In Part One, we broke down Stephen Curry and James Harden as comparative scorers within the context of the MVP race, after we determined that it was a two-man race for the award coming down to these last few weeks.
In Part Two, we'll take a look at two supporting areas that don't necessarily define either player, but if the two are as close as they seemed to be in part one, we need every bit of evidence to determine the better, or more valuable, player this season. This time around we'll cover passing and defense.
GIFTED GIVERS: HARDEN VS. CURRY IN PASSING
Just because these two players are so phenomenal at scoring, that doesn't mean they're selfish. In watching hours of their passing, you learn pretty quickly how willing these two are to make the right play, and not when it's staring them in the face, screaming "make me!" There are few moments when the two players dominate the ball with no perspective on the offense, when they're just pounding the ball away. They look to set teammates up, they look to create open looks. They work to keep the offense involved.
Much like we found in the scoring margin, the primary difference in the two when it comes to passing is a matter of style. Stephen Curry is flash as a means of substance. His passes wow and cause "oohs" and "ahhs" but are also designed for function.
The behind-the-back isn't flash for the sake of showing up the opponent (though it's clear watching Curry he doesn't mind doing that). It keeps both defenders attached to his hip all the way out to clear space for Bogut. If he stops, turns, jumps and fires, he could hit Bogut too high and give the defenders a chance to reverse direction and cover or intercept. Instead, it's seamless.
Last season, Curry got into a lot of turnover trouble with an overhand hook pass coming off the pick and roll. This season, he's a lot more patient with it and varies up his motions to catch the defenders off guard. Like so:
Teams are so focused on staying on Curry's hip and forcing him away from the middle, but once Curry gets the edge, and he almost always does, he's extremely quick with the read on the guy rolling.
The best thing about Curry's passing, however, is how good he is on the move. He doesn't even need to have the ball to make the read. Not only does he make the pass, but he makes it so fast the defense has no chance if they compromise their spacing.
Curry's often ahead of the defense by a step, like he's playing chess and the opponent is trying to figure out how to tie their shoes. Here Curry makes a pretty insane backwards pass between two defenders, then when they abandon him (NEVER LEAVE CURRY) and he gets the OREB, he immediately finds the open shooter.
And then there's stuff like this that's just absurd. That hook pass I mentioned?
Harden on the other hand is a lot less fancy with his passing, much as he is with his scoring... and again, it's because he doesn't need to be.
In Part One we talked about how exceptional Harden is in ISO. He's a monster, who manipulates the defense and creates whatever room he needs. But he also uses the attention he draws to set up teammates.
The entire defense is geared to challenge Harden, and he rips through anyway. This is one of the better defensive units in the league and instead, Harden gets what he wants. The response here is "They forced a Josh Smith 3-pointer! That's a win!" But two things. a. Josh Smith is shooting 38 percent on corner 3-pointers with Houston, and b. any stretch four is going to hurt Nene here when he helps down. That's what Harden draws in.
Making the pass is one thing. But delivering it perfectly is another. Harden freezes the defender with the crossover here, and with, again, all five defenders keyed on him, watch where he delivers this ball. It hits Ariza precisely in the spot that allows him to immediately move into his shooting motion, from his hip up to his shoulder. It's perfect.
Don't be fooled, however, Harden can make some brilliant dishes. The Beard is incredible at punishing defenders inside for stepping up to challenge him.... again, in ISO.
There's no behind-the-back flip, no huge ball fake, just a great angle and a wrap-around.
Curry and Harden are both gifted passers whose passing makes a significant difference for their teams. Watching them, it seems like But how do they stack up?
(Data via NBA.com and Synergy Sports)
And once again, just like with scoring, we find a similar trend. They're close in a lot of areas, but over and over again, Curry has a slight advantage. Curry plays point guard, that's going to be a point of contention, but a. both are primary scorers and b. Harden handles the ball the vast majority of the time. He also sits a lot of fourth quarters, so you'd imagine this could get run up a bit more if the Warriors weren't blowing teams out all the time. But then, even per 48 minutes, Curry has a healthy lead.
