After the blockbuster trade that landed James Harden in a Rockets uniform, he has not only proven that his numbers can increase with his minutes and usage but also that he has ample room to expand his game and contribute even more than he does today.
He is the Rocket's most versatile and dangerous offensive chess piece, hands down. But what exactly makes a player good enough lead his team into a playoff series averaging 25.9 points, 4.9 rebounds, 5.8 assists, and 1.8 steals a game?
One of the reasons that Harden is such a perfect fit for this team is that his game is a reflection of the analytically minded philosophy of the Rockets front office.
The 3-point shot, the free throw, and the layup/dunk at the rim are the most effective shots in basketball from a purely statistical standpoint. The extra point beyond the arc overcomes the drop in shooting percentage, the free throw (while mid-range) is unguarded and you can come away with 1 point instead of being all or nothing, and the layup/dunk is not only high percentage, but it also has the added potential of leading to a the aforementioned free throw.
This is James Harden's offense.
First, of Harden's 1337 field goal attempts this season, 607 (45.4%) of those shots occur less than 10 feet from the basket.
Second, of those 1337 field goals, 486 (36.3%) are from 3-point range.
In total, 81.7% of Harden's field goal attempts occur from 3 point range or very close to the rim.
Additionally, of Harden's 2023 points scored this season, 674 (33.3%) of them come directly from free throw shots that he hits at an 85% rate.
Also, of those 2023 points scored, 537 (26.5%) come from beyond the arc (179 makes this season). He shoots 3 pointers at a 36.8% rate.
Overall, 59.8% of Harden's points come purely from free throws and 3 pointers.
The other thing that makes Harden so hard to guard is his combination of size, strength, and speed. It would be difficult to describe Harden as all that athletic, but his body type gives him several distinct advantages on offense.
At 6'5" and 220lbs, Harden has some meat on his bones to go along with a nice 6'10.75" wingspan. This length combined with his considerable upper body strength (pre-draft, he notched 17 bench press reps of 185lbs and is known as a guy that hits the weight room often since) allow him to fight through contact easier than most. In fact, Harden seems to deliberately outstretch his arms as he drives to the rim in an effort to entice defenders to reach in. James' strength allows him to retain stability and balance as he swings his arms through defenders to get whistles and charity stripe shots. His footwork and euro-steps help him make-up for a lack of pure speed as he can craftily side-step charge calls, too. This skill is what allowed Harden to lead the league in foul calls leading to free throw shots with 792 attempts (beating Kevin Durant by 42 attempts). He finished second in the league in free throws made to Kevin Durant by just 5 makes. The drop off between Harden and Durant and the third spot in FT's made is over 100 (Kobe Bryant) and the drop-off to fourth place is well over 200 (Westbrook).
Even when his shot is not falling, Harden can usually turn an early 2/8 shooting performance into 12 points in a half with his combination of 3 point shooting and his knack for drawing fouls. This allows the Rockets to weather early shooting droughts and stay in games long enough to make a run in the third or fourth quarters of games.
Arguably, the most dangerous aspect of James' game is his ability to create opportunities for others on his team. Per game, Harden is the team's second leading assist man (5.8) behind Jeremy Lin (6.1). James assists on 20.9% of teammate's field goals while he is on the floor.
Despite being behind the team's leading distributor in most measures in terms of passing statistics, Harden does edge Lin out in 3 point field goal assists. Of Harden's 455 assists this season, a team leading 188 (41%) of his assists are for 3 point buckets.
The number of 3 point assists can be attributed not only to Harden's ability to kick out to shooters in the corners on drives to the basket, but also from his perimeter play as well. Mike Prada of SB Nation wrote up this piece detailing how Harden exploits flare screens during ISO plays with pin point passes beautifully over the top of defenses. The timing necessary to lob a pass cross-court as a big man is screening a second defender to open up Chandler or Delfino for threes is illustrative of Harden's ball skills.
