What more could James Harden have realistically accomplished this season? Before judging his porous defense (which I’ll be doing in a little while) or hounding on his sometimes poor decision-making in crunch time (he just missed another step back jumper), try and answer the question reasonably.
What more could he have done as a 23-year-old assuming the weight of an entire franchise for the first time? There are so many fantastic things Harden did for the Houston Rockets this season, and almost all of them exceeded everyone’s expectations.
Let’s start with changing a culture. Harden spent 78 regular season games representing the efficient style of basketball Houston wants its players to embody. That’s three-pointers, free-throws, and shots at the rim. According to NBA.com/Stats, over 90% of Harden’s points this season came from three-pointers, free-throws, and points in the paint. Just 7.1% of his scoring came on mid-range jump shots.
As the team’s leader and best player, Harden’s offensive tendencies were mimicked by just about all his teammates. Houston attempted the second most threes in the league, the fourth most free-throws and ranked ninth in percentage of team points that were scored in the paint. This is direct Harden influence. Kevin McHale accentuated his stars’ greatest strengths, instituting a season-long game plan that not only made Harden comfortable, but allowed him to be as productive as humanly possible.
He’s as north/south as it gets, like a no-nonsense running back who never tap dances behind the line of scrimmage. There’s nothing like watching Harden in the open court as he picks up steam between the half-court logo and top of the three-point arc.
Harden absolutely loves contact and he’s fearless from this point on, going all the way to the basket whether you want to stand in his way for a charge or not (this is good and bad, as Harden’s sometimes stubborn mentality was the probable cause for him leading the league in turnovers this season).
But this mindset also afforded him 792 free-throw attempts, which led the entire league. Let’s compare that figure with a few other players when they were 23 years old.
Kobe Bryant attempted 589 free-throws (he’s only passed 792 once, with 819—in two more games than Harden—in 2006), Dwyane Wade attempted 762 (he’d get to 803 the following season), Russell Westbrook attempted 413 (but it was during a lockout shortened season—his career-high is 631), Carmelo Anthony attempted 590 (in 77 games), Jerry West attempted an incredible 926 (and topped out at 977 in 1966), Tracy McGrady attempted 726 (then never came within 100 attempts of 700 for the rest of his career), Michael Jordan attempted a career-best 972, and LeBron James attempted 771 (though he registered an ungodly 821 two years prior).
The sampling of players is random but impressive, as is how generously Harden matches up against them.
Let’s break down the rest of his offensive contribution. Harden attempted the fifth most three-pointers this season, and only Stephen Curry, Ryan Anderson, Klay Thompson, Kyle Korver, and Damian Lillard made more.
Only LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, and Kevin Durant scored more than his 2023 total points, only five players averaged more minutes per game, and his scoring average of 25.9 points was more than Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook, and Dwyane Wade.
But what makes Harden more deadly than your typical high volume scorer is his ability to pass. He’s surgical with a high screen when the floor is spread, able to drive and kick after one strong dribble—that’s all it takes for him to make help defenders scurry into the paint—or throw a brilliant pocket pass to a rolling Omer Asik or Greg Smith (nobody throws a pocket pass with the fluidity of James Harden. Nobody).
Also, he’s able to throw the incredibly difficult but increasingly crucial jump skip pass to the weak side corner off pick-and-roll action going the opposite way. This takes strength, intelligence, trust, and, obviously, pin point precision and timing.
What’s not to love about this player? Well, how about the other end of the floor? In assuming all the core responsibilities for a top-10 offense, Harden never had the energy or willingness to defend at even an average level either on or off the ball this entire season.
(Using his work on offense isn’t an excuse to cover up his poor defense, it’s a fact, plain as day.)
He doesn’t slide his feet, get low into proper defensive position or close out with much energy on shoots behind the three-point line. Transitioning from offense to defense was also a problem all year, as Harden’s man would routinely beat him back down the court after he shot it.
In the end, what Harden did/does on the other end outweighs the putridity with how he flails on defense. He finished in the top 15 throughout the league in Usage percentage, PER, Win Shares, and True Shooting percentage.
These are the numbers of a franchise superstar. Harden is only 23 years old, making it all the sweeter that he’s locked up through his prime with the Houston Rockets. The defense should improve (hopefully) once another free agent is added to lessen Harden’s offensive responsibility. As good as this year was, the future looks even better. This is a Hall of Fame talent.