Rockets GM Daryl Morey: ‘It’s just factual that James Harden is a better scorer than Michael Jordan’

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Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni called James Harden the best offensive player he’d ever seen. That generated enough controversy.

But specifically invoking the name of an all-time great with highly protective fans? That’ll spark far more animus.

Rockets general manager Daryl Morey went there.

Alykhan Bijani of The Athletic:

Morey:

It’s just factual that James Harden is a better scorer than Michael Jordan.

You give James Harden the ball, and before you’re giving up the ball, how many points do you generate? – which is how you should measure offense – James Harden is by far number one in NBA history. And he was number one even at the Oklahoma City Thunder. It’s just he was coming off the bench. It was a little more hidden.

The counter argument is reasonable. They say if you put Michael Jordan on a team now, he would do more than James Harden. That’s possible. But if you’re just saying, NBA history, if you give this guy the ball, how much does his team score after you give him the ball before the other team gets the ball, it’s James Harden. And I know that makes people mad. But it’s literally a fact.

I don’t like Morey’s method of ranking scorers. By counting team scoring on possessions the player has a touch, it includes too many other factors like distributing and gravity. To me, an individual’s scoring ability is based on his own ability to get points.

I view scoring by a combination of usage and efficiency. The more possessions an elite player can use, the better. The more efficiently he uses those possessions, the better. There’s usually a tradeoff. If players increase their workload, they’re generally adding less efficient shots, because they’re already taking the more efficient ones.

Comparing eras is difficult. Scoring efficiency has increased league-wide since Jordan’s time.

The defense is way different. Illegal-defense rules in Jordan’s era limited help defense. But off-ball offensive players pulled defenders to the 3-point arc – let alone way beyond the 3-point arc like Harden’s Houston teammates often do – far less often.

Players have also gotten more skilled. Harden grew up with the 3-pointer. When Jordan was young, it was more of a novelty.

There are numerous ways to account for those era differences. It’s just important to set the terms. Morey said he’s talking about what the players did, not what they could have done. So, I’ll stick with that.

Let’s look at both Harden’s and Jordan’s primes, which start with their age-22 seasons. For Harden, that lasts through the present. For Jordan, that lasts through his final Bulls season (no Wizards years).

Here’s how Harden’s and Jordan’s prime seasons rate by usage percentage and true shooting percentage:

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Harden has had a few scoring seasons better than Jordan ever did. Soon to turn 30, Harden could produce even more.

But Jordan had more great scoring seasons than Harden has so far, even if several of them fall below Harden’s top standard.

Whether Harden or Jordan rates as a better scorer depends how you value longevity. It’s debatable.

In the regular season.

In the playoffs, Jordan was a far better scorer than Harden. Here’s how the players rank on the same scale in the postseason:

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This is not a surprise. Jordan is known for his legendary postseason output. He didn’t singlehandedly win six championships, but he played a huge role in the Bulls’ playoff dominance.

Harden remains a superb scorer in the playoffs, but his production slips. Maybe he gets worn down. Maybe defenses become accustomed to his tricks when playing him several straight games. I think it’s some of both. But when comparing him at this level, he doesn’t hold up.

Jordan was a better scorer than Harden. The playoffs matter too much to say otherwise.

Morey might object, but remember, his job isn’t to accurately analyze players’ historic accomplishments for public consumption. He’s focused on helping Houston, and he clearly believes that involves gassing up Harden.