COMMENTARY | The 2009 NBA draft was one for the ages.
First, the Los Angeles Clippers grabbed Blake Griffin, which wasn't a surprise to anyone. Then, the Memphis Grizzlies took Hasheem Thabeet, thinking he had Hibbert-like potential (in a shocking revelation, he doesn't). At three and four, respectively, the Oklahoma City Thunder picked James Harden and the Sacramento Kings selected Tyreke Evans.
After all of that, every team had to make the same decision: Do we draft for need, or do we take one of the many capable point guards available?
The depth at guard in the 2009 draft was absolutely unreal. Even in the second round, there turned out to be a handful of NBA-caliber guards who are currently in rotational roles for NBA teams, including Patrick Beverley (Houston Rockets), Jodie Meeks (Los Angeles Lakers), Marcus Thornton (Kings) and Nando De Carlo (San Antonio Spurs).
Now that this draft class has four seasons under its belt, it's time to raise the question: Who was the best guard taken in that crowded 2009 draft pool?
First, let's narrow down the group of players that we're choosing from. We'll throw Ricky Rubio (Minnesota Timberwolves) out because of his injury and his lack of scoring punch. We'll toss Tyreke Evans (New Orleans Pelicans) out because of three seasons of disappointment following an impressive rookie year. We'll do the same for Ty Lawson (Denver Nuggets), Jrue Holiday (New Orleans Pelicans), Jeff Teague (Atlanta Hawks) and DeMar DeRozan (Toronto Raptors), who all have had very solid careers thus far but are still a notch below the best two guards of the draft.
By eliminating a few fringe candidates, we're left with two elite players to makes cases for: Golden State Warriors point guard Stephen Curry and Houston Rockets shooting guard James Harden. Both Curry and Harden experienced career years last season, with both youngsters taking hold of their respective teams and guiding them to playoff berths.
While it would be easy to dismiss Curry for not winning enough in his first three seasons, if you put Harden on Golden State for the first three years of his career and put Curry on Oklahoma City, the entire landscape of the NBA might have changed . If Curry played next to Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, maybe Oklahoma City beats Miami in the 2012 NBA Finals. If the Thunder win a title, maybe they never trade Curry before the 2012-13 season (like they did with Harden), and maybe they elect to move Kendrick Perkins instead, keeping the foundation of Westbrook, Curry, Durant and Ibaka in Oklahoma City.
Both Curry and Harden experienced success early in their careers, but it came in different forms. Harden was the third or fourth star on a championship-caliber Thunder team, while Curry was the young stud of a rebuilding Warriors squad. If we're just going to compare their 2012-13 seasons, this is how the statistics shook out:
Stephen Curry: 78 games, 22.9 points, 6.9 assists, 4.0 rebounds, 45% FG, 45% 3-point, 90% FT, 3.1 turnovers, 3.7 free-throw attempts per game
James Harden: 78 games, 25.9 points, 5.8 assists, 4.9 rebounds, 44% FG, 37% 3-point, 85% FT, 3.8 turnovers, 10.2 free-throw attempts per game
If we're just analyzing the numbers, you can make an argument for both sides. Harden scored more, but Curry assisted more. Curry shot higher percentages, but Harden got to the line more frequently. Their rebounds are close enough to not make a difference, and the same goes for their turnovers (while some people might point to Harden averaging almost a whole turnover more per game, he had to play next to a consistently inconsistent Jeremy Lin, and Curry played heavy minutes next to a true point guard in Jarrett Jack).
In their four regular-season head-to-head contests, in which Houston won three, here's how both players fared:
Curry: 21.8 points, 8.5 assists, 4.8 rebounds, 1.8 turnovers, 45% FG, 38% 3P, 10/13 FTs
Harden: 21.5 points, 7.8 assists, 6.3 rebounds, 3.0 turnovers, 32% FG, 43% 3P, 32/39 FTs
Again, the numbers are close enough to not make a fuss for one player or the other. Two of the games were absolute blowouts, with Harden's Rockets taking one game by 31 (in a statistical spectacle that I outlined here) and Curry's Warriors taking one by an even 30.
There can be compelling arguments made for Harden being a better overall player than Curry, and vice versa. Curry is the best shooting point guard in the league, and he has a chance to go down as the most lethal 3-point shooter of all time. Harden, in my opinion, is going to emerge as the best shooting guard in basketball as Kobe Bryant starts to decline, and Harden's Rockets become a powerhouse in the Western Conference.
As of this point, I'm going to take Harden for two reasons:
1. Curry's frail body, including an ankle that may cause problems for the duration of his career.
2. Harden's effect on the entire offense. While many people will say that Curry's assist numbers point to him guiding his teammates to offensive success, Curry struggled early in his career with balancing point-guard duties and his scoring, which is why Jarrett Jack was so valuable to the Warriors last year. Without Jack, Curry may run into some problems next season.
The truth is that what has happened up to now doesn't mean all that much, but it gives us an indication as to what will unfold next. Both the Warriors and Rockets are making a run at the Western Conference crown, and these two guys will see a lot of each other over the next handful of years. The knock on Harden is that he's not good under pressure, with the 2012 NBA Finals serving as the fuel to the fire. Curry's knock is his lack of strength, which comes from his ankle issues and skinny body (if Curry had caught this elbow from Metta World Peace, I'm pretty sure his head would have landed in the second row).
Basketball is certainly a team game, but what separates the good players from the great players is the ability to lift their teams in clutch situations, the ability to come to every game ready to play, and the ability to make teammates better. With both the Warriors and Rockets rising out West, we'll see these two marquee players duke it out enough times to make stronger arguments for one player or the other.
There's no doubt Curry and Harden are the two best guards from the 2009 NBA draft, and the answer to who's better than the other will become more clear in time.
M. De Moor is an NBA junkie who currently writes about all things NBA on Hoopshabit.com. He has followed the Rockets from the championship days of Hakeem Olajuwon, to the years of Francis and Mobley, through the McGrady and Yao era, and will continue to follow them through Harden and Dwight's reign of destruction.
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