James Harden spoke of the desire to get more efficient this season, even mentioning the possibility of playing off the ball. Thus far, all of the attention has been on Harden’s defense, a topic already so thoroughly dissected that I’ll steer clear. I know he was bad on that end, so I’m not going to waste my time quantifying it. What I’m curious about is how his offense fared in comparison to a year in which he came runner-up in the MVP voting.
To begin, the initial recitals: Harden scored 27.4 points per game in 36.8 minutes per game last season, with 7 assists per game, and 5.7 boards per contest. This year, Harden averaged 29.0 points per game in 38.1 minutes, with 7.5 assists per contest, with 6.1 boards per game. Turnovers went from 4 per game to 4.6 per game this year.
Last year, James Harden shot 44% overall. This year, he shot .439 from the floor. But last year, he shot .375 on 3’s, whereas this year, he shot .359 on 3’s. Harden hit 2.6 out of 6.9 three-point attempts per game last year, whereas this year, he hit 2.9 out of 8.0 three-point attempts per game. Harden’s 2-point percentage actually went up: last year he shot 48% on 2’s, whereas this year, that number shot up to .494. Consequently, while his overall shooting percentage was down, Harden’s eFG% improved from .511 to .512. Harden shot .868 at the line last year, and .860 this year; accordingly, Harden’s true shooting percentage fell from .605 to .598. (True shooting percentage is an efficiency metric which, unlike eFG%, also takes free throws into account).
Last year, Harden assisted on 34.6 percent of Houston’s field goals while he was on the floor; this year, he assisted on 35.4%. Usage percentage went up from 31.3% to 32.5% and so did turnover percentage. Harden committed 14.9 turnovers per 100 possessions last year; this year, he committed 15.9 turnovers per possession.
The shot breakdown is interesting. Last year, .622 of Harden’s field goal attempts were 2’s. This year, that declined to .594. But he improved his shooting from almost every area. As aforementioned, 2-point percentage overall improved from 48% to .494. From 0-3 feet from the basket, Harden improved from .618 to .650. From 3 to 10 feet from the basket, Harden improved from .291 to .328. And from between 16 feet, to the 3-point line, Harden improved from .337 to .402. It was only between 10 to 16 feet and on 3’s where Harden shot worse: .431 to .426 and .375 to .359, respectively. Looking at the overall shooting numbers, you could argue that the only decline in Harden’s game this year, offensively, was from downtown.
Turnovers were a very big problem this year. Last year, Harden threw 176 ‘bad passes’. This year, that went down to 169. However, this year, Harden had 149 ‘lostball’ turnovers, compared to just 97 last season. My guess is ‘lostball’ turnovers are simply defined as turnovers when the player is either ripped, or simply loses the ball.
Here’s an interesting split I found: this year, with less than 3 minutes left in the quarter, Harden’s overall shooting declined to .385 and .313 on 3’s. (With over 6 minutes left in the quarter, he shot .462 overall and .386 on 3’s). Last year, Harden shot .445 overall and .352 on 3’s with less than 3 minutes remaining in quarters, but .419 overall and .383 on 3’s with over 6 minutes remaining. Defenses were possibly loading up on James more in these sorts of situations with the Houston offense having less options.
Another interesting nugget: Harden shot 40.9% this year on catch and shoot 3’s. On pull-up 3’s, he shot 33.6%. Last year, that was 40.1 and 35.6. This year, he took 3 catch and shoot 3’s, and 4.7 pull-up 3’s per game. The increased accuracy on catch and shoots isn’t surprising. But as speculated before, the Rockets could make James Harden even more dangerous if they found a way to put him in more of these positions.
So just how much of an impact did James Harden have on the offense this year? When he was on the court, the Rockets had an offensive rating of 110.1. When he was off the court, that sunk down to 101.8. That’s an on/off difference of +8.3. And while opponents had a rating of 108.4 with Harden on, 0.7 better than their 107.7 rating with him off, Harden’s overall on/off difference was +7.6. The Rockets’ 110.1 offensive rating with Harden on, was 1.7 better than their opponents’ rating of 108.4 with him on. And their 101.8 rating with Harden off was -5.9 worse than opponents’ 107.7 rating with him off. For all the talk of Harden’s horrendous defense, his offensive contributions had a far greater impact.
James Harden must improve defensively for this team to regain respectability. And as we theorized in Part 5, his style of play is likely having far-reaching effects upon team morale, extending to the defensive end. He has to learn to take a step back, no pun intended. But can we stop talking about this guy like he’s early-career Jamal Crawford? I’m sick of national commentators describing Harden like he’s just some shot-happy chucker that is putting up empty stats that aren’t helping his team. The Rockets had the seventh best offense in the entire league; the Rockets had an offensive rating of 110.1 with Harden on the court, and a rating of 101.8 with him off. In essence, James Harden basically single-handedly carried this team to one of the best offenses in basketball. Those aren’t empty stats.
And that might feed into the greater problem. Daryl Morey responded on a podcast earlier in the year to a question about Harden’s propensity to hold the ball and take everything upon himself. While cognizant of the problem, Morey empathized that its difficult for Harden because he’s the best or almost the best in the world at each of the offensive tasks at hand. The stats bear that out. Harden is dynamite offensively. But he’ll have to learn that even though he usually is able to get the job done, if he shares, the team as a whole can be greater.