Is James Harden the Best Left-Handed Player in NBA History?
What would the dog days of NBA summer be without Dwight Howard saying something questionable and fuelling the news cycle?
Thankfully, this time around, it has nothing to do with forcing trades or his impending free agency. Instead, in a harmless string of informal Twitter surveys, Howard went and declared his teammate, James Harden, "the best left-handed player ever."
Who's the best left handed player ever. I'm goin with James
— Dwight Howard (@DwightHoward) August 31, 2015
Well, we assume he's talking about Harden. Maybe he's a big James Donaldson guy, but one has to assume that he's referring to his teammate and good buddy James Harden, what with the whole being on a first-name basis thing and all.
Now that we've cleared that up, let's tackle this debate from a numbers perspective (as we're wont to do around these parts).
First, we have to ask ourselves how we define the word best. It's obviously a highly subjective term that could mean any number of things.
Do we measure best in wins? Well, in that case, it would be hard to look past Bill Russell's 11 rings. Is it MVP trophies? That would be Bill Russell again with five. How about All-Star selections? Well, if you haven't noticed the pattern yet, that would be Bill Russell again with 12.
Ok, so cumulative career achievements might be a hard thing to use here. Russell has played more than twice as many NBA games in his career as James Harden has so far, while playing 40,726 minutes to Harden's 14,616. At only 26 years of age, we likely haven't seen Harden's peak yet, so the unknown of the career that lies ahead of him at least keeps him in the conversation.
And -- to Dwight's point -- if you want to look at cumulative career Win Shares as your "best" measurement, Harden's already up to 22 on the all-time list among lefties, despite having played fewer minutes than the list's first 43 entries. That's pretty impressive.
Either way, it's hard to put people in the middle of the career stream against the known and agreed upon all-time greats of the sport. In terms of current NBA players, Harden is almost certainly the best lefty. He finished at or near the top of most all-encompassing statistical categories in 2014-15, coming first in Win Shares (WS, 16.4), fourth in Win Shares Per 48 Minutes (WS/48, .265), fourth in Player Efficiency Rating (PER, 26.7), third in Box Plus/Minus (BPM, 8.4), and second in Value Above Replacement Player (VORP, 7.8). He also came second to winner Stephen Curry in the MVP voting, with every last one of the other 11 vote-getters being right-handed.
Best lefty in the NBA today? Fine. Best of all-time?
Well, he might actually be on his way to at least making a run at it. If you look at his career marks in the aforementioned categories, he does actually stack up pretty well against some of the best left-handed players ever.
|Category||Career Mark||Career Rank Among Lefties|
Not bad. Not bad at all. Especially when you consider the fact that he's creeping up in the additive stats (WS and VORP), while already coming in very high in the averaged ones (WS/48, PER, and BPM).
Some names that show up on those various lists that could also serve as competition for Harden and Bill Russell include Hall of Famers Bob Lanier, Willis Reed, Artis Gilmore, Dave Cowens, Nate "Tiny" Archibald, and Chris Mullin. Even modern NBA lefties like Manu Ginobili and Chris Bosh grace the upper parts of some of those lists. One name, however, that stands above them all is the man that ranks first overall in every single one of those categories among lefties over an entire career.
That man is David Robinson.
The Admiral is the top southpaw of all-time in total career Win Shares (178.7) and cumulative Value Over Replacement Player (80.9), while also setting the standard for lefties with the best career-long averages in Win Shares Per 48 Minutes (.250), PER (26.2), and Box Plus/Minus (7.4). He's only got two rings, one MVP, and 10 All-Star appearances compared to Bill Russell's 11, five, and 12, but it's tough to make a statistical case for the honor of "best left-handed player ever" that's better than Robinson's.
After getting bombarded by the #WellActually crowd on Twitter for his comments, Howard backtracked ever so slightly soon afterwards:
@kpatterson98 was talkin bout shooters
— Dwight Howard (@DwightHoward) August 31, 2015
Well, at least now we don't have to bring Harden's defense or his record-setting turnover totals into the conversation.
Besides, the damage had already been done and the debate is born, for better or worse.
Bill Russell has almost certainly earned the right to be known as the greatest left-handed player to ever play the game, but David Robinson was statistically dominant enough to deserve consideration as well. Harden is making his case to be included near the top of the list someday, but a lot of his career has to play out before we can say for sure.
What do you think? How do you rank the best left-handed players to ever play in the NBA?