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Sorry Wildcat fans, James Harden is the best NBA player ever from Arizona

When it comes to the college basketball rivalry between the University of Arizona and Arizona State University, there is absolutely no doubt on what school has the better program.

Since legendary head coach Lute Olson rolled into Tucson in 1983, the Wildcats have won over 74 percent of their games and they’ve played in 29 NCAA Tournaments, racking up 52 wins in that span. They’ve made the Final Four on four separate occasions, winning a championship in 1997. Arizona has hung 14 regular season conference championship banners and won the Pac-10/Pac-12 Tournament five times.

Since 1983, Arizona has produced 41 players that have gone on to play in the NBA.

All of these figures dwarf what their rival to the north has done.

In those 32 seasons, Arizona State has won 51 percent of its games. The Sun Devils have received only five NCAA Tournament appearances which have yielded a total of four wins. They’ve made one Sweet Sixteen appearance and have never been a champion of the Pac-10/Pac-12 — either in the regular season or the conference tournament.

Twelve Sun Devils have gone on to play in the NBA since 1983.

Like I said, there is no question on which school has had the better men’s basketball program over the last three decades.

But there is one category, and only one, that ASU wins.

Former Sun Devil James Harden, who recently finished second in the voting for the NBA’s Most Valuable Player, has his Houston Rockets in the Western Conference Finals for the first time since 1997.

“The Beard” is truly the first player from either ASU or Arizona to be the focal point of an NBA championship-caliber team ever. I believe this makes him the best NBA player ever to come out of a college in the Grand Canyon State.

Arizona fans don’t like to hear this. They want total domination in every facet of the rivalry against the Sun Devils.

Here are some of the responses this discussion generated during Monday’s edition of Bickley and Marotta on Arizona Sports 98.7 FM.

Has he? Terry, who is now Harden’s backcourt running mate in Houston, has had an amazing career. He won an NBA title in 2011 with the Dallas Mavericks. He was named the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year in 2009 and will go down as one of the great bench players of all time. Only two players in history — Ray Allen and Reggie Miller — have made more three-pointers than Terry.

But Terry has never been the best player on a championship-level team the way Harden is. Next.

Bibby carved out a nice, 14-year career in the NBA. His best years came in the early 2000s when he was the point guard for the Sacramento Kings — a good team that just could not get over the hump that was the Los Angeles Lakers, who beat them in an epic seven-game Western Conference Finals series in 2002.

Bibby never won a ring. Never played in an All-Star Game. Never led the NBA in any one statistical category. Was he a good player? Absolutely. But Bibby was never close to the level Harden has reached in his sixth year in the league.

Ah, the old “this guy has won a handful of championship rings and that makes him a better player” argument. Using this logic, Robert Horry, who won seven rings, is a better player than Michael Jordan, who only managed six. Laughable, right?

Kerr, like Terry, had a very good and long NBA career. He even made a huge shot which directly led to a championship, when he canned a 15-foot jumper in the decisive Game 6 of the 1997 Finals against Utah.

But consider this: despite five championship rings, could Kerr be considered better than Harden when he only started a total of 30 games in his NBA career? Kerr was one of the most accurate three-point shooting specialists ever, but Harden has already made more shots from behind the arc (965, including playoffs) than Kerr did in his entire career (810).

Others have brought up Gilbert Arenas. This is the most interesting argument, because of the numbers Arenas piled up for a short period of time.

Arenas was a second-round pick of the Golden State Warriors in 2001 and signed a free agent deal with the Washington Wizards after two seasons in Oakland. In Washington, Arenas blossomed into one of the game’s best scorers. In a three-year span from 2004 to 2007, “Agent Zero” averaged 27.7 points per game and played in three straight All-Star Games. Injuries and poor decisions took their toll on Arenas’ career and he’d play in only 134 games over the next five seasons before his career came to an end in 2012.

But even at the height of his game, there are a couple knocks on Arenas. From 2004 to 2007, the Wizards never won more than 45 games in a season and never were higher than a five-seed in a weak Eastern Conference. Washington’s one playoff series victory came in 2005, when they knocked off a Chicago Bulls team that was without leading scorer Eddy Curry in the series. In the other three playoff series in that three-year run, the Wizards went a collective 2-12.

Arenas never finished higher than eighth in league MVP voting and third among single-season scoring leaders. Harden finished second in both categories this season.

Hey, I’m the first to admit, it’s an interesting debate. But I can’t find one former Arizona player whose NBA résumé can match what Harden has accomplished so far — and he’s only 25.

Marotta’s List of the Best NBA Players Ever From ASU or UA

Rank Player School NBA Career Teams PPG RPG Titles All-Star Notes
1. James Harden ASU 2009-present OKC,HOU 19.7 4.3 0 3 2nd in ’15 MVP voting
2. Jason Terry Arizona 2000-present ATL,DAL,BOS,BKN,HOU 14.7 2.5 1 0 3rd all-time in 3PM
3. Byron Scott ASU 1983-1997 LAK,IND,VAN 14.1 2.8 3 0 Averaged 19.6 in ’88 Finals
4. Sean Elliott Arizona 1989-2001 SAN,DET 14.1 4.3 1 2 Spurs’ 8th-leading all-time scorer
5. Gilbert Arenas Arizona 2001-2012 GST,WAS,ORL,MEM 20.7 3.9 0 3 Averaged 29.3 PPG in 2005-06
6. Fat Lever Arizona State 1982-1994 POR,DEN,DAL 14.0 6.0 0 2 2nd Team All-NBA 1986-87
7. Andre Iguodala Arizona 2004-present PHI,DEN,GST 14.0 5.5 0 1 2x All NBA Defensive Team
8. Steve Kerr Arizona 1988-2003 PHX,CLE,ORL,CHI,SAN,POR 6.0 1.2 5 0 .454 career 3P% – best all-time
9. Joe Caldwell ASU 1964-1975 DET,STL,ATL,CAR*,STL* 16.1 5.3 0 4 2nd Team All-NBA Defensive Team 1969-70
10. Richard Jefferson Arizona 2001-present NJ,MIL,SAN,GST,UTA,DAL 13.9 4.3 0 0 13.2 PPG in 2003 NBA Finals

Honorable Mention: Mike Bibby (Arizona), Channing Frye (Arizona), Lionel Hollins (ASU), Alton Lister (ASU), Damon Stoudamire (Arizona)

*- in ABA

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