September 14, 2023, 1:58 am
When we’re all a little older and looking back on this era of NBA basketball, it won’t take long for the likes of Damian Lillard and James Harden to enter our minds. These aging superstars have been torching opposing defenses and willing their team to victory for so long that it’s easy to take them for granted. In fact, that seems to be what’s happening in light of their respective trade requests over the offseason. Though both Lillard and Harden are past their physical primes and ready to move past this unhappy stage of their careers, they remain some of the most potent offensive creators of their generation – if not the entire history of the NBA.
Reports indicate that Lillard wants to take his talents to South Beach as a future member of the Miami Heat, while Harden prefers the West Coast and the Clippers. This would be a whole lot easier if they were free agents but that’s not the case and we may be looking at a pair of messy, drawn-out divorces. It’s easy to understand why fantasy managers are tentative about drafting Lillard or Harden but the subtext to any discussion about their ADP drop-off is that they could easily beat it when active especially if they are trying to prove a point. Whether they play or how hard they play for their current teams remains to be seen but the new CBA rules have contingencies for athletes that withhold their playing services which may be too punitive to risk.
So who’s going to provide better fantasy value when they play? How could that change if and when they are eventually traded? We’re going to consider a whole range of options for these veteran All-NBA studs and see who comes out on top ahead of fantasy draft day.
Damian Lillard vs. James Harden
PAST: Who was the better fantasy player?
24.0 PPG, 3.2 3PT, 4.1 RPG, 7.3 APG, 0.6 SPG, 0.4 BPG, 2.9 TO, .402 FG%, .878 FT%
29 games, 695 points, 92 3-pointers, 120 rebounds, 212 assists, 17 steals, 11 blocks, 83 turnovers, 222-of-552 field goals, 159-of-181 free throws
22.0 PPG, 2.3 3PT, 7.7 RPG, 10.3 APG, 1.3 SPG, 0.6 BPG, 4.4 TO, .410 FG%, .877 FT%
65 games, 1432 points, 148 3-pointers, 499 rebounds, 667 assists, 82 steals, 36 blocks, 284 turnovers, 407-of-992 field goals, 470-of-536 free throws
There’s not much to analyze here. One player was available for most of the season and the other one wasn’t. When active, Lillard and Harden were easy to compare and would have had much closer per-game valuations were it not for Lillard’s surprisingly low accuracy from the field which now stands as the worst result in his career. However, the fact remains that Harden was already rated higher on average and was miles ahead on totals due to the sheer volume of games played. Despite his tumultuous season split between the Nets and Sixers, the Beard is the inevitable winner of the 2021-2022 matchup. I won’t rob you of a bit more fantasy analysis before we move on though. Let’s take some of their best moments from this season and really dig into what separates them.
Lillard’s season ended pretty early but he managed a 43-point effort with six treys, eight assists to only three turnovers, and impressive shooting marks of .632 from the field and .929 from the line. His field goal percentage isn’t typically that good but otherwise all of these figures have been relatively routine for Lillard in his recent career. However, when matched head-to-head with Harden, it’s really only points, treys and turnovers that really carried over as true assets. The disgruntled Sixers superstar regularly out-produced Lillard on the boards while only falling below Lillard’s mark of eight assists 11 times during the entire season and he remains one of the most notorious free throw scorers in league history. The Beard makes a living by producing gaudy counting stats and punishing defenses by constantly seeking contact for free points at the line. Only a few days after becoming a Sixer, Harden was offering up a 29-point effort with three treys, 10 boards, 16 assists and five steals while making more than half of his 14 shots and sinking 10-of-10 free throws. That just felt normal for him but it’s particularly relevant now that this was a sort of revenge game and Harden’s way of affirming that he was worth the lofty price of his acquisition. In sum, Harden was just too far ahead with assists and boards production while staying just close enough in Lillard’s other strong areas to have won this matchup even if the Blazers lifer had played as many games or more.
PRESENT: Who is the better fantasy player?
32.2 PPG, 4.2 3PT, 4.8 RPG, 7.3 APG, 0.9 SPG, 0.3 BPG, 3.3 TO, .463 FG%, .914 FT%
58 games. 1866 points, 244 3-pointers, 277 rebounds, 425 assists, 50 steals, 18 blocks, 191 turnovers, 556-of-1202 field goals, 510-of-558 free throws
21.0 PPG, 2.8 3PT, 6.1 RPG, 10.7 APG, 1.2 SPG, 0.5 BPG, 3.4 TO, .441 FG%, .867 FT%
58 games, 1216 points, 161 3-pointers, 354 rebounds, 618 assists, 71 steals, 31 blocks, 195 turnovers, 371-of-842 field goals, 313-of–361 free throws
Remember how I was saying earlier that it would be easier to compare Lillard and Harden if only they had played the same amount of games? Well, ask and you shall receive. Though their playing circumstances may have varied, we at least get two late prime superstars at a common position with an identical sample size. Leaving 24 games each on the table wasn’t ideal for redraft managers who probably spent their first pick on one of the pair but they both finished within or near that valuation on a per-game basis thanks to both being at or near the top for value in multiple categories.
Lillard was a top-3 producer in three areas this past season: points, treys and free throws. His marks for points per game, treys per game and free throws per game were all career highs, which made this season an unqualified individual success for Lillard even though it was the season that caused his pending divorce with the team and their high lottery odds to yield a successor at point guard. The fact is that the Blazers got 46 points or more by combined points and assists out of Lillard on a nightly basis and the fantasy impact of that had him as a top-10 player. Dame was the third-ranked point guard behind All-NBA First Team member Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and former MVP Steph Curry. Like Curry, Lillard was absolutely electric from beyond the arc and like Gilgeous-Alexander, he was relentlessly pressuring defenses to get extra points at the charity stripe. In a sense, he was nearly peerless but what matters for this article is where his competitor ranked in that peer group. Spoiler alert: There are four other point guards between Dame and Harden.
Harden set a career-high assists per game mark and was the king of that category for fantasy purposes. A slight drop in points was hardly notable but the tradeoff was a nudge in the right direction for 3-pointers and field goal percentage over the previous season. Still, it seemed like the offensive juggernaut Harden was starting to slow down. Harden had half as many 30-point outbursts and he certainly wasn’t collecting as many boards as he did before. He fell from 7.7 boards per game last season to 6.1 this time around, although it’s worth noting that this is in line with his Rockets days and still a solid number for any guard-eligible player. Improving his efficiency from the field from bad to less bad certainly doesn’t account for the drop in boards or a two-point drop in free throw attempts for Harden. It’s enough to sink the Beard just low enough in fantasy value to lose pace with Lillard, but how do you keep up with a 7-time All-NBA player on a career year anyway?
FUTURE: Who will be the better fantasy player in 2022-23?
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