4th and a Mile with Paul Muth

Let's examine just how irreplaceable James Harden is to the Rockets

The numbers are very telling. Photo by Pool/Getty Images.

It's been a tumultuous offseason to say the least for the Rockets. One person's pain is another's pleasure, however. While the front office of the Toyota Center stresses out over their disgruntled superstar, NBA fans in general have been eating up the drama—buffet style (assuming those are still a thing).

As of right now, two things are fairly certain:

  1. James Harden wants out of Houston.
  2. This entire ordeal is entertaining as hell.

The Rockets' front office has stated publicly that they're in no hurry to trade their superstar. It's a sound strategy considering the leverage that they hold—at least for the moment. Contractually, they're in the driver's seat. That doesn't mean that players are completely powerless in these situations, as Kawhi Leonard proved to the Spurs in 2017. So it's at least worth it for the Rockets to show some good faith.

The problem lies with the trade itself. Let's get one thing straight: the Rockets will not win any trade they complete. Period. It's important to understand that ahead of time, and we're going to explore why.

There's an analytics metric in the basketball nerd-verse known as "win shares." The goal of win shares is to quantify just how much an individual contributed to each win. The nuts and bolts can be explored here, but all you have to know for the purposes of this argument is that it's one of several metrics that tells you how valuable a player is.

So I put my nerd hat on and headed over to stathead.com to see just how valuable Harden has been to the Rockets' success. I knew he would rank fairly high among the league's elite players, but I wanted to nail it down. So I searched for total win shares from the 2012-2013 season (when Harden was traded to the Rockets) to now.

I was right:

RankPlayerWS
1James Harden114.1
2LeBron James103.1
3Kevin Durant91.3
4Chris Paul91.2
5Stephen Curry89.7

NUMBER ONE. Easily.

What that is saying is that no player has contributed more to their team's success than Harden. LeBron has obviously contributed, but he's also been aided by great players that contribute their own sizeable win shares.

What this metric also proves is just how impossible it is to replace Harden. Whatever trade you're completing won't be even. Whoever gets Harden wins that trade.

The most intriguing trade suggested so far would be for the Philadelphia 76ers' Ben Simmons. Adjusting the comparison for the amount of time that Simmons has been (healthy) in the league, the number still isn't close:


Win Shares (2017-2020)
James Harden43.7
Ben Simmons24.4

I get it, they're at different stages in their careers and one of them wasn't forced to carry their team like the other. But Harden almost doubles Simmons in win shares and that's hard to ignore.

The counterargument is that the Rockets would be looking for a massive pile of draft picks. Picks are nice in theory, but picks don't average 34 points per game. The NBA Draft is such a crap shoot that in 2013 back-to-back reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo went 15th overall. The first pick? Anthony Bennett, who was out of the league after 4 years.

The Rockets find themselves in an incredibly unenviable position of moving one of the best players in the league. Losing Harden will be a massive blow to the franchise. What remains to be seen is just how severe it is.

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