James Harden finds himself in the midst of a burgeoning rankings debate for the second straight offseason.
The Rockets' All-Star guard asserted last September that he was "for sure" a top-10 player in the NBA after Kevin Durant opined that his former Thunder teammate should be ranked above Dwyane Wade on SI.com's "Top 10 Players of 2014" list. At the time, Harden ranked No. 11 overall on our list, trailing two other shooting guards: Wade (No. 8) and Kobe Bryant (No. 9).
One year later, Harden now looks like a reasonable candidate for the NBA's "best two guard" title thanks to an up-and-down season for Wade and a down-and-down season for Bryant. Houston's pairing of Harden with Dwight Howard produced 54 wins, homecourt advantage in the first round and the first All-NBA First Team selection of Harden's career.
At 24, Harden is motoring toward his prime as Wade, Bryant and Manu Ginobili are petering off to varying degrees. The league's other high-profile young two guards -- Bradley Beal, Klay Thompson, Lance Stephenson and DeMarDeRozan, to name a few -- don't offer serious competition at this point. Harden's 23.5 Player Efficiency Rating and 12.8 Win Shares simply dwarf the other under-25 players at his spot. That said, the advanced stats similarly place a healthy distance between LeBron James and Durant, the consensus top two players in the league, and Harden.
So what's spawning this summer's conversation if Harden's stature among the league's best is so clear-cut? The answer to that question is Harden himself, who now believes he is the king of the NBA's mountain.
"I'm the best all-around basketball player in the NBA," Harden said during an interview promoting the NBA 2K15 video game. "Steph Curry would probably be the best shooter, pure shooter in the NBA. [Durant] would probably be the best scorer in the NBA. Anthony Davis probably would be the best shot-blocker in the NBA."
It's worth noting that Curry, Durant and Davis all participated in similar promotional interviews, a fact that may or may not have influenced Harden's views.
Harden's self-assessment came shortly after he replied "myself" in an ESPN.com interview when asked to name the "best basketball player alive right now." Lest Harden sound borderline delusional, he later added, smartly, that he was "trying to catch" James, Durant and Bryant, before concluding: "Until I get rings I can't say anything."
Thoroughly parsing Harden's "best all-around player" claim would be an excessive and somewhat misguided exercise, as any bona fide All-NBA player can rightfully say that, on many nights, he is the game's top talent. Even a short stop at the absolute echelon -- who was better than Harden on Feb. 25, when he scored 43 points on 20 shots while dishing eight assists in a blowout win over the Kings? -- is enough to make a super-talented, hyper-competitive athlete believe he is the best.
An objective, wide-angle approach quickly separates the wheat from the chaff, if such separation was still necessary after the Internet spent months guffawing over the extended video reel of Harden's clueless plays on defense. The strongest, simplest argument against Harden's assertion is a direct comparison with James, whose long record of MVP awards, All-NBA and All-Defensive selections, and two recent titles combine to make him the no-brainer favorite for the "Best all-around player" title. In 2013-14, James outperformed Harden in all of the following statistical categories: points, rebounds, assists, field goal percentage, three-point field goal percentage, true shooting percentage, PER, Win Shares and net rating. What's more, James' Heat jogged to their fourth straight Finals appearance, while Harden struggled to make a lasting impact as the Rockets were bounced from the first round by the Blazers.
Many will shout this week that Harden's lack of self-awareness here matches his notorious lack of defensive awareness. After all, Durant offered a humbler, more precise description of his own skills during his NBA 2K15 interview: "I think I'm best at scoring. I feel like I'm an all-around player. I may not be the best rebounder, passer or defensive player, but I feel like I'm the best scorer." Those words set up Harden nicely to be the egotistical black hat by comparison, a shoot-first, flop-happy scorer prematurely gunning for a coveted title that he hasn't earned.
Such a painting wouldn't be completely fair. Harden must improve his defense, shot selection, leadership and, as he acknowledged, he must stockpile some postseason successes before he can seriously challenge James and Durant. But there shouldn't be any shame in falling short of the standard set by those two players, and a conversation that starts and ends with "Sorry, Harden just isn't the NBA's best all-around player" overlooks what was a very special 2013-14 regular season. Harden's PER ranked No. 1 at his position and No. 4 among guards -- trailing Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook and Curry -- but even that doesn't really do it justice.
For instance: Over the last 20 seasons, the only other players to average 25 points, six assists and four rebounds per game before turning 25, as Harden did, are James, Wade and Derrick Rose. That places Harden in the thick of the "best all-around offensive player" discussion right now, and suggests he could be a very serious contender for the MVP award in the not-too-distant future.
Those who spent last fall vouching for Harden as a member of the NBA's Top 10 proved to be prescient, rather than overzealous. At this very moment, Harden's "best all-around player" claim lands somewhere between "impossible to justify" and "way too early." Will that still be the case one year from now? Two years from now? What about five years from now, when Harden will be James' current age of 29? The takeaway question from this discussion shouldn't be whether or not Harden is certifiably insane.
Instead, the NBA world should be pondering whether Harden has the dedication and mental focus necessary to deliver on his optimistic viewpoint, in the same way that Durant channeled "I'm tired of being second" to reach new statistical milestones and finally topple James in the 2014 MVP race. The sky is the limit if Harden gets serious about obsessively eradicating the weaknesses from his game.