James Harden vs. Kawhi Leonard: Two-Way Impact and the NBA MVP

Nov 9, 2016; San Antonio, TX, USA; Houston Rockets shooting guard James Harden (13) drives to the basket while guarded by San Antonio Spurs small forward Kawhi Leonard (2) during the second half at AT&T Center. The rockets won 101-99. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports
Nov 9, 2016; San Antonio, TX, USA; Houston Rockets shooting guard James Harden (13) drives to the basket while guarded by San Antonio Spurs small forward Kawhi Leonard (2) during the second half at AT&T Center. The rockets won 101-99. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports /

Kawhi Leonard is the league’s best two-way player while James Harden is arguably the league’s best offensive player. When it comes to the MVP race, how much does two-way impact matter?

As the season comes to a close, there’s growing consideration for Kawhi Leonard as the NBA MVP. It’s understandable–he’s clearly the best player on a 60+ win team. However, his candidacy is also supported by the insistence that his defense makes him an overall better or more impactful player than James Harden.

I’m fine with Kawhi getting MVP consideration if the criteria is “best player on the best team”. But for him to draw consideration with the argument that he helps his team more than James Harden is a mind-frame that I can’t help but question.

The traditional line of thinking is that Kawhi is comparable to Harden from an offensive standpoint and that the gap on defense is large enough to give Kawhi a significant “two-way” advantage. Obviously, the gap between the two defenders is significant. Harden has had his struggles on that end and Kawhi is a two-time Defensive Player of the Year. However, it is unrealistic to assume that a wing player can impact the game defensively on the same level as a ball dominant point guard on offense.

For example, with Kawhi Leonard on the court this year, the Spurs have a 103.8 defensive rating. With him off the court, they have a 95.6 defensive rating–a full 8.2 points better. That’s not to say that Kawhi has a negative impact at all; he’s handicapped by the below average defensive talent in the starting lineup. This goes to show that even a two-time DPOY’s impact can be drastically reduced by the defense around him.

This was broken down by CBS’s Matt Moore, who detailed the tactics teams are using to nullify Kawhi’s impact. Here’s an example from Moore’s piece that shows how opposing teams are able to “Kawhisolate” Leonard and keep him away from the action. Watch as Jimmy Butler stands as far away from the play as possible. He forces Kawhi to remove himself from helping on defense to avoid the risk of allowing an open three.

Essentially, an individual defender can directly impact only a limited number of possessions. That can’t be said for an offensive fulcrum like James Harden.

For one thing, according to NBA Player Tracking, Harden touches the ball 99.3 times per game. You could make the case that Harden has an impact on all of those possessions. However, for the sake of fairness, let’s just narrow it down to the possessions he impacts impacts directly through points and potential assists. Of those 99.3 possessions, Harden will shoot, draw a foul, or create a potential assist for a teammate on over 45 of them. He directly affects more than 45% of his team’s possessions while on the court. 

In comparison, Kawhi steals the ball 1.9 times a game, contests 9.2 shots and keeps opponents to 44.6% shooting. Those are great numbers, but they amount to just over 10% of his teams defensive possessions. They can hardly compare to the number of possessions that an offensive superstar is able to affect. For that reason, it’s difficult, and arguably foolish, to weigh both sides of the ball equally.

A lot of old-heads might have stopped reading by now in disgust at this assertion, but the facts are difficult to ignore. Defense is extremely important, but it’s heavily reliant on coaching, execution, communication and chemistry. In the macrocosm of an NBA game, defense is just as important–perhaps more important–than offense. But from the microcosm of an individual player, it’s a different story. There’s a very real limit to how much individual impact one guy can have on that side of the ball. Essentially, what I’m saying is that offense is worth more than defense on an individual level.

If you don’t believe me, take it from Dean Oliver, who mentioned the same thing in a True Hoops analytically inclined MVP debate:

"“I love defense — far more than offense — but I don’t hold individual D against players as much in award voting. Defense is a lot about system, and I think the Warriors’ guys, for instance, do get the benefit of being in a very good defensive system. Kawhi Leonard is a major defensive force who is also helped by system.”"

Coaching and execution are as pivotal to a team’s defense as any individual player. That’s why the Spurs are able to have so much success without their two-time DPOY on the court. Now I’m not trying to use these numbers to argue that James Harden is anywhere near as good as Kawhi on defense. All I’m saying is that we shouldn’t be so quick to crown Kawhi as MVP on the back of his perceived two-way impact.

The point here is not that Kawhi isn’t a good defender–he is unarguably one of the best. Instead, it’s that the importance of defense in individual award voting should not be placed as high as offense. If you’re on board with the fact that individual defense matters little compared to individual offense, then the obvious next step is to asses the two players’ offense.

