James Harden’s Offensive Expansion

James Harden is the analytical era’s most accepted high volume scorer. Nearly all his points accumulate behind the three-point arc, in the restricted area, or at the free-throw line—in the form of many, many free-throws every game.

These happen to be the most desirable scoring locations on a basketball court, and nobody uses them with more uncompromising concentration than Harden. Now 34 games into the season, Harden’s offensive repertoire is expanding to an unlikely area: the mid-range.

As last season dragged on, the already low percentage of Harden’s points coming from the mid-range got smaller and smaller. In March it dropped down to 4.5%. In April (eight games), 2.9%. During six playoff games against the Oklahoma City Thunder, just 2.5% of all Harden’s points came from the mid-range. These numbers are downright admirable in their absurdity for someone who shoots and scores as often as Harden does.

(Harden was at 4.6% in his last season with the Thunder, and 7.8% the year before that.)

Here are two shot charts that map out the slight redistribution of Harden’s offensive output from last year to now. The first comes from the 2012-13 season.

As expected, a huge chunk of Harden’s attempts came from behind the three-point line and nearly half came in the paint.

The difference between the two distribution charts is both minor and significant. Harden’s attempts from the mid-range are up 3.4%, with fewer forays into the paint and even more shots from deep. Thanks to the addition of Dwight Howard, the increase in threes was to be expected. But did anybody think one out of every five shots attempted by Harden would be a long two?

Look at how Harden performed last season from the mid-range.

Now compare the red splotches found inside the three-point line with what’s taken place so far this season.

The sample size is particularly small here—it’s unlikely he remains as poor from the right side as he is lights out from the left—but this may indicate that Harden is on his way to establishing another area of his offensive game.

There are pros and cons to be found. For starters, there’s the hopeful finding that he can be just as dangerous a scorer from less coveted areas as he is from the spots his name has become synonymous with. Defenses know how Harden likes to attack, and what we may be seeing this season is a young All-Star adapting to those adjustments and still thriving as one of the league’s top offensive weapons.

Harden’s PER remains above his career average and his overall field goal percentage is slightly higher than last year. He still attacks the rim. The free-throw line remains his best friend; Kevin Durant is the only player to make more free-throws than Harden this season. But he’s been disappointing from behind the three-point line, hanging on to the 30% mark like George Clooney did floating space debris in Gravity.

According to mySynergySports, he’s also utilizing the post a bit more; a fair amount coming against smaller guards who allow Harden to shoot over the top or bully them down low. Here he’s shown fantastic timing, refusing to make his move until a helping big slides back to the opposite side of the paint to avoid a three-second violation.

He’s a scorer, and the best scorers need to utilize as much of the court as possible. Harden’s fallen in love with a sugary step back jumper that’s just about impossible to block and seemingly affords wide open looks whenever he wants them (like the LaMarcus Aldridge baseline turnaround or the one-legged Dirk Nowitzki fall away).

Here are a few looks where Harden receives a high screen then reads the defense perfectly. The first two happened moments apart in a game against Portland earlier this season.

And here’s the same thing against the Spurs. Harden recognizes the space Tim Duncan has given him, sees there are four Spurs in the paint to prevent a drive to the rim (or an effective role by Howard), and figures an open jump shot from the foul line is as good a look as Houston will get on this possession. He’s right.

Not all is perfect with the increase in mid-range shots, though. We all know a long two isn’t better than a three. But not all long twos are the same. Some are necessary. Unfortunately, Harden’s been prone to jack up a fare share of shots that could best be described as “not necessary”—contested attempts that come with the shot clock winding down on possessions where Houston’s offense show absolutely no movement or action to make the defense work.

Almost all Harden’s long twos come off the dribble, too, which is less accurate than a spot up shot. He does almost everything by himself. Screens are used, sure, but only 2.6% of all his made field goals are assisted.

Both of these designed clear outs are the type of look Houston (and all teams, for that matter) should avoid as much as possible. Both are cases where Harden settles on the perimeter. In the first clip against Denver he has Evan Fournier on him with plenty of time and space to attack the rim and draw a foul. He does not attack the rim and draw a foul.

This is hero ball. A tiny bit of it never hurt anybody, but too much—even from an extremely gifted scorer like Harden—can seriously damage a team’s offensive rhythm. The modification to Harden’s game isn’t enormous, but change still exists. Long twos are not sought after on a team wide scale, but for individual scorers they remain an important part of the game.

Houston can’t race up and down the court on every possession. Games get slower in the playoffs, when the league’s very best defenses will have ample time to strategize ways to prevent Harden from doing what he wants—which, primarily, is still driving to the rim and shooting threes. Half-court possessions won’t be easy, and Harden will need to prosper in other, less ideal ways. Given his troubles behind the three-point line, it’s certainly positive that he’s been able to take a few steps in and knock down jump shots.

His game is growing. Good news for any basketball player, especially a young one on a max contract. But given Harden’s offensive responsibilities—the countless ways Houston depends on him to create various scoring opportunities—it’s tough to say whether this trend is costly or profitable until we see his productive means unfold in the playoffs. Right now it’s a little bit of both.

Michael Pina has bylines at Red94, CelticsHub, The Classical, Bleacher Report, Sports On Earth, and Boston Magazine. Follow him here.

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