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Should we compare Jordan Poole to Gilbert Arenas and James Harden?

How does Washington’s new guard stack up to greats who changed teams early in their careers?

Charlotte Hornets v Washington Wizards
Wizards guard Jordan Poole
Photo by Stephen Gosling/NBAE via Getty Images

As a summer full of doppelgänger machine articles shows, I’m not averse to comparing current NBA players to those who came before. But please, let’s have these historical comps at least make sense.

If you pay much attention to NBA discourse, you’ve probably heard comparisons of new Wizards guard Jordan Poole to James Harden or Gilbert Arenas. I get the comp — there’s a superficial similarity because all three are guards who changed teams young. Both Poole and Arenas got their starts with the Golden State Warriors before coming to Washington.

But since it’s out there, and I’m getting asked about it, let’s actually make the comparison. I talked about it on the latest episode of my #SoWizards podcast, which I invite you to give a listen. Here’s the summary.

As mentioned above, Arenas, Harden and Poole were at similar ages and points of their career. Arenas was entering his age 22 season when he signed with the Wizards as a free agent.

It was just his third NBA season — he’d slipped to the second round of the draft and signed the then-standard two-year minimum salary contract. While the Warriors technically had the right to match any offer, they didn’t have Bird rights (Arenas had just two seasons under contract with the team) and were limited to offering the Mid-Level Exception.

Harden was 23 and entering his fourth NBA season when the Oklahoma City Thunder traded him to the Houston Rockets. OKC’s management was concerned about building a complete team around three maximum salary players — Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and Harden (if they had given him the max deal he wanted). And Harden had been a sixth man through his first three seasons.

Poole is entering his age 24 season, which will be the fifth year of his career. He was the 28th overall selection in the 2019, and enters the first year of the four-year, $123 million contract he signed before last season.

On-court performance is where the comps break down. I’ll start with efficiency since that’s the single most important stat. At the simplest look, Harden is way ahead of the other two. His offensive rating (points produced per 100 individual possessions) was 118 before he went to the Rockets. Arenas’ ortg was 109 before coming to Washington. Poole: 108.

On quick glance, you might think Arenas and Poole are a fair comparison. Except, league context changed significantly. Here’s league average efficiency for each player during the years before they changed teams, and their offensive rating relative to league environment:

  1. Harden — league average: 106.5; Harden average: 118; relative ortg: +11.5
  2. Arenas — league average: 104.1; Arenas average: 109; relative ortg: +5.1
  3. Poole — league average: 112.4; Poole average: 108; relative ortg: -4.4

Harden was an offensive monster before changing teams. Even with a usage rate of just 20.4%, there was every reason to think how he played would scale to a bigger role — especially since his third season included a preposterous 124 ortg on 21.4% usage. That’s efficiency of +19.4 points per 100 possessions relative to average. Freakish.

The numbers show Arenas was a very good offensive weapon with the Warriors. His efficiency dipped a bit in his second season when his usage ramped from 21.6% to 26.3%, but his ortg remained a bit ahead of average and when seeing him play, it was apparent he was a talented youngster learning how to succeed in the NBA.

Poole’s efficiency, while below average, has still been good enough to think that he’ll have offensive value even if it doesn’t improve. If the ortg ticks up to average or better on high usage, he could be quite valuable and still fall well short of what Harden and Arenas did.

Will he improve? Well, on one hand, he’ll have more freedom to make plays in DC than he did in Golden State. On the other hand, he won’t be able to play in the space created by Stephen Curry, and Poole’s efficiency dropped when Curry wasn’t on the floor.

Poole’s overall body of work doesn’t keep pace with Arenas or Harden. Here’s each guys PPA for the period of their careers before they changed teams:

  • Harden: 106 — best season: 142 (year three — traded for year four)
  • Arenas: 119 — best season: 120 (year two — signed as a free agent for year three)
  • Poole: 86 — best season: 123 (year three — traded for year five)

In PPA, average is 100 and higher is better.

Poole’s PPA for only his first three seasons (throwing out last season because of The Punch) was 87. For you data cherrypickers, if I toss his first and fourth seasons, Poole’s PPA shoots to 114. To my mind, discarding data to make Poole look better doesn’t exactly strengthen the case that Poole has a solid chance of replicating the career trajectories of Arenas or Harden.

For those who aren’t fans of PPA, I looked at other one-number metrics, which largely tell the same story. For example, according to Basketball-Reference, Harden produced 21.0 win shares in his first three seasons with OKC. Arenas had 9.2 in two seasons with the Warriors. Poole managed four seasons with Golden State.

According to B-R’s Box Plus-Minus metric, Harden’s BPM was 2.3, Arenas’ 1.2, and Poole’s -1.6.

Using PER (also at B-R):

  • Poole: 13.4
  • Arenas: 18.1
  • Harden: 17.2

In PER, average is 15.0. Throwing out seasons doesn’t help Poole’s case.

There are a couple arguable issues.

I could make a case that as a playmaker/passer Poole is in the same class as Arenas and ahead of Harden at similar points in their development. I could even be receptive to an argument that Poole is slightly ahead of Arenas at this point (comparing four-year Poole to two-year Arenas).

The other “arguable” is that Poole could be the best pure shooter of the three. Now, I don’t think the difference is large, and the idea is somewhat theoretical because relative to average in their own league environments, both Arenas and Harden shot better than Poole (even throwing out Poole’s rookie season). But Poole has demonstrated some extreme range shooting that neither of the other two had license to do early in their careers, and his free throw shooting has been elite.

The other challenge with this theoretical argument is Poole’s shot selection, which has been more questionable through his first four years than Harden’s and Arenas’ were before they changed teams.

I haven’t addressed defense much, which is intentional. None of the three were stellar defenders before changing teams. I’d be open to arguments that Poole was no worse defensively than early Arenas or Harden. I don’t think it’s arguable that Poole’s defense was sufficiently better to make up for how far he lags them on the offensive end.

None of what I’ve written or said on the podcast should be construed as me trashing Poole. He has the ability to be a good player, and he has a great opportunity with the Wizards. I just wish those making the comparison would do even cursory analysis before going on air to talk about it (hi there Kevin Garnett) and suggest or imply that Poole is even somewhat likely to follow a similar trajectory as the other two.

To refresh memories, here’s Harden’s resume:

  • MVP
  • Sixth Man of the Year
  • NBA 75th Anniversary Team
  • 10x All-Star
  • 7x All-NBA (6x First Team All-NBA)
  • 3x scoring leader
  • 2x assists leader

And here’s the Arenas resume (keep in mind that Arenas had just three healthy seasons in Washington before getting his knee wrecked at the end of his age 25 season)

  • Most Improved Player
  • 3x All-Star
  • 3x All-NBA (one Second Team)

Had Arenas not gotten hurt, he almost certainly would have added to his All-Star and All-NBA accolades.

What comps like this do is raise expectations to the point of thoroughly unreasonable, which is ultimately unfair to Poole and Wizards fans who could end up disappointed if Poole is merely good instead of awesome.

Let Poole be Poole without saddling him with poorly considered comparisons. He could fall well short of the bar set by Arenas and (especially) Harden and still be a valuable player who helps the Wizards win.