Stephen Curry vs James Harden: Who’s the better all-round player?

Steph Curry shoots
Steph Curry and James Harden are constantly subjects of comparison. Photo from USA Today.

Stephen Curry and James Harden are among the best guards in basketball, bar none. This doesn’t just apply for this season or throughout their respective careers. They’re two of the best to ever play the game, period. It’s a safe bet to say the two are already surefire hall-of-famers, and then some. It’s not surprising that the Curry vs Harden matchup is discussed this much.

The battle of two of basketball’s best scorers at the guard position is still debated ad nauseum. It’s a polarizing matchup: one revolutionized the game of basketball, and the other perfected it. More than any facet of the game, scoring baskets has been the bread and butter for these two superstars since they were both drafted in 2009.

How close is the matchup between the two of them really? Here’s a look at what the numbers are telling us.

Curry vs Harden: Scoring

Stephen Curry is heralded as the greatest shooter of all time for a reason. He owns the three-point zone more than any player in the association, as evidenced by his 43% shooting clip from distance through twelve seasons in the league. He’s put up per-game averages of 23.8 points, 4.6 rebounds, and 6.6 assists for his career on 47/43/90 efficiency.

That he can’t carry a team without other All-Stars next to him is patently untrue, and Steph has been out to prove his doubters wrong this year. As the Warriors’ main man this season, those numbers have shot up to 29.0 ppg, 5.3 rpg, and 6.2 apg on 47-41-92 shooting splits. Impressively, despite playing at the third-highest usage rate of his career as Golden State’s primary scorer, his effective field goal percentage this year (59.1%) is actually an entire percentage point than that of his entire career combined (58.1%). 

What Steph lacks in athleticism, he makes up for with his efficiency, range, and craftiness, which opens up more opportunities for the Golden State offense whenever he’s on the floor. Besides being a flamethrower from distance, he’s also an underrated finisher with handles to rival those of Kyrie Irving. His feel for the game, more than anything else, is one trait that doesn’t show up in the stat sheet and that ultimately contributes to team success on the offensive end.

While James Harden is approaching the same stratosphere as Curry in this regard, he is still evidently not as prolific a shooter. On the other hand, his excellence comes by way of individual dominance. He has the one-on-one game down to a science. When he calls for isolation on a less-than-competent defender, you might as well tack on the points for his team. 

Per Game Table
Player G FG% 3P 3PA 3P% eFG% FT FTA FT% AST STL BLK PTS
Stephen Curry 738 .476 3.6 8.4 .433 .581 3.7 4.1 .907 6.6 1.7 0.2 23.8
James Harden 868 .445 2.8 7.7 .364 .528 7.5 8.7 .859 6.5 1.6 0.5 25.2
Provided by Stathead.com: View Stathead Tool Used
Generated 3/19/2021.

Efficiency is what sets them apart

Though Harden is a celebrated scorer in his own right, the difference is in their efficiency. His 44/36/85 shooting splits for his career are a step below Curry’s across the board. It’s nothing unexpected given his shot selection, especially throughout his tenure in Houston where he was the focal point of Mike D’Antoni’s offense. Thus far, he has averaged 25.2 points, 5.5 rebounds, and 6.5 assists for his career.

He certainly deserves credit for how quickly he adjusted to Brooklyn’s offense. When the Nets trio came together, pundits were quick to point out the pitfalls of pairing three ball-dominant and iso-heavy players together. Yet despite playing next to two superstars, he managed to carve out a nice role for himself that doesn’t get in the flow of the offense. 

Even then, true shooting percentages show that Curry is still the better shooter. The latter sports a 64.0 TS% for this season so far, while Harden shoots the ball on 63.7% TS despite having a significantly smaller usage rate at 27.6%.

Boxing either player into their individual strengths is an egregious mistake. Neither of them is just a shooter or just an isolation scorer. But when all is said and done, Curry’s scoring is still more congruous with winning basketball.

The gap is smaller than you might think, but this will have to go to Curry.

Curry vs Harden: Defense 

Evaluating defense between the two is a bit of a toss-up.

With his somewhat wiry frame, Curry is obviously the more slithery player who can navigate screens with relative ease. This translates in his defensive matchups: he’s allowing guards to score on 41.0% efficiency on him this season. The number crawls up to 46.1% against forwards and, unsurprisingly, 93.3% against centers.  

