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Can James Harden ever catch Hakeem Olajuwon for greatest Rocket?

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We have always wondered if James Harden will ever match the success of Hakeem Olajuwon. There is no question that Harden is great, but will he be able to fill the shoes of Hakeem? These questions needed to be answered soon but when will they be?

Hakeem and Harden are honestly the best two players to ever put on a Rockets uniform. Even though these players are great, Hakeem's name weighs more than Harden. Hakeem has accomplished more by going back to back in the 1994 and 1995 NBA Finals. He is also No. 11 in all-time scoring. Like Harden, Hakeem terrorized defenders with his versatile post moves. He even created a move called the "The Dream Shake" which is now transcendent in the NBA. Hakeem was a twelve-time all-star, won defensive player of the year twice and made the NBA First Team six times. In addition, he was on the NBA Defensive Team five teams, and became an MVP in 1994. His accomplishments are through the roof, but Hakeem was also a team player by doing everything on the court. Hakeem even recorded two quadruple doubles in the same month in the 1987 season. His ability was so unbelievable and un-guardable that they called him the "The Dream." Players like Shaquille O'Neal and Michael Jordan will always pay their respects to the best center in basketball. Does this huge shadow still stand over Harden? Should he have live up to these expectations?

Harden will never have a hard time breaking records nor being a MVP candidate in the NBA. He is easily today the best scorer in the league. Harden has accomplished a host of good deeds in this league by winning the Sixth Man of the Year award as well as the MVP award. He has also made the All-NBA Team six times, the All-Star team seven times, and the NBA First Team five times. Coaches in the NBA have a tough time figuring out the defense they will use for Harden. Harden gives most teams fits by getting to the line or using his unorthodox step back jumper. That step can now be seen in the WNBA, NBA, and in many, many high schools. Harden's creativity is the only thing that makes him comparable to Hakeem. Time and time again, analyst, reporters, and fans have questioned the true heart of Harden.


Hardens full ability to the game of basketball still has not been reached yet. Even though Harden has gotten better on defense, there are still questions regarding it. Analysts have pointed out the fact that he is a pretty good post defender and was second in steals last season. Harden would really become a great player if he tried to guard players like Steph Curry, LeBron James, or Paul George. He has also struggled to become a team player by not getting his teammates involved enough. That causes them to lose confidence in their shot making ability. Also dribbling the ball to the final digit has not helped his case either. Another flaw that Harden has is not approaching playoff games in a strong manner. Harden can also disappear during big games in the playoffs. He has been in Houston for seven seasons and never has seen the NBA Finals. We have always wondered if Harden will ever win a Championship in Houston. Harden will be all out of excuses if he cannot win one with Russell Westbrook.


Hopefully one day Harden will be able to get rid of Hakeem's shadow by matching his success or overcoming it.

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Here's what the data tells us about Bregman. Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Images

Alex Bregman had a rough season in 2020 by his standards. He slashed .242/.350/.451 in 42 regular season games. His regular season included a trip to the 10-day IL for a hamstring strain he suffered in mid-August. His surface-level struggles continued in the postseason, where he slashed .220/.316/.300 in 13 games. However, that postseason sample size does include a tough luck game against the Tampa Bay Rays where he went 0-for-5 with five hard hit balls.

All-in-all, 2020 felt like a lost season for Bregman. He never really got going. He got off to a slow start, but he's always been a slow starter. Once he started to pick it up, he strained his hamstring, and he played poorly after returning from the hamstring strain. Then, he started to turn his batted ball quality around in the playoffs, but he hit into a lot of tough luck outs.

Hard Hit % - 33.6%

Barrel % - 3.9%

K% - 14.4%

BB% - 13.3%

Chase % - 18.1%

Bregman comes from the Michael Brantley school of hitters. He has elite plate discipline and elite bat-to-ball skills. This makes Bregman a fairly consistent hitter. That may sound odd considering his 2020 "struggles" but even an extended period of poor performance for him resulted in a .801 OPS and a 122 wRC+. If his valleys are still 22% better than the league average hitter, then that's a pretty reliable producer.

There aren't any alarming trends in Bregman's statistics. Yes, his K% was slightly up, his BB% is slightly down, but it isn't a massive difference in either category. His Chase % was up, but again, 18.1% is elite discipline. The biggest drop was in his Hard Hit%, where he fell from 38% to 33.6%. Even so, his average exit velocity only dropped .4 MPH, so there's not really a catastrophic trend here.

His .254 BABIP (Batting Average on Balls In Play) was low, but he's never put up really high BABIP numbers. In fact, his BABIP has gotten worse every year of his career, from .317 to .311 to .289 to .281 to .254. While his BABIP will likely spike back up next year, it isn't enough to be the difference between the 2019 and 2020 versions of himself. His xBA and xSLG weren't out of whack either. His .256 xBA isn't much better than his .240 AVG, and his .400 xSLG is actually worse than his .451 SLG.

Bregman is as forthcoming with his hitting mechanics, approach, and mental cues as any big leaguer out there. Here is what he had to say about his swing this year. This was a Zoom press conference with the media following the Astros game on September 25th against the Rangers.

Bregman says he wants to hit balls in the air to the pull side and on a line to the opposite field, but in reality, he was hitting flares to the opposite field and hitting them on the ground to the pull side.

The data mostly backs up that claim. In 2019, on balls hit to the pull side, Bregman had an average exit velocity of 90.7 MPH at an average launch angle of 16°, a 40% Hard Hit %, and a 16% HR%. Since Bregman has elite bat-to-ball skills, most of those metrics didn't change. In 2020, his average exit velocity was 90.6, essentially the same as 2019. His Hard Hit % was 42%, a touch better than in 2019. However, his average launch angle dipped from 16° to 11°, which contributed to his HR% dropping all the way to 9%. Bregman hit 47% of his pull side swings on the ground. In 2019, that number was 40%. He absolutely had less production to the pull side in 2020.

The data gets a little hazier going the opposite way when comparing 2019 to 2020, as Bregman actually performed slightly better to the opposite field in 2020 than 2019, but he also only had 20 batted balls to the opposite field all season. Considering the small sample size, it isn't worth diving too deep into the data.

He's right that most of the balls he hit that way were flares. He had an average exit velocity of 83.4 MPH with an average launch angle of 32°, but that's about the same as what he did in 2019. A lot of the statistical drop off comes from balls that were backspun rockets to the pull side in 2019 becoming top spinners or roll overs in 2020.

Bregman also performed horribly against breaking balls in 2020. He batted .150 with a .250 SLG against them in 2020. He had an 84 MPH Average Exit Velocity against them and whiffed 26.5% of the time against them.

It was a far cry from 2019, when he hit .265 with a .588 SLG, 87 MPH average exit velo, and whiffed 18% of the time.

Those numbers lend credence to his statement on his mechanics. It's tough for a hitter to have adjustability against breaking balls if he's blowing out his front side and pulling off of the baseball.

Bregman will spend the offseason working on these mechanical fixes and getting back to the hitter he used to be. If he's consistently hitting the ball in the air to the pull side next year, and he's performing better against breaking balls, then he should be right back in the mix for AL MVP.

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