Curry won so many categories in scoring efficiency, and we see the same here. Five of eight categories go to Curry. You know the "but" is coming, right? But, we have to keep in mind here that they have an equal number of assist opportunities per game. While you can use the "Curry doesn't play in the fourth" argument, I'm a proponent of the idea that what you don't do should count for less than what you "do do."
And the real difference here seems to be that Curry's teammates convert at a higher rate, and they convert more threes. Unfortunately, the same line of thought applies here. You can't punish Curry because his offense is better, if anything, he's a bigger part of a more effective and efficient offense.
Both players are tremendous passers. Curry's been a slight bit better this season, at least when we look at the results.
BREAKING BAD: THE DEFENSIVE IMPROVEMENT OF JAMES HARDEN AND STEPH CURRY
The first word you would hear about these two players over the past three years when you asked about weaknesses used to be "defense." Curry was weak and malleable. You could out-physical him and he didn't have the mentality to stay attached over and over.
Harden, on the other hand, was a joke. Just search YouTube for "James Harden defense" and watch the laughs roll in. He was inattentive, and while defense has a lot of working parts, players will tell you... most of it is just effort. And for both players, increased effort has translated to major improvements defensively.
Harden started off the year red hot. Rockets fans waved a flag for two months when Harden lead the league in defensive Win Shares on Basketball Reference. He's slipped since then, but the fact remains he's a very solid defender.
A good example of that increased effort comes when Harden's switched against a big. He's active in denying the post, fronting and forcing a turnover 16 percent of the time. Watch him go to work on the much larger ZBo.
It's not just the initial effort, it's the consistent attack.
Harden struggles with bigger wings, however. Like LeBron James.
Just kidding, everyone struggles with LeBron James.
Harden does struggle with bigger wings, though. Smaller ones, however, he does a great job on. Watch him stay up on Bledsoe here and corner him, coming up with a block on a faster, more powerful guard.
You'll notice when watching Harden often that he pulls his hands back in at the last moment, trying to avoid the reach-in foul. Same deal here on this LeBron pull-up.
But Harden manages to contest the shot anyway. Harden's close-outs this year have been tremendous. That's all effort. Harden's a good defender this season. And that's even more impressive considering his offensive load.
Curry meanwhile is a lot more rabid. He's got more reliable help behind him so he's able to gamble more effectively and consistently. That's why his rate of forcing turnovers is so high.
Curry's become a monster at getting over screens if it's not a solid screen by a true big. He peels the shoulder and then attacks the dribble from behind. If you don't seal Curry, he turns into a marmot chewing your shoulder off. Watch him totally ruin this pick and roll.
Curry's work on opposing point guards has been phenomenal this season. Wall isolates vs. Curry here, and even outside the help from Thompson, Curry sticks Wall in a bad way.
Curry keeps his arms up and active whenver he's recovering in pick and roll, and is constantly reaching to attack the dribble. It's honestly surprising he's not called for reach-in fouls more often. Curry reaches here on Ellis which gives him the lane. Now, Speights gets a bad blocking foul here, and Curry can trust his help defenders to cover, but it still shows how aggressive he is, and how it can get him in trouble.
But overall, Curry causes mayhem on the perimeter, and his ability to contain opposing point guards lets Draymond Green focus on the other wing threats.
When you look at the numbers... once again, Curry gets the edge. How much of this is on Curry and how much is on his supporting defenders (particularly with Dwight Howard having missed most of the year) is of some debate:
Curry's part of a better defense, opponents shoot a worse percentage against him, and he forces an obscene amount of turnovers. He has a higher foul rate, but not enough to mitigate his impact. But this really is a case where the numbers can't tell the whole tale. So much is impacted by the players Curry plays with. He has a wing that can switch constantly in Draymond Green, another wing that has the size and skill to matchup with anyone in Klay Thompson, and a dominant interior defender in Andrew Bogut.
Harden's had a team pieced together through trades and signings like Josh Smith. Both teams are good defensively, but neither Harden nor Curry are integral to their team's defense the way that, say, LeBron James has been in his MVP seasons or how Kevin Durant took the lead defensively in his MVP year. Still, you can't say that defense is a weak point for these guys anymore.
They're way past that.
Next time, we finish up our look at the MVP race with the intangibles and try to come to some sort of answer as to who should win this thing.