Who to Build Around: Paul George or James Harden?

Mar 27, 2013; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Rockets shooting guard James Harden (13) drives against Indiana Pacers small forward Paul George (24) in the first half at the Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Thomas Campbell-USA TODAY Sports
Mar 27, 2013; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Rockets shooting guard James Harden (13) drives against Indiana Pacers small forward Paul George (24) in the first half at the Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Thomas Campbell-USA TODAY Sports /

Tom Ziller wrote an interesting column yesterday for SB Nation in defense of the one-dimensional star. Throughout NBA history there have been many such players — Dikembe Mutombo and Steve Nash come to mind — but Ziller focuses on 2014’s all-buckets, no-D player du jour: James Harden.

The bearded gunner’s lack of defensive acumen and effort is so well documented at this point that it hardly require links, but here are two: The Harden Tape and this lapse during the recent FIBA World Cup. Even Ty Lawson has mocked Harden in public.

With all this horribleness, it’s can be easy — for some — to forget that he is one of the very best players alive. His out-of-this-world scoring efficiency easily outweighs all the negatives on the other end.

And in Ziller’s eyes, this is both something we cannot forget and something that can be beneficial in the sense that it gives the Houston Rockets a clear identity.

On the other hand, with more well-rounded player like Paul George, it is harder for a team to know exactly how to improve. Or something. I’m not sure I understand his point, vis a vis, George all that well.

Here’s the gist.

"Let’s consider the team-building aspect. Is having a hyper-elite scorer who can’t defend any worse than having a very-good-across-the-board star? Would you rather have to build around Harden’s deficiencies given Harden’s incredible strength, or would you rather be able to build around the well-rounded George?What strikes me is that the one-dimensional star helps give your team a clear identity, and that’s hugely important. Even with a healthy George, the Pacers lacked an identity during their downswing and playoff run. The team’s second-best player, Lance Stephenson, was also of the well-rounded type. The team’s only major one-dimensional player was Roy Hibbert, whose one dimension suffered quite a bit.How do you build around Paul George? Indiana has done it with other well-rounded players. At point guard, the team has invested cash inGeorge Hill (the ultimate milquetoast NBA point guard). David West is a tough veteran who has fallen into the background at times, more due to age and a never-dominant, yet always-solid offensive game.The Pacers don’t have many shooters to speak of, at least not many who’d get minutes. Hibbert is an elite rim protector who sulks, can’t score and struggles to battle for rebounds. The Pacers’ lack of identity — or, more accurately, lack of a definable basketball personality — helped defeat them. (Of course, the Heat also played a large part.)With the Rockets, who flamed out earlier than the Pacers, at least Daryl Morey knows what he needs. Harden is, at this point, an absolute zero on defense. So Morey absolutely needs a stud defender at point guard or small forward, or preferably both. The shapes of the holes in the Rockets roster were obvious. The holes in the Pacers roster were more mysterious. Doesn’t that matter? When you’re run by one-dimensionals, there’s a well-defined path to the top of the mountain: fill your holes. When you feature a well-rounded star, you start further up the mountain, but there’s no defined route to the top."

So, OK, I do get his argument.

I would counter this argument by saying I think he used the wrong example, in using George. I don’t say this because George is unquestionably better than Harden (though I think he is better). I mean because I think the Pacers — with George’s real strength, defense — had a very clear identity. They were the best defensive team in the league for multiple seasons and the system was predicated on Roy Hibbert’s rim protection and George being elite on the wing.

This quibble aside, Ziller makes a good point.

Even in world where George was still healthy and Lance Stephenson was still a Pacer, how would the Pacers improve? They were hoping the core five starters would organically get better and then make some tweaks to the bench. But there was no clear gap to fill on a squad that was almost completely comprised of players who were well rounded.

The offense was bad, so perhaps you make a run at, say, Jamal Crawford. But then does that push your focus away from defense too much?

It’s tough to say. But the larger point here, I think, is that we as basketball onlookers are becoming all-around fetishists. Paul George and Kawhi Leonard and Andre Igoudala are wonderful. Let’s not throw out the Nashes, Hardens, and Hibberts though.

And if Ziller is right, this may provide some hope for the Pacers this season.

Frank Vogel has lost his two most-well-rounded players in George and Stephenson. There are irreplaceable. Make no mistake. But now Frank Vogel will have more specialist. They aren’t James Harden, but players like C.J. Miles, Rodney Stuckey, Damjan Rudez, and Chris Copeland might be able to plug some gaps.