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James Harden and Steph Curry Have to Life-Swap to Succeed This Season

One has racked up big numbers with iso ball; the other has stacked titles sacrificing for others. But to make the most out of their current predicaments, the former MVPs have to take cues from the other.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

James Harden and Steph Curry are trading places this season. The longtime rivals revolutionized the NBA by embracing the 3-point shot like no one had before; the top six single-season marks in 3-point attempts per game have all come in the past four years, and all belong to either Harden or Curry. The difference is how they did it. Harden carried a team without much star power around him, while Steph took a step back to make the stars around him comfortable.

Now, after a wild offseason that shifted the balance of power in the Western Conference, their roles are reversed. Harden has to sacrifice to make his partnership with Russell Westbrook work, and Steph has to put a Warriors team without Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson on his back. Each has a lot to learn from the other.

Steph Is the New Harden

No player sacrificed more than Curry in the past few seasons. He went from winning consecutive MVPs to being an afterthought in the voting once Durant came to Golden State. While he still put up big numbers, he couldn’t dominate the ball in the same way as Harden:

Ball Dominance Don’t Lie: Harden vs. Steph in Usage

2018-19 Touches Avg Time of Poss Usage Rate FGA 3PA
2018-19 Touches Avg Time of Poss Usage Rate FGA 3PA
Harden 87.2 9.3 40.5 24.5 13.2
Curry 76.8 4.8 30.4 19.4 11.7

That should change this season. Durant left in free agency, and Klay could miss the entire season. Even prominent role players Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston are gone. Curry, Draymond Green, and Kevon Looney are the only players left from the Warriors’ last championship in 2018.

D’Angelo Russell, who was acquired from the Nets in a double sign-and-trade for Durant, will help. The 23-year-old is coming off his first All-Star Game appearance, and has the ability to run the Warriors offense and threaten the opposing defense off the ball.

But Steph may not play that much with his new costar, as Golden State coach Steve Kerr will likely stagger their minutes to keep one on the floor. The two guards played 49 minutes together in the preseason, while Curry played 49 minutes without Russell and Russell played 50 minutes without Steph.

The game will be even harder for Curry if Kerr gives Russell more help when he’s playing by himself. The way Green was used in the preseason is telling: He played 82.6 percent of his minutes in the preseason with Russell compared with 62.8 percent of his minutes with Curry.

There will be a lot of Steph-on-five this season. The Warriors don’t have much talent in their supporting cast:

  • PG: Steph Curry, Ky Bowman (two-way contract)
  • SG: D’Angelo Russell, Jordan Poole, Damion Lee (two-way contract)
  • SF: Glenn Robinson III, Alec Burks, Jacob Evans
  • PF: Draymond Green, Eric Paschall, Alen Smailagic
  • C: Kevon Looney, Willie Cauley-Stein, Marquese Chriss, Omari Spellman

The easiest way for Steph to succeed in a Harden-like role is to boost his 3-point rate. Harden went from taking 10 3s per game in 2017-18, in a virtual tie with Steph (9.8), to attempting 13.2 in 2018-19, the most in NBA history. There is no reason that Curry, who averaged 11.7 attempts per game last season, couldn’t take a similar amount, if not more, this season. Defenses can’t do much to prevent an elite ball handler with a quick trigger and unlimited range from shooting 3s. And Steph could be more dangerous than Harden with an unlimited green light. He’s a 43.6 percent career shooter from deep, 7.1 points higher than Harden.

Curry’s problem will be translating his production into wins. One of the ways the Rockets compensated for a lack of star power around Harden was by playing at the 26th-fastest pace in the league last season. They slowed the game to a crawl, isolated their superstar at the top of the key, and he either took a stepback 3, got to the rim, or found an open shooter. That’s the formula for turning a basketball game into a one-on-one duel, which is what a team without much talent around its superstar should be aiming for.

The Warriors, on the other hand, have always played fast in the Steph era. They were in the top five in pace in their last two seasons under Mark Jackson and first four under Kerr before slipping to no. 10 last season. But increasing the total number of possessions may no longer be their best option. Golden State may have to play ugly, keep games close, and hope Steph steals them late.

