James Harden – The Numbers Behind The Numbers

Photo Credit: Troy Taormina/USA TODAY Sports

James Harden – The Numbers Behind The Numbers

 

Houston Rockets guard James Harden has been on an unbelievable scoring tear as of late, which is taking the NBA and its fans by storm. Harden has been out of his mind, putting up multiple 40 plus and 50 plus games, even registering a 61-point game at Madison Square Garden against the New York Knicks last night. When we take a glance into the box score it seems mind boggling and rightly so, but what most NBA fans and analysts are not doing is diving deeper into the numbers to see find out what’s really going on, and why this sudden outburst in big scoring.

I’m about to offer a comprehensive explanation.

Firstly, the Rockets are without secondary ball handler and leader Chris Paul, which has unleashed the dominance of Harden on the rest of the NBA. Because of this, Harden’s big scoring games are a result of an extremely high usage rate, and the Rockets changing their style of play slightly. Now, instead of Paul and Harden sharing the ball handling responsibilities, Harden now controls the rock nearly 100% of the time. As Harden is a score-first guard by nature, the opposite of Paul, Harden’s overall scoring output has skyrocketed. His assist numbers have also been up in that time, but that’s more directed towards his full responsibility to create for others now with no Paul around.

In terms of usage, a central reason why Harden has been putting up monster numbers is because he’s on track to break the single season record for usage rate in NBA history. As of right now he is currently second all-time with a usage rate of 40.26, marginally close to the all-time leader Russell Westbrook who registered 41.65 during his 2016/2017 NBA MVP season in which he became the first player to average a triple-double since Oscar Robertson.

In simple terms, Harden is having the ultimate “selfish” season if you will, by being responsible for basically the entire offense. Think about it, if you give any offensive superstar that kind of freedom and power, their numbers will of course be astronomical. Russell Westbrook averaged a triple-double with that license, and the third place usage leader of all time Kobe Bryant, averaged 35.4 points per game in the 2005/2006 NBA season when he had the green light offensively, an average strikingly close to Harden’s right now at 35.7 points per contest. Further, Mike D’Antoni’s offensive system has always inflated players’ numbers, with Jeremy Linn and Steve Nash being other examples of that. So this sudden increase for Harden is not all that surprising for people who watch the game closely and dive into the numbers.

Additionally, Harden has now scored 263 straight UNASSISTED points and become the first and only player in NBA history to attempt 20 three-pointers and 20 free throws in the same game, another indication of the iso-heavy, ball dominant, pounding the basketball type scoring with the ball constantly in his hands.           

Another aspect of Harden’s production that needs to be looked at is a little something I call efficiency. Now, read this next part closely because it’s very important and will be telling as we move forward throughout the season and into the playoffs.

HARDEN IS ACTUALLY VERY INNEFICENT OVERALL.

Don’t be shocked, I’m about to give you the numbers.

Out of all the 50-point games in the NBA this season, James Harden is the ONLY PLAYER to not be efficient in them. By efficient, I’m referring to shooting above 50% from the field and respectable percentage from beyond the arc, something that is usually mandatory in a big scoring night for any player in the NBA.

Let’s go through them all:

 

Blake Griffin, Detroit Pistons

50 points vs. Philadelphia 76ers (10/23/2018)

20-30 FG, 5-10 3PT, 5-11 FT, 14 rebounds, 6 assists, 1 block in 44 minutes

 

Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors

51 points vs. Washington Wizards (10/24/2018)

15-24 FG, 11-16 3PT, 10-10 FT, 4 rebounds, 3 assists, 1 block in 32 minutes

 

Klay Thompson, Golden State Warriors

52 points vs. Chicago Bulls (10/29/18)

28-29 FG, 14*-24 3PT, 2-2 FT, 5 rebounds and 1 steal in 27 minutes

(*Thompson’s 14 three-pointers made set an NBA single-game record)

 

Derrick Rose, Minnesota Timberwolves

50 points vs. Utah Jazz (10/31/18)

19-31 FG, 4-7 3PT, 8-11 FT, 4 rebounds, 6 assists, 2 steals and 1 block in 41 minutes

 

Kemba Walker, Charlotte Hornets

60 points vs. Philadelphia 76ers (11/17/18)
31-34 FG, 6-14 3PT, 12-12 FT, 7 rebounds, 4 assists, 4 steals in 45 minutes

 

Kevin Durant, Golden State Warriors

51 points vs. Toronto Raptors (11/29/18)
18-31 FG, 4-7 3PT, 11-12 FT, 11 rebounds, 6 assists in 42 minutes

 

LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers

51 points vs. Miami Heat (11/18/18)
19-31 FG, 6-8 3PT, 7-10 FT, 8 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 steals, 1 block in 38 minutes

 

As you can see, every other player besides Harden, has had wildly efficient big scoring games. In fact, two of Harden’s five 50 plus scoring games he’s shot 47.1% from the field, 26.3% from three (Brooklyn Nets) and 44.7% from the field and 25% from the three (New York Knicks) respectively. Moreover, Harden’s inefficiency has been on display throughout the campaign. In fact, the majority of his 40 plus point games and 30 plus point games have been below 50% from the field. Most people will look over the big scoring nights, but fail to realize Harden is shooting just 44% from the field. As of right now, that’s actually lower than last season in which he won the NBA MVP (44.3%). During this run, he’s also averaging nearly 40 (yes 40) shots per game, a mind blowing number. As you can see, Harden’s production is more directly associated with volume scoring and shooting rather than never-seen-before offensive ability like some think.

