No player, other than possibly Kobe Bryant, draws more ire from Portland Trail Blazers fans than James Harden.
The Blazer faithful love to hate Harden. They argue that the Houston guard regularly embellishes contact to the point of flopping and is the worst defender in the league, while also reveling in Harden's subpar 2014 postseason performance.
The distaste reached a boiling point during the hotly contested playoff series between the Blazers and Rockets two years ago. Portland ultimately prevailed by 0.9 seconds, but being exposed to Harden's antics for six consecutive games generated enough vitriol to ensure that Portland fans would detest him for years to come.
With that in mind, it's easy to imagine that a number of Blazers backers were disproportionately displeased with a column penned by ESPN's Zach Lowe on Tuesday. In that article, Lowe not only snubs Lillard from his All-Star team, but openly compares the Blazers beloved star to the abhorred Harden. Lowe writes:
Lillard is Point Guard Harden -- an offense-only player who controls that half of the game when he's rolling. Opposing defenses have to extend themselves to take away Lillard's off-the-bounce 3s, just as they do with Curry, and that structural manipulation gives Portland a head start every night. He's just not as physically imposing as Harden; when Lillard's triple isn't falling, he can't compensate with pulverizing drives and heaps of free throws. If you want him in, that's fine. He falls just short here.
Most Blazers fans probably recoiled in horror after reading that paragraph. In the eyes of the Portland fans, Lillard is absolutely not, and never will be, the flopper or malcontent that they perceive Harden to be. But move past the initial visceral reaction, and Lowe's claim becomes harder to dismiss. After all, Harden and Lillard are both high volume scorers at the focal point of their teams' offenses. And they do both struggle on defense.
Is it possible that Damian Lillard actually is a point guard version of James Harden?
When Lowe likens Lillard to Harden as a player who "controls [the offense] of the game when he's rolling," he's certainly not wrong. Both players are the unchallenged offensive focal point of their respective team's attack. Harden and Lillard both have usage exceeding 31 percent and they are two of only three players in the league in the top 10 in both points and assists per game. Both players are also in the top eight for offensive box plus/minus. The Rockets and Blazers are more reliant on their individual star players than almost any other teams in the league.
The focus on Harden and Lillard turns them into basketball versions of a black hole - the gravity of their offensive skills sucks all defense toward them. Opposing defenders commonly abandon other players to key in on Harden and Lillard; On almost every play keen observers will see multiple opponents sneaking looks at the two stars away from the play.
Both Harden and Lillard are adept at leveraging the defensive attention into scoring opportunities for teammates. They have good vision and find the open man when doubled. Harden's passing ability is exceptional for a shooting guard, regularly hitting teammates with cross-court skip passes on the numbers for open 3-point shots. The Rockets have made this skill into an integral part of their offense. Harden can also thread the needle of the defense, throwing passes in tight spots for highlight reel assists.
Lillard's passing skills are not as flashy but, like Harden, he thrives on exploiting double tams and off balance opponents. Even when operating outside of his usual pick-and-roll comfort zone, Lillard is adept at quickly reading the defense and finding the open man.
Lillard has had these skills for years, but they have become even more important this season with the departure of Portland's other playmakers and scorers during the offseason.
At a more detailed level, however, the similarities between Harden and Lillard start to break down. Most notably, Harden operates with an inside-out offensive attack, while Lillard prefers an outside-in approach.
Harden has a unique body composition and skillset that makes him especially effective driving toward the basket. His footwork is impeccable and his finishing ability is top notch. His balance and body control are probably the best in the entire league. He's like a dancer in the way he can isolate body parts and move them independently to fool those around him. Harden is also very strong and has long arms and a low center of gravity, giving him an athletic advantage over defenders. The end result is that he can string together a series of moves and countermoves as he drives in a way that keeps defenders off-balance and unsure of what move he will use next. The consequence: Harden has made 147 shots within eight feet of the rim (stats per www.nbawowy.com), and averages a league-high 10.2 free throws per game.
Lillard, on the other hand, has become a competent penetrator, but it still is not his forte. Dame gets to the basket by using explosive speed to beat his primary defender and score before the defense completes its rotation, but he still has trouble getting his shot off against a big man already set up in the lane. He often appears to be sneaking his shot up by trying to scoop it around a shotblocker, or attempts a reverse lay-up to to tie the defender up in the rim. The result is that Lillard shoots only 43 percent at the rim (compard to 53 percent for Harden) and is among the league leaders in getting his shot blocked. Lillard also averages only 5.3 free throws per game.
Lillard's offense relies on his reputation as a 3-point threat. As outlined by sbnation's Mike Prada yesterday, Lillard forces defenses to come out deeper onto the court than most other shooters, improving spacing, and facilitating Portland's playmaking. Indeed, Lillard has hit more deep three pointers (27+ feet) than anyone in the league other Steph Curry, and is making a remarkable 39 percent of them. Harden is a competent outside shooter, but relies on his mid-range game and deep ball as a counter to his primary at the rim attack.
Partially because of their differences in style, the Portland and Houston offenses differ significantly in how they use Lillard and Harden. Most notably, Harden works out of isolation in 27.5 percent of his possessions, whereas Lillard is isolated on only 16.1 percent of possessions. The Blazers, however, run pick-and-rolls on 42 percent of Lillard's possessions (402 total, third in the NBA), whereas only 25 percent of Harden's possessions are pick-and-rolls.
Finally, it's been well documented that both players are bad defenders. Lillard, for example, regularly fails to anticipate screens and the Blazers are often forced to switch into mismatches as a result.
Lillard has improved at staying in front of his man, but still lets an opposing point guard run down the lane with little resistance on a regular basis, leading to foul shots or open 3-pointers. Portland's big men are among the league leaders in fouls per minute, partially as a result of this.
Harden's defensive troubles seem to be more mental. He improved last season, but regressed this year to the point that he was called out by teammates and fans alike. It has been speculated that Kevin McHale was fired partially for trying to hold Harden accountable on defense. As mentioned above, Harden has the body and athletic ability to be a plus defender, and showed signs of defensive potential last year, but subpar effort continues to be a problem.
So, was Zach Lowe right? Is Damian Lillard the "James Harden of point guards?" The players do differ significantly in their style and the way that they exploit defenses, but ultimately the results are the same. Their teams rely on them to be the primary scorer while also getting teammates involved. On a good night, Lillard or Harden can win a game by themselves.
Many Portland fans took issue with Lowe's assertion that Lillard lacks the "pulverizing drive" of Harden, but that does seem to be accurate. Harden can score around the rim or draw free throws against almost any defense, partially because of his physical strength. Lillard has improved around the hoop, but he is not the sure thing to score in that range that Harden is and draws only about half as many free throws as Harden.
Overall, Lowe's assessment seems to be spot-on. And that's not necessarily bad for the Blazers. Last season, Harden was a legitimate MVP contender and led his team to the Western Conference Finals. The fact that Lillard is even being compared to a player of that caliber bodes well for his reputation around the league, and for the Blazers' long term prospects.
It is also important to note that perceived negative aspects of Harden's game are unlikely to be mimicked by Lillard. Harden's hard driving physical style, which is conducive to questionable calls and flopping, is not replicable by the majority of players. Lillard's problems on defense are based on technique and presumably solvable, whereas Harden's struggles have been a result of low effort. The overall effect that Lillard has on the Blazers may be similar to the effect that Harden has on the Rockets, as Lowe writes, but the actual on-court product of the two will never be confused.
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