Offensive Comparison

When discussing the MVP race there, is one thing that can’t be called into question: James Harden’s historical effect on offense. As Kelly Scaletta of FanRag Sports wrote, Harden may be having the greatest offensive season of all time. And no, that isn’t a hyperbole, writes Scaletta. According the the numbers, Harden is impacting the game at a volume and efficiency that can’t be matched in NBA history.

what people seem to ignore is the massive edge that James Harden has in the play-making department. While their scoring numbers are comparable, it’s Harden’s ability to create for others that establishes him on a separate tier.

Using a similar process to quantify and compare the impact of James Harden and Kawhi Leonard, I’ve concluded that the traditional line of thinking that these two are comparable on offense is misleading. Kawhi may be elite on offense, but Harden is historically great.

First, let’s take a look at the raw scoring data. James Harden is currently averaging 29.1 points per game on 18.7 field goal attempts. He has a 53% Effective Field Goal percentage and a 61.9% True Shooting Percentage. In comparison, Leonard is averaging 26.3 points on 18 field goal attempts and has a 54EFG% with a 61.5TS%. (Okay, these numbers are comparable, but Harden has a very slight edge).

However, what people seem to ignore is the massive edge that James Harden has in the play-making department. While their scoring numbers are comparable, it’s Harden’s ability to create for others that establishes him on a separate tier. When Harden attacks with the basketball, he puts pressure on the defense and creates openings for his teammates. That’s one of the reasons why Houston leads the league in three-point shooting.

It’s also no coincidence that the Rockets have three bigs shooting 60% or or better from the field. Harden manipulates the defense by getting into the lane, and his pick and roll decision-making is elite. Harden sees where the help is coming from and he’s one step ahead, diming up three-point shooters before the defense has time to get back.

Harden’s ability in the pick and roll has him averaging 11.2 assists per game and creating 27.3 points for his Rockets teammates through his passes.

(In other situations, if the defense doesn’t commit to the roller, the play is just as deadly. Harden is a master at looking away the help and throwing no-look alley oops to the open big).

Kawhi is also one of the league’s elite pick and roll players, but unlike Harden, he doesn’t utilize the pick and roll to probe into the lane and make plays off the dribble.  His success comes in different ways.

Kawhi is proficient at making his move and getting to his spot for his shot, however, he’s not nearly as effective at “making his teammates better”.

Kawhi is a fine passer, but he doesn’t possess the same level of vision and creativity that Harden does. Compared to Harden, Kawhi’s play-making amounts to 3.4 assists per game and a much less impressive 8.6 points created for his Spurs teammates.

Now I know what some (non-Houston) readers will be shouting right now: “But Harden leads the league in turnovers!” Well yes, that’s true. But Harden’s (ridiculously high) average of 5.8 turnovers per game doesn’t detract enough value to close the gap for Kawhi and his 2.1 TOs.

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Opponents score around 1.3 points per possession off turnovers, meaning Harden allows 7.5 points per game with his errant passes. That sounds bad, but it pales in comparison to his 27.3 points he creates from his passes. His net points created from his passing and turnovers comes out to be 19.8.

On the other hand, Kawhi’s 2.7 points given away due to turnovers, when subtracted from his points added by assists, comes out to a total of 5.9. The difference is drastic, but it makes sense when consideration is given to the fact that Harden (1.94) has a more efficient AST/TO ratio than Kawhi (1.67).

While Kawhi is an elite two-way player, the common belief that these two players are somewhat comparable on offense is a strange one. Through scoring and assisting, Harden contributes more than 50 points per game for his team. Kawhi is an elite scorer, but that’s essentially the end of his offensive ability. Harden is a better scorer than Leonard and he’s also one of the league’s best passers.

Many have speculated that Harden and LeBron are in a league of their own when it comes to play-making, while Kawhi’s name isn’t even in the discussion. Harden’s name is as irrelevant in defensive debates, but I’ve already addressed those concerns.

When looking at the MVP race and addressing two-way impact, you have to decide where you stand. Do you believe that individual defense is as important as individual offense? How much “value” do you think each player adds to his team?

All of these questions are subjective and each opinion is valid. Requirements to win MVP are foggy at best. However, when it comes to establishing which of these two players has the greater overall impact, let’s not minimize Harden’s offensive contributions. Kawhi is by far the superior defensive player, but when it comes down to it, that shouldn’t really matter.

Next: 3-on-3 Discussion: Answering Some Hypothetical Questions

What do you think? Let us know in the comments or on Twitter at @SpaceCity_Scoop! Stay tuned to Space City Scoop for more analysis, news, and opinions on the Houston Rockets.

Stats are accurate as of March 17th, 2017.