The immediate answer is yes to the title question, but that’s only if you were comparing James Harden and Dwyane Wade of 2019. Of course, Harden is only better than Wade now because the former is still in the prime of his career while the latter is at the tail end. The Miami Heat shooting guard is retiring at the end of the season as players routinely exchange jerseys with him after games as a means to honor him.
Harden, the league’s reigning Most Valuable Player, has been on a tear of late, putting up monstrous numbers over the past few weeks. He has been reaching scoring milestones only touched by the greatest players of all time.
But during his prime, Wade was quite a beast himself and went toe-to-toe with other superstar shooting guards such as Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady, Ray Allen and a prime Vince Carter, to name a few.
In the ranking of the greatest shooting guards of all time, there’s a small murmur among fans that he may have overtaken Wade already even though the Rockets guard’s career is still in full swing. Many rank Wade behind Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant while others view Jerry West to be better. With Wade firmly in fans’ and experts’ minds as a top three or four shooting guard, is there a chance that Harden has already moved past him to take over his spot?
After years of being the bridesmaid, Harden finally became the bride last season. He won his first MVP award after leading the Houston Rockets to the best record in the NBA with a 65-17 record. He averaged of 30.4 points, 5.4 rebounds, 8.8 assists and 1.8 steals per game in a season in which his former Oklahoma City Thunder teammate, Russell Westbrook, was gunning for back-to-back MVPs after averaging a triple-double for the second straight season.
This year, Harden has elevated his game even further with a career-high 33.7 points, 5.9 rebounds, 8.7 assists and 2.0 steals per outing. He’s also converting a career-high 9.4 free throws on 11.0 attempts a game. He’s on pace to win the award again this season if he continues to put up outstanding statistics without fellow All-Star Chris Paul around. As of the last Kia MVP Ladder, NBA.com’s Sekou Smith ranked him number one from among an elite roll call of worthy candidates.
As good as Wade has been, the closest he has come to winning the Maurice Podoloff trophy was in the 2008-09 season when he was third in the voting behind his best buddy LeBron James and Lakers legend Kobe Bryant. That year, Wade averaged a career-high 30.2 points, 5.2 rebounds, 7.5 assists, 2.2 steals and 1.3 blocks per contest. These are numbers that Jordan would be proud of and could have easily granted him the award if not for James’ and Bryant’s own season-long brilliance.
In terms of being the alpha male in the league for an entire season, taking over the league by storm and having indelible moments etched in our minds, Harden undeniably overtakes Wade in dominance. In Harden’s favor is how much time he still has to add to his MVP hardware collection. Given that he’s still only 29 years old, his best years may yet be ahead of him.
Over a seven-year period from the 2004-05 season to 2010-2011, Wade’s scoring averages were as follows: 24.1, 27.2, 27.4, 24.6, 30.2, 26.6 and 25.5. Very few shooting guards have had a season in which they averaged as many points as Wade did over the same period. The Marquette University product may be undersized for the position at 6-foot-4, but he plays bigger than his height. He is capable of getting his shot off against any defender and he can do so in bunches, wearing out whoever he is guarding with his strong 220-pound frame.
As a playmaker, he is quite the passer as well. While most shooting guards focus too much on their primary job description (shooting the basketball), Wade is excellent at finding the open man. He recorded a career-best 7.5 assists twice and he has dished out 5.5 dimes a night for his career.
Though Wade won’t back down against anyone, his offensive exploits have been less monumental than Harden’s.
With his off-the-charts scoring feats recently, Harden has shown that he belongs in the upper echelon of shooting guards in league history. The scoring binge has been nothing short of phenomenal. Since dropping 50 points on the Lakers in a December 13 matchup, Harden has never looked back, scoring 32 points or more in 14 consecutive games. During that span, he achieved a milestone reserved only for the most legendary two-guards in league annals.
When Harden had 43 points to lead the Houston Rockets to a 113-101 victory over the Memphis Grizzlies on New Year’s Eve, he had scored 408 points total in 10 games. By doing so, he joined Jordan and Bryant as the only players in the last 30 seasons to score 400 or more points in a 10-game span. Since then, Harden hasn’t slowed down one bit, racking up 44, 38, 32 and 44 points in the next four games. Harden looks like he has a lot more left in the tank to continue his attack on the all-time scoring records.
Over a seven-year period from the time Harden left the Thunder to take over as the franchise player of the Rockets in the 2012-13 season, Harden has averaged 25.9, 25.4, 27.4, 29.0, 29.1, 30.4 points and is now averaging 33.7 a game. He is today’s most prolific scorer and arguably its most versatile as well. The step-back three has been his staple over the past couple of years and it is by far his most unstoppable signature move as well. No one gets to the charity stripe more than the Beard. While Wade was one of the top players to frequent free-throw line in his prime as well, Harden is a notch better.
As a passer, Harden is also superior to Wade in this department.
The Rockets two-guard led the league in assists two seasons ago with an 11.2 assists per game average and he has been among the league leaders the past few years. If not for Chris Paul coming to Houston last season, he could have led the league in dimes per game three straight seasons. Despite Paul’s presence, Harden still racked up 8.8 last season and is on track to average close to that again with 8.7 a game this year.
As a defender, few shooting guards in history were as good as Wade. One of the rare two-way players from the position, Wade is one of the best shot-blocking guards in league history, right up there with Jordan. He currently has 864 rejections so far in his career. That’s better than some of the taller guards that played before him such as Tracy McGrady, Ron Harper, Clyde Drexler and Kobe Bryant. In the steals department, Wade has shown that he has terrific instincts for swiping the ball and working the passing lanes for a steal and a fastbreak dunk or layup at the other end. He was in the top 10 in steals for four seasons with a high of 2.2 per game in 2008-09 and another season in which he averaged 2.1.
