Whenever James Harden and Damian Lillard square off, it's a matchup of two of the best offensive weapons the league has to offer.
While there isn't a bad choice between them, NBA.com's Carlan Gay (@TheCarlanGay) and Scott Rafferty (@crabdribbles), take to court to answer a simple question: Is Harden or Lillard the better offensive player?
The two will make their arguments and then ask their fellow NBA.com Global Staff to weigh-in and pick a winner.
Let's get to the proceedings.
Who's the better offensive player: James Harden or Damian Lillard?
Gay's case for Lillard: Listen, I love James Harden. He's one of the best players we have in the league right now and he's one of the best, if not the best, isolation scorers of all-time.
However, I think Damian Lillard is the more complete offensive weapon.
When you match them up side by side this season, it might surprise you to find out that Lillard is on par or better than Harden in a lot of offensive tracking stats.
According to NBA Stats, Harden is averaging 12.4 points off drives per game to Lillard's 10.5. Given the fact that the Beard averages three times as many isolation possessions - 14.2 per game to Lillard's 4.7 - that's to be expected. Like I said, Harden may be the best iso scorer of all-time, but there's more to offence than just isolation scoring, and that's where Dame has him beat in my opinion.
Lillard is generating more points off of catch-and-shoot opportunities this season than Harden and doing it more efficiently at 38.1 percent to Harden's 36.7. Lillard has been the more efficient pull-up shooter, knocking down 40.3 percent of his pull-up field goals to Harden's 34.8. And I know that Harden has pretty much eliminated the midrange shot from his game, but Dame is besting him there too, knocking down 50.0 percent of his elbow-touch field goals to Harden's 33.3 percent.
No one takes more above the break 3s than Harden at 12.0 attempts per game. His step-back 3 has become a nightmare to guard - it's his bread and butter and rightfully so. Harden is shooting 36.9 percent on step-back 3s this season. Ridiculous, right? Well, Dame has been more efficient than him in that department, nailing an absurd 48.6 percent of his step-back triples.
Harden has owned both offensive win shares and offensive box score plus-minus over the last couple of seasons. This year he's in a real battle for both with Lillard. It will literally come down to the final games of the year to crown a winner in both categories.
Like I said, I love Harden. I don't want this to sound like I'm discrediting his ability as an offensive weapon. I know the noise is that many players in his position - in the Mike D'Antoni offence - would be putting up the insane numbers he has over the last couple of years. I don't agree with that. It takes a special talent to do what he's doing. But that's another conversation for another time.
This is about who's the pound for pound better offensive player.
Damian Lillard is the right choice.
Lillard can hurt you in more ways than Harden can and he's doing it efficiently. It's a shame that it's almost gone unnoticed.
Rafferty's case for Harden: No disrespect to Lillard, but the answer is Harden, and it's not particularly close.
Look, Harden is arguably the best offensive player in the NBA right now, better even than Kawhi Leonard, LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo. He's led the league in scoring in each of the last three seasons, peaking last season with an average of 36.1 points per game. He wasn't known as much of a passer earlier in his career, but he's developed into an elite facilitator, leading the league with 11.2 assists per game in 2016-17 and posting 7.9 assists per game in the three seasons since.
Digging deeper, there isn't really a hole in his game anymore.
Harden's step back 3 has turned him into the league's most feared isolation scorer. (Seriously, his numbers on those plays are absurd. Not only is he scoring three times the amount of points in isolation than Lillard is this season - 16.0 points per game compared to 5.1 - Harden has been more efficient. When it comes to getting buckets 1-on-1, nobody does it better than Harden). Harden doesn't run nearly as many pick-and-rolls as he used to, but he is still dynamite in those situations thanks to an improved floater that gives him an answer to pretty much every coverage he's likely to face. And while very few of his baskets are assisted, him simply being on the court creates advantages for everyone else on the Rockets.
There have even been times over the last couple of the season where Harden hangs around the halfcourt line when he doesn't have the ball in his hands. Why? Because teams don't dare give him even an inch of space. That opens up opportunities for others, namely Russell Westbrook, to either attack the basket or free themselves up for an open 3.
Why does James Harden stand to the side at halfcourt?- Alykhan Bijani (@Rockets_Insider) January 13, 2020
I talked to players and coaches and got the answer. https://t.co/t52tUSD1it pic.twitter.com/so0lILBQ7o
Again, not to take anything away from Lillard, but not even he forces defences to make as many adjustments as Harden does on a game-to-game basis. Teams will literally double Harden as soon as he crosses halfcourt to get the ball out of his hands.
There are other little things that work in Harden's favour, like the fact that he's a little bigger than Lillard, which gives him the ability to see over defences when they double him and absorb more contact around the basket, helping him become one of most prolific foul drawers in NBA history.
This isn't a debate over who is the more versatile offensive player. (Even then, I still think the answer would be Harden). It's about who the best offensive player is. Sure, Lillard isn't quite as ball dominant and there are a few things that he does better than Harden, but when you take everything into account, I'll take the guy who can get 30 points per game in his sleep and has almost as many 50-point triple-doubles as every other player in NBA history combined.
Gilbert McGregor (@GMcGregor21): This… is not easy.
I entered this one about as neutral as possible, having watched both James Harden and Damian Lillard post big numbers on numerous occasions. It's almost impossible to come to a verdict here.
I gotta give the slight edge to Harden, who is doing some things of historic proportions that we may never see again. He stands to become just the eighth player in league history to win three consecutive scoring titles, joining a list that includes names like Jordan, Durant, Gervin and Chamberlain. People might complain about the way in which he draws fouls, but honestly, I consider it a skill to be able to get to the line as much as Harden does.
The step-back is lethal, the floater is hard to deal with and he lives at the line. Anytime you can pencil someone in for over 34 points a night, it's hard to argue anyone else is better at scoring the rock.
Leandro Fernández (@FernandezLea): As Gil said, this is not easy at all. But as Gil said, the correct answer here should be Harden.
I'm saying that as someone who is more on the side of "Harden's only forcing fouls to go to the line" than the "Harden is unlike anyone we've ever seen" one. But you have to give him credit for who he is. He's one of the best offensive players in NBA history, someone with the complete bag of tricks who adds something new to his game each and every year. I mean, we are talking about someone who is averaging almost 34 points per game over the last three seasons. He's even improved defensively, to the point where he's not a turnstile on that end of the court anymore.
I love Dame. It feels like he's constantly underrated. But Harden is the best offensive player here.
Benyam Kidane (@BenyamKidane): There's nearly no separating these two on the offensive end, but I'm going with Carlan and Damian Lillard.
James Harden could well be one of the greatest scorers in NBA history, but Damian Lillard's overall impact on the offensive end wins out for me. His ability to create his own shot from anywhere on the court, while still marshaling the Blazers offence with 8.0 assists per game makes him the complete package.
When you need offence late in games - one shot, you're calling Damian Lillard.
Final vote: Harden wins 2-1.
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