In his first five years in the NBA, Wilt Chamberlain averaged 41.6 points, 25.3 rebounds, and 3 assists a game. Wilt would dominate, his team would lose. Sounds familiar? We think James Harden and his career path is something special, but as always, history repeats itself, and the lesson is still the same - basketball is a team sport!
Many fans in Houston are frustrated with James Harden's willingness to share the ball and play a more team-oriented style in Brooklyn. Their logic is simple - if only he were willing to do so with Chris Paul or Russell Westbrook, he could've been a champion with the Rockets!
We'll never know if that's true, but the fact remains Harden didn't want to do what it takes to be the leader of a winning team. Instead, he chose individual achievements and accolades. Leaving Houston gives him an excuse. If the Nets win, he can say, "See, it wasn't me, it was them." I don't buy that.
Wilt had a similar story. His monster stats supported his narrative - I'm amazing, but my supporting cast sucks. Both Wilt in his beginning and Harden his whole career never stopped to think maybe it's their style of play, the one that brings all the stats, making the supporting cast worse? Bob Cousy called Chamberlain out in 1964, but he might as well been writing about Harden.
“Basketball is a team game. When it becomes a one-man operation, as it did after Chamberlain came to Philadelphia, it just doesn't work. You cannot expect nine other guys to submerge themselves and their abilities to another man. It particularly doesn't work when the man everybody else is feeding isn't helping the others whenever and wherever he can.”
Bob Cousy, “The Last Loud Roar”
We can swap out “Chamberlain to Philadelphia” with “Harden to Houston,” and the message still fits perfectly. From everything revolving around one guy to the lack of effort on anything but posting stats. Cousy went further and predicted Moreyball. You can probably guess what his sentiment was about the logic that a Harden contested three is better than someone else's open midrange.
“The argument can be made that Chamberlain only suffers from a poor supporting cast. If you have a man that makes better than 50 percent of his shots, the argument goes, why shouldn't you concentrate on getting the ball to him whenever possible? Carrying on to its logical conclusion, I would have to ask why you should ever let any other player on the team shoot at all. No, statistics mean nothing in basketball.”
Bob Cousy, “The Last Loud Roar”
I don't think statistics mean nothing in basketball, but Cousy's overall point stands. There are diminishing returns to someone taking all the shots, as we've seen in Harden's repeated meltdowns in important playoff games. His eFG% was over 50% the entire time Harden was with the Rockets, yet they failed as a team year after year.
All this made me think how underappreciated Dirk Nowitzki is. In an era where the dominant thinking was you need 3 superstars to win, Dirk did it with the Mavs in 2011. Looking at Cousy's quotes, it worked because while everything revolved around Nowitzki, but unlike Harden, Dirk was “helping others whenever and wherever he can.” Nowitzki never lost sight of the fact basketball is a team sport.
Dirk elevated the cast around him; Harden didn't. Harden has the stats; Dirk has the ring. The most important thing a star has is the awareness he still needs four other guys to win. We need to start appreciating the ones that get that more.
(And read more books.)