ESPN’s Kevin Arnovitz said in a 2009 article discussing Wade’s defensive abilities that, “(advanced stats for defense) demonstrate Wade to be a solid defender. His defensive rating of 103.7 at Basketball Prospectus. The only wing player with a better defensive rating? James, LeBron. Both 82games.com and Basketball Value show Miami’s on court/off court defense to be about 2 3/4 points better per 100 possessions with Wade on the court, also quite good.”
On the other hand, Harden will never be confused for a great defender. For some time, he had been the butt of jokes, appearing on NBA on TNT’s Shaqtin’-A-Fool regularly because of his seeming anathema to playing at the other end of the court.
But Ben Alamar of ESPN did a more comprehensive study of Harden’s defensive game via Sports Spectrum which reflects that he was a solid B defender last season. Despite highlight reels that show otherwise, he plays above average defense and could be counted upon to take care of his man without disrupting Houston’s defensive schemes. In fact, he is also one of the better ballhawks in the league since he came in as a rookie, averaging 1.5 steals per game for his career. He is averaging 2.0 steals a game this season, another career-high number in his bid to win the MVP award by season’s end.
Nonetheless, this is a category in which Wade bests Harden without a doubt.
Playoffs and Finals
Remember those scoring numbers I just mentioned that Wade submitted during a seven-year span? As impressive as those were, he surpassed those numbers in the playoffs except for two seasons and one in which the Heat missed the playoffs because they were tanking in 2009-10: 27.4, 28.4, 23.5, 29.1, 33.2, 24.5.
Wade is a playoff performer, a three-time NBA champion and a Finals MVP as well. During the 2006 Finals, he led the Heat against the Dallas Mavericks from an 0-2 deficit to win the next four games and the title in dramatic fashion. He performed at such a high level that pundits referred to his heroics as Jordanesque, possibly the highest form of compliment one can receive at the highest level. In that series, Wade averaged 34.7 points, 7.8 rebounds, 3.8 assists, 2.7 steals and 1.0 blocks. He also made a number of clutch plays that carried the Heat from the brink and lifted them to victory.
In the 2011 NBA Finals, the infamous series in which LeBron bafflingly choked after a stellar postseason, it was Wade who shouldered much of the load for the Heat and got them to a Game 6 against the underdog Mavericks. His numbers for the series speak for themselves: 26.5 points, 7.0 rebounds, 5.2 assists, 1.5 steals and 1.5 blocks. He also shot 54.6 percent from the field which is ridiculously effective for a wing player especially in the most pressure-packed games of the season.
Harden’s playoff numbers are nothing to scoff at. If we count only the stats from the time he joined the Rockets, he has a 27.6 points per game average in the postseason. That’s a statistic worthy of the best playoff performers of all time.
However, Harden has shown time and again during the most crucial moments that he isn’t ready to play consistently well on the biggest stage. Vincent Goodwill of Yahoo! Sports narrated each of Harden’s playoff failures since his Oklahoma City days. Let me outline them for you:
2012 NBA Finals: 12.4 points per game on 37.5 percent shooting
2015 Western Conference Finals, Game 5: 12 turnovers vs. the Golden State Warriors who advanced to the Finals with a 4-1 series victory
2017 Western Conference Semifinals, Game 5: Manu Ginobili blocks Harden’s potential game-tying three-pointer
2017 Western Conference Semifinals, Game 6: 2-of-11 shooting as the Rockets suffered a 39-point loss at home that ended the series in six games.
2018 Western Conference Finals Game 5: 19 points, 5-of-21 FGs, 0-for-11 3pt FGs, 6 TOs
2018 Western Conference Finals Game 6: 32 points, 10-24 FGs, 4-of-12 3pt FGs, 9 TOs
2018 Western Conference Finals Game 7: 32 points, 12-of-29 FGs, 2-of-13 3pt FGs, 5 TOs
Harden may have had huge scoring outputs in the final two games of last year’s conference finals versus the Warriors, but his shooting percentages and turnovers were atrocious enough to nearly nullify all the points he scored. In fairness to Harden, after Chris Paul went down with a season-ending injury in Game 5, he was left to carry the Rockets on his own as his teammates failed to step up.
As good as Harden has been, much of his greatest accomplishments remain in the regular season. His postseason résumé needs to be updated with clutch plays during the games that matter most. It took LeBron James three championships and dozens of late-game playoff clutch performances to reach top-five status in the all-time greatest players conversation. And even then, his failures in previous postseasons including his six losses in the Finals continue to haunt his legacy to this day.
Harden may not need that many championships on his ring finger to justify moving up Wade in the ranking for greatest shooting guards of all time. He just needs one or two plus a number of big performances in May and June to make people consider his previous failures as growing pains. Regardless of Harden’s excuses (valid or not) for not showing up big time during the most important games of his life, he has to replace these anecdotes with brilliant performances when the lights are brightest to move up into the upper echelon of the game’s most elite players.
At this point, Wade’s Finals MVP trumps Harden’s regular season MVP.
Though he has the more impressive statistics, Harden has to take a back seat to Wade in the rankings. Who knows? Perhaps in a few years and a championship or two later, we’ll wonder why we ever questioned Harden’s place in history at all.