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Early Season Observations: Beard Edition

The 2012-2013 incarnation of the Houston Rockets has played only three games to date.

Given the early stage of the season and the roster turnover since last year, year-on-year team comparisons will be difficult to make. Instead, I’ve decided to take a deeper look at the Rockets’ marquee offseason acquisition to better understand Harden’s offensive prowess and see what effect playing on a new team has had on Harden’s statistics.

Last season, the Thunder were a whopping 15 points per 100 possessions better offensively with Harden on the court.[1] While the Thunder also gave up 7 points per 100 possessions more when Harden played, the net result was still a benefit of +8 points per 100 possessions. Out of four OKC line-ups that logged more than 100 minutes last season, the two most effective ones both featured Harden; the second most-productive was a pure bench unit without either Westbrook or Durant.[2]

Much of Harden’s impact can be explained by his offensive efficiency. Last year, Harden’s True Shooting Percentage (TS%) of 66% ranked fourth in the NBA.[3] Harden’s scoring efficiency was largely a result of his shot selection: 46% of Harden’s shots were from beyond the arc (mostly from non-corners) where he converted at a rate of 39%. Another 38% of his shots were from within the restricted area (close to the basket), and he made 65% of those.[4] In other words, over 80% of Harden’s shots consisted of the most efficient shots in basketball. This efficiency, coupled with Harden’s propensity for drawing fouls, (per 82games.com, Harden drew fouls on 21% of the shots he attempted) is what makes Harden an elite NBA scorer.

As the focal point of the Rockets’ offense this season, Harden has seen an expected increase in usage rate (from 22% to a league-leading 33%).[5] Impressively, however, his TS% has barely dipped to 64%. Although the increase in usage has led to an increase in per game turnovers (from a reasonable 2.2 to an alarming 4.7), Harden’s turnover ratio (as defined by Hollinger) has held steady at 12%. Also reflecting Harden’s increased role is the percentage of teammate field goals assisted, which has increased from 19% to 32%.[6] Buoyed by his pair of monster debut games, Harden’s Player Efficiency Rating (PER) has jumped from 21 to 26, equivalent to what Wade and Durant produced last season.[7]

Through three games, 38% of Harden’s possessions have come from being the pick-and-roll ball-handler and 19% have come from isolation, numbers almost identical to former teammate Russell Westbrook’s (38% and 19% respectively).[8] Harden is taking more mid-range jumpers than last year—he’s taken 13 such shots in 3 games versus only 60 in 62 games last season.[9] As the mid-range shot is the least-efficient shot in the game and Harden shot such shots at a league-average rate of 40%, it will be interesting to see if this shot redistribution continues and whether it impacts Harden’s scoring efficiency.

Over the course of the season, Harden’s per game numbers should return back to earth but the Rockets have found themselves a bona-fide star: someone who’s arguably already a top 15-20 player with room to improve. Notwithstanding the loss to Portland, this has been as good a start to the season for Harden and the new-look Rockets as fans and management could have hoped for. As the season progresses, it will be interesting to see whether any of the young-ish players (Lin, Patterson, Parsons) make significant leaps and whether any of the rookie forwards can make meaningful contributions. These factors, coupled with Harden’s continued growth as well as adjustments from both coach and players, will determine whether the Rockets will have a memorable or a merely intriguing season.

[1] Data courtesy of Basketballvalue.com. Points per 100 possessions is often preferred to a simple points per game metric, which doesn’t account for a team’s pace (the number of possessions played per game).

[3] True shooing % takes into account free throws and three pointers, which are the two most efficient shots in basketball because they have the highest expected value (defined as percentage or probability multiplied by the value of the shot): free throws because the percentages tend to be very high and threes because they’re worth more.

[4] NBA.com advanced stats database.

[5] NBA.com advanced stats database. Usage rate is the percentage of a team’s possessions that a player uses (by either a shot, a drawn foul, or a turnover) while he is on the floor.

[6] NBA.com advanced stats database.

[7] For more on PER, see http://espn.go.com/nba/columns/story?columnist=hollinger_john&id=2850240

[8] http://mysynergysports.com. Coincidentally, Westbrook also trails Harden in usage rate by a hair.

[9] NBA.com advanced stats database.

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