There’s no doubt that Curry can score like Harden on a given night. But can he do it for six months without wearing down? It’s a lot to ask of a 31-year-old who has played in the past five NBA Finals. Steph will have to push his body in a way that he hasn’t in a long time. Just compare his workload with Harden’s: Harden missed 15 games and played 8,365 minutes in the past three regular seasons, while Steph missed 47 games and played 6,600 minutes.

The most underrated aspect of Harden’s game is his metronome-like consistency. At 6-foot-5 and 220 pounds, he’s built like a tank, which allows him to take hit after hit from defenses on a nightly basis without sustaining any serious injuries. Can Curry, who checks in at 6-foot-3 and 190 pounds, do the same? This is the least talented team he has played on since Golden State’s run began. It will be fascinating to see how far he can carry them.

Harden Is the New Steph

Harden had to do everything for the Rockets last season. Age finally caught up to Chris Paul, Eric Gordon went through a prolonged shooting slump, and Clint Capela and P.J. Tucker couldn’t make up the difference. The only one who could was Harden, and the result was one of the greatest offensive campaigns in NBA history. No other player, not even Wilt Chamberlain or Michael Jordan, has ever averaged as many points (36.1) and assists (7.6) as Harden in a single season.

He could do it again. Age-related decline is still far away for Harden, a 30-year-old who doesn’t rely on speed or leaping ability. He will be even more lethal if he masters the one-legged stepback 3, a shot he has experimented with in the preseason.

The question is whether he should. Westbrook is a very different kind of costar than Paul. Paul is an elite shooter who’s more comfortable setting up his teammates than hunting for his own shot; Westbrook, a career 30.8 percent 3-point shooter, doesn’t make as much sense in a complementary role. Fitting him into the Rockets offense in the preseason has been hard. He shot 26.9 percent from 3 on 6.5 attempts despite averaging only 25.0 minutes per game, almost doubling his career average of 3.6 3-point attempts in 34.5 minutes per game.

Westbrook has struggled with multiple dislocated fingers in the preseason, but he still looked like himself when playing without his new costar, according to NBA Advanced Stats:

Better Without the Beard? Westbrook and Harden in Preseason

Westbrook Minutes Usage Rate True Shooting Percentage
Westbrook Minutes Usage Rate True Shooting Percentage
With Harden 45 25 42.8
W/o Harden 40 39.5 59.7

While Westbrook’s numbers without Harden were roughly similar to what they were in his MVP season in Oklahoma City, his numbers with Harden were catastrophic. Westbrook’s true shooting percentage in those minutes in the preseason was more than two points lower than the lowest in the NBA among all qualified players (45) last season.

There are adjustments that Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni can make to help his new star. He can use Westbrook as a cutter—something that didn’t happen once in the preseason—play him more in the post, or use him as a screener. But those are ultimately half-measures. Westbrook’s best chance to succeed in Houston is to attack the rim with Harden creating space for him. The problem is that would force Harden, one of the most lethal isolation scorers in NBA history, to change his game. While he shouldn’t become a complementary player on offense, he also can’t have as big a role as he had in the preseason. He scored more and took more shots in this preseason than he did in last year’s, and got 46.1 percent of his offensive possessions out of isolations compared with 5.5 percent from spot-up attempts.

Harden needs to help Westbrook in the same way Steph helped Durant. Because Harden is a better shooter than Westbrook, he can score off of Westbrook’s penetration much easier than Westbrook can score off of his. It’s not the best use of Harden’s skill set, but playing off of Durant wasn’t the best use of Steph’s, either.

This is a new type of challenge for Harden. He has never had to sacrifice since coming to Houston. After three seasons as a sixth man in Oklahoma City, he has spent the past seven as the undisputed alpha and omega of the Rockets offense. Everyone they brought in, from Dwight Howard to Paul, adjusted to him. His points per game and field goal attempts have risen for five straight seasons. But his best chance of making it work with Westbrook is for those numbers to go down.

In theory, Harden should have an easier time being Steph than Steph should have being Harden. Doing less is easier than doing more. But not doing as much has its own set of issues. Harden finished second in the MVP voting in three of the past five seasons. How will he respond if Steph ends up getting more credit for a style of play that he invented? There is already a lot of buzz about Steph going for his third MVP this season.

The consolation for Harden should be that there is little correlation between winning an MVP and an NBA title. It has happened only five times in the past 20 years. Steph won two titles by sacrificing his stats to play with Durant. The best chance for Harden to win one of his own is to do the same with Westbrook.