James Harden’s Scoring Brilliance in Context

Last year, James Harden was an offensive dynamo, averaging a hair over 36 points per game and powering the Rockets to the playoff despite losing Chris Paul and Clint Capela for extended periods of time. He was so impressive that I actually wrote about what an incredible performance he was having, right about this time last year. Hard to top that kind of season right? Well…

James Harden is currently averaging 38.5 points per game. Every game! That’s not only 7 points more than second place on the list (Giannis), but more than Jimmy Butler (20.4 PPG) and Khris Middleton (18.0 PPG) PUT TOGETHER! Those guys are pretty good!

If he’s able to maintain this level of productivity, Harden is on pace to surpass Michael Jordan’s finest individual season in 1986 which stands as the best non-Wilt scoring season in history. I put together a quick chart which trends the number of points per game averaged by the league leader since 1980 to show what an outlier this season by Harden is - take a look below!

The NBA’s Leading Scorer Each Year by PPG

Side Story - Wilt’s League of His Own

As a bit of background, I absolutely belong to the school of thought that the competitive evolution of sports means that modern athletes would thoroughly outclass players from a generation or more ago. While this is extremely clear in individual sports like track and swimming, where times are constantly dropping, it’s much harder to quantify in team sports, due to the fact that success relies both on one’s own capability and the overall capability level of your competition. In my view, the best soccer player in the world in 1970 would probably have been a middle-of-the-pack player in the 1990s, as the level of competition around him improved.

In that vein, I don’t think it’s crazy to say that Mike Trout is probably the single best baseball player of all time - he stands out to an exceptional degree amidst a crowd of players being paid millions or even hundreds of millions of dollars to play a game that has been evolving for a hundred and fifty years.

With all of that said, there are a few counterfactual examples in every sport which really make you wonder, and show why some of these players have such a powerful mystique. To me, this investigation into James Harden’s performance this season has shown what an absolute monster Wilt Chamberlain was during his prime in the late 1960s, where he averaged 50 and 20 for a season, led the league in scoring for seven straight seasons, and once led the league in assists just to prove that he could.

The NBA’s Leading Scorer Each Year by PPG - Wilt Chamberlain Highlighted

While it’s a shame that we’ll never be able to match up Prime Wilt and Prime Shaq or Prime MJ and Prime LBJ, it’s fun to imagine!