It’s the opposite for the bigger-boned Harden, whose stout frame allows him to take on bigger matchups if need be. Per NBA.com’s very flawed matchup data, quicker guards are shooting a worse 44.2% when he’s defending them, but his advantage is against bigs and forwards. So far this season, centers have shot 25-of-38 or 65.8% against the 6-foot-5 shooting guard. 

In the matchups alone, we can see the Curry is the more effective defender so far. Curry is a net +11.7 in his on-court minutes for his career and +5.8 so far this season, compared to +5.1 and +0.9, respectively for Harden. 

Advanced defensive stats are, as expected, not very good for two shoot-first guards. Curry’s defense leads to more wins to the Warriors, who boast the league’s 7th-ranked defense, with 1.6 defensive win shares versus Harden’s 1.1. But Harden contributes more on that end of the floor with a 0.8 defensive box plus-minus versus Curry’s 0.2.

With his size and athleticism, Harden is certainly the more versatile defender. Switching onto a big doesn’t immediately guarantee a bucket for the opposition for Harden the way it would for Curry. For this reason alone, despite Curry’s competent numbers, this one will have to go to Harden. Given the positionless basketball era that Curry is credited for spawning, defensive versatility makes all the difference.

Curry vs Harden: Leadership

How one leads a team is also difficult to gauge on numbers alone, especially when the two players in question lead their respective basketball clubs in vastly different ways. 

Where Steph has shown that he is the centerpiece and soul of the Warriors offense, Harden has unquestionably exhibited his ability to carry the team on his back for long stretches, often taking it upon himself to score when the team can’t generate any offense.

Right off the bat, Curry has obviously had more team success. He won three titles playing with a historically stacked Warriors team. A significant reason for this is that Curry has never needed the ball in his hands to elevate his team. He’s shown that his mere presence — that is to say, his gravity, off-ball movement, playmaking, and other intangibles — contorts defenses and makes his teammates better. 

Yet for all his skill with the basketball, the new-look, ninth-seed Warriors still have a lot of soul-searching to do. A lot of this is on head coach Steve Kerr, to be sure. But a franchise leader, especially one of Curry’s caliber, should be finding ways to win.

Ball-heavy Harden is finding better ways to lead in Brooklyn

On the other hand, Harden’s skill as a playmaker is impeccable, as evidenced by his 7.7 assists per game over his eight years in Houston. Yet his production did not translate to the same success there.

Personnel is one thing, but much has also been said about his need to have the ball in his hands. In his years in Houston, he averaged a 33.4% usage rate.

The Rockets franchise had little to show for it when all was said and done. Harden’s leadership of a franchise that had Chris Paul, Dwight Howard, and Russell Westbrook ultimately left much to be desired. That the organization was left without an identity when its cornerstone departed should tell you all you need to know about his leadership. 

At the same time, his Houston years are also a thing of the past.

As it currently stands, Harden is flourishing as a facilitator next to Irving and Durant. It’s something most critics didn’t see coming, and it has worked wonders for the top-heavy Brooklyn Nets. Barring injuries, there could very well be a championship in the works for Harden if he keeps up his steadying play.

The verdict

At one point, this would have been an easy choice. Harden’s tension with the Rockets roster—and organization as a whole—was well-documented towards the latter part of his tenure in Houston and does little to help his case. Yet he’s excelling in a new situation in Brooklyn despite a relatively small sample size. 

This season has shown us thus far that the two of them are still very much evolving. It’s almost unprecedented, but they’re still getting better this late into their individual careers. Despite a pronounced drop in touches, Harden is adjusting to his new role in Brooklyn gracefully and has shown little drop-off in production if at all. He’s showing he doesn’t need the entire offense to revolve around him to shine. 

Curry, for his part, is re-learning how to play without two All-Stars by his side. He’s showing fans he’s still the league’s best point guard, and he evidently still has what it takes to put the Warriors on his back and eke out wins. 

What this means is that as the two continue to grow, so too does the debate between them require more nuance. It’s certainly a valid argument and one that’s bound to stay for as long as these two are in the league. It’s not an unfounded sort of rivalry, either; through their 11 years in the league, the two have the same offensive and defensive ratings per 100 possessions. 

But a cursory glance at the numbers should tell any fan that the only correct and logical answer will still be Stephen Wardell Curry. Any other conclusion will require a good deal of wilful obtuseness and intellectual dishonesty. When it’s all said and done, Steph Curry will go down as one of the best to ever play the game

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1 Comment

  1. Stephen Curry is the better player averaging 31.8 points 5.5 rebounds and 5.7 assists. He is also only 6″3

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