Who is the better isolation scorer: James Harden or Kyrie Irving? Help us decide!
Scott Rafferty (@crabdribbles): We're not the first to have this discussion and we almost certainly won't be the last, but let's try and settle it once and for all.
I went with Harden for reasons I'm sure we'll get to. You went with Irving.
State your case.
Carlan Gay (@TheCarlanGay): There's no doubt that James Harden is a monster on offence, but let's be clear here - he isolates far more than anyone else in the league, so we feel like he's a better 1-on-1 player. Irving doesn't have the luxury of isolating every time down the court, but if he did we'd see his numbers just as inflated as Harden's.
How do I know that? Every year Kyrie is consistently amongst the best in the league in clutch scoring. He has been since he's come in the league. Even as a rookie he led the way in fourth quarter scoring. This season, he already has a huge gap on the field in clutch scoring. When the game is on the line Kyrie can get a bucket on anyone, and that's what makes him special. If he was in the position to be isolate as much as James, he'd have crazy 60-point games too.
Rafferty: Harden is in a class of his own when it comes to scoring in isolation, though.
- Harden led the league last season with 18.1 isolation points per game. John Wall ranked second before he suffered a season-ending injury with 4.6 isolation points per game. That means Harden basically averaged four times the amount of isolation points per game than his closest competitor. That's insane!
- In addition to leading the league in isolation scoring, Harden did so with ridiculous efficiency. He ranked in the 93rd percentile with 1.11 points per possession. For perspective, none of the players who were "more efficient" scored 100 isolation points on the season.
Irving, for what it's worth, averaged 2.9 isolation points per game and ranked in the 74th percentile with 0.98 points per possession. I hear what you're saying about him not having the opportunity to isolate as much as Harden does, but we can only work with what we have. And that data basically points to Harden being the greatest isolation scorer we've ever seen, both in terms of volume and efficiency.
Also, I don't think Irving could handle the same workload as Harden. He's dealt with far more injuries in his NBA career and I don't think his body could handle isolating 15-plus times per game like Harden does.
Gay: That's fair. We don't give Harden enough credit for his durability. But that workload also has him slowing down in the playoffs, which is when it matters most.
We've seen Kyrie thrive in the postseason in isolation. The year the Cavs won the championship, Irving averaged nearly a point per possession in ISO situations that entire playoff run. In the Finals, Irving delivered once again in the clutch. He hit 100 percent of his 3-point shots in the clutch that year - I know, he only took one under that circumstance, but he made it. It's the single greatest shot in an entire franchise history, and it came in isolation.
Irving is just as shifty and able to get off his own look at anytime in isolation as Harden. This all goes back to frequency for me.
Rafferty: It was only a matter of time until that shot came up.
Look, I'm not denying Irving's brilliance as an isolation scorer. He could very well be the second-best isolation scoring in the league today. I just think Harden is superior, both because he does it more frequently than Irving and more efficiently. That stuff matters.
Something else Harden does better than anyone else in isolation, Irving included: get to the free throw line. We all know about his step back - which is practically unstoppable - but he drew a shooting foul on astronomical amount of his isolation possessions last season (15.5 percent, to be exact).
Irving ... did not (7.0 percent).
This basically boils down to Harden having the edge statistically, whereas Irving has more memorable moments as an isolation scorer.
Gay: Spacing is also a big key to all of this. Irving hasn't exactly played in a system that allows for as much spacing as the Rockets system does. In Boston he wasn't surrounded by the same amount of marksmen as Harden is in Houston, nor was he surrounded by gunners in Cleveland - as a matter of fact, a lot of the time he was forced into the catch-and-shoot role alongside LeBron.
Irving's skill set in one-on-one situations is on par with Harden, or even better - heck, Harden's own teammate Eric Gordon told The Undefeated that Kyrie has the best handles of all-time. Gordon guards Harden in practice all the time and STILL picked Kyrie. If that doesn't tell you something, I don't know what will.
Rafferty: The Cavaliers finished second in the league in 3-pointers made and 3-point percentage in 2016-17, Irving's last season in Cleveland. He had plenty of shooters. Now, that team didn't shoot quite as many 3s as D'Antoni's Rockets do, but they still got them up, so I'm not sure I buy that argument.
The thing is, a lot of what you're saying is based on hypotheticals. The reality is we haven't seen Irving come close to doing what Harden did last season as an isolation scorer.
For me, that's why Harden gets the edge.
Gay: We haven't seen it because Irving hasn't been put in a position to do it. But the fact remains when he is in those positions he delivers.
I may be talking hypotheticals and you don't have to take my word for it, but when his peers are saying it, I'll roll with what they've said. Nothing against James Harden - he's incredible and I respect the history he's putting together - but pound-for-pound, Irving is the best isolation player in the league in my book. I've seen it at the highest of levels - which, by the way, I've yet to see with Harden - and he has the clutch numbers to back up his unstoppability. (I may have made that word up).
One-on-one Irving is a nightmare to guard, just like Harden is. Given the opportunity to do it as frequently as Harden, Irving would be writing more history of his own.
Rafferty: That interview you talked about is from 2017 by the way. Gordon had only played in one season with Harden. Someone should ask him if his answer has changed since.
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