So how does Harden score all these points whilst being inefficient you ask? Two words: free throws.

This is another important note, as Harden is taking a truly absurd number of free throws, even for a star. Just last night, Harden shot 25 free throws en route to 61-points. He also shot 27 free throws against the Memphis Grizzlies on December 31st, attempting more than the entire Grizzlies team collectively. If you’ve been following the league closely, you’ll be well aware of the ridiculous number of free throws Harden attempts, as he remains the only superstar in NBA history to have scored more free throws than field goals in his career.

It’s hard to say exactly why Harden is officiated the way he is, but what he has done is found a loop hole in the NBA rules which allows him to initiate contact but still head to the charity stripe despite a constant neck snap and flailing arm.

Doing the math, Harden is averaging 11 free throws per game, which leads the NBA by a mile. By doing so, he only needs to score 24 points in open play to achieve his season average, something that isn’t difficult for any gifted all-time scorer or someone attempting nearly 40 shots per game in a high-scoring run.

Furthermore, this brings me to perhaps the most important aspect of Harden’s scoring run for NBA purists, and that’s the way in which he does it. We’ve already covered the free throws, the volume shooting, the inefficiency, the usage, the isolation but we haven’t mentioned the turnovers, which again Harden leads the league in by a long way. Perhaps it’s a topic for another day but it does matter for the basketball fans out there who evaluate a game in its entirety. Of course the usage plays a part but it’s still inexcusable when looking at things objectively.

It’s all these things that cause Harden to have so many haters despite creating history with his scoring. Although being obviously talented, Harden does do it in a somewhat uninspiring way. Some fans have labelled it as “boring” whilst others are more harsh with their dislike of his playing style, either way, when trying to compare him with other great shooting guards such as Dwyane Wade and Kobe Bryant, these are the little things that make all the difference in the end.

Despite breaking multiple records, many NBA fans are shocked at the sheer nerve to compare him to Bryant, for example. It’s not because Harden isn’t talented, but the way in which he’s scoring and breaking these records is very “different”, let’s say. I myself must admit Harden’s playing style is not particularly pleasing on the eye, as it’s an iso-heavy, over-dribbling type of approach which stops the offense completely.

Harden has recently stated he wants to be remembered next to the game’s greatest ever players, but in many fans and analysts’ eyes he would have to win championships in order to do so. The problem is the way the Rockets and Harden are playing right now is not a recipe for long term success. In fact, it’s the opposite. As the Rockets face tough Western Conference opponents in the playoffs, and the games are called tighter by the officials meaning less free throws for Harden, the offense will need to find another way to win. Granted Chris Paul will likely be healthy (we hope) for the playoffs to ease the load and ball handling duties with Harden, the type of offense they run isn’t ideal for long-term success, especially this year where they are clearly worse defensively than last campaign. Right now, they are also running the very real risk of Harden burning out, thus, adding to his long list of playoff failures if he doesn’t deliver yet again in the post season.            

All in all it’s evident to see why Harden is putting up the numbers he is.

A quick recap and explanation of his production would be:

– Mike D’Antoni’s system has a history of inflating players’ numbers.

– Harden’s usage rate is already second all-time in NBA history and will likely be first come season’s end.

– Harden is largely inefficient despite big scoring games.

– During this run Harden is shooting the ball nearly 40 times a game.

– Harden is leading the league in free throws by a wide margin.

– Harden has the only inefficient 50-point games this season in the entire league.

– Harden is responsible for basically the entire offense in a team that attempts the most shots and threes in the league.

– Despite his scoring, Harden also leads the league in turnovers by a wide margin.

– Harden’s iso-heavy playing style is unappealing to the eye for many fans.

– Harden’s playing style will likely burn him out for another underwhelming postseason output.

Yes what he’s doing is amazing. Yes he’s an all-time offensive talent. Yes he’s single handily carrying the Rockets, but by scoring the way he is, Harden is slowly diluting the difference between a volume scorer and shooter and great offensive player even though he is a clearly gifted scorer himself.

In truth, his massive scoring numbers and output are impressive on face value, but need to be taken with a pinch of salt when considering everything.   

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