Bird with the athleticism.

Kobe Bryant

Key stats: 25.0 PPG, 47.9% from 2-point range, 32.9% from 3-point land, 83.7% from the foul line, and 110 offensive rating.

The Black Mamba connected on several kinds of shots, probably even more than Jordan himself. Shots of all types in any angle, difficulty and creativity.

He can do it in the post, terrific as a finisher, has a deadly jumpshot, is a better three point shooter than Jordan and was also very athletic. His overall efficiency, though, is something that declined later in his career.

His using of Jordan as a model in developing his career did justice very, very well to Jordan’s achievements, especially that as a scorer.

Hakeem Olajuwon

Key stats: 21.8 PPG, 51.2% from the field, 71.2% from the foul line, and 108 offensive rating.  

The Dream is undoubtedly the best versatile bigman scorer. He could well be the greatest post-scorer of all time with his guard-like moves and great footwork. He has a decent the mid-range jumper  and is pretty decent at the free throw line for a center.

Very few can slow him down when he executes his Dream Shake. His only weakness was a total lack of a three point shot, although that wasn’t really required from centers during his heyday.

Lebron James

Key stats: 27.2 PPG, 54.8% from 2-point range, 34.3%  from 3-point land, 73.6% from the foul line, and 116 offensive rating.

The King is the best well-rounded scorer of all-time. He “could” also get points almost everywhere like Bird and Durant only with lesser accuracy from three and on the line.

The knock on this guy is his being “passive” on putting the ball in the basket himself too often. He often passes up scoring opportunities to let his teammates do the clutch shot trick because he is supposedly “making the right basketball play”.

Others belonging to this category

The others who are in the top 50 NBA All-time scoring list that I would include in this category of scorers are: Paul Pierce, Allen Iverson, Carmelo Anthony, Charles Barkley, Dirk Nowitzki, Vince Carter, Dwayne Wade, and Joe Johnson. I have not enough viewable data and knowledge on the scoring ability of these guys but numerous accounts of those have seen them play say they are great versatile scorers too: Jerry West, Oscar Robertson, Alex English, and Bob Petit,

By:  Armando M. Bolislis, stats from NBA.com and Basketballreference.com
Banner illustration by Don Ray Ramos

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