Another aspect of Harden's play-making ability is his infamous pocket passes. While the Rockets pick and roll based offense is fairly rudimentary from a philosophical standpoint, its execution is anything but. Harden exploits his offensive acumen and its tendency to draw defenses towards him to provide more passing opportunities by using his indistinguishable head fake as if he is driving to the rim and dropping it off to one of the Rockets big men. Red94's Michael Pina delivers some insight and video examples here. The no-look pocket pass has become a staple of Harden's offensive game and are likely responsible for well over 50% of Omer Asik's offensive production this year.
Having James Harden on the floor is much like having another point guard starting. His ball handling skills are developed enough to allow him to drop 9-11 dimes a game without thinking twice about it. This is critical for a team that relies so heavily on the pick and roll and rarely runs set plays that have more predictable ways of putting players in a position to score.
Oddly enough, the 23 year old guard is the most seasoned playoff player on the Houston roster. The only other current Rockets to have gotten a taste of the playoffs in their careers are Carlos Delfino, Francisco Garcia, Omer Asik, and James Anderson.
In terms of total playoff minutes, Harden has more than all other 3...combined; and its not even close. Harden has totaled 1287 minutes on the floor in the post-season in his short 3 year career. Delfino (514 mins), Asik (276 mins), Garcia (41 mins), and Anderson (31 mins) fall, collectively, 425 minutes short of Harden's playoff experience. This does not even delve into usage or per game minutes, which Harden dominates relative to his intra-team competition. James also has not simply had playoff experience, but playoff experience against eventual champions all 3 years in the post-season and on stages as bright as the NBA finals.
While the older veterans can advise several of our younger players on approaching the playoffs generally, Harden is the only one who can lead by example. It is this combination of impact minutes early in a player's career and a now unleashed skill set that have created a completely different locker room culture than would have existed otherwise.
Harden has been known to set the tone for team practices with his workman-like attitude. In post-practice interviews McHale has even detailed how Harden likes to bang around with the frontcourt players on the low block during practice both to improve his own post game, but also to help the development of younger bigs like Greg Smith, Donatas Motiejunas, Thomas Robinson, and Terrence Jones.
During interviews about the playoffs, Harden has stressed that focusing on the little things is what is key to success. Particularly in this series against OKC, Harden will certainly be looked to in order to provide as many of those small details as possible against his former team. Although small details like how to dress during the playoffs are not exactly what Harden means, he attests to giving out some fashion advice in preparation for the post-season as well.
Harden is Houston's unquestioned leader both in terms of both playoff experience and talent level. If the Rockets can somehow find a way to pull of the first round upset, it will come on the shoulders of our 23 year old superstar. Other players can afford to have bad games, James Harden cannot.
As easy as it would be to simply gush over how much of a luxury Harden is to this franchise, there are serious holes in his game that can easily be Houston's downfall in the Thunder series.
Harden's success offensively is inversely proportional to his defensive effectiveness. Though this criticism can be chalked up to youth and his massive offensive responsibilities, it is without a doubt a serious concern. It can be broken down into several categories:
Transition Defense - Harden does not run back to stop the ball very well. While I don't think anyone expects him to get back as quickly as Houston's more ancillary players because of the number of times Harden is moving past the rim on drives (especially when he is knocked down without a foul call), but there have been far too many instances where James has been slow to get back on defense because he is arguing with the refs about allegedly missed calls.
Ball Watching - James loses his man in half-court sets most often because he is over-helping on defense. In several cases, Harden is even caught pre-helping by sneaking towards the low-block while opposing defenders are in triple threat position at the top of the key. This can lead to broken rotations and poor close-outs on shooters.
Excessive Gambling for Steals - This is related to the other two but deserves special mention. Though Harden is averaging 1.8 steals a game, good for a top 10 finish in the NBA this season, many of his attempts end up in poor defensive positioning with little payoff. His attempts for steals often result in less lateral foot movement to put his body in front of defenders to cut off their progress or result in him being taken out of the play entirely on fastbreaks when he jumps at an outlet pass instead of simply getting back and stopping the ball.
While these flaws are notable, they are not completely damning. Harden has a big enough body to adequately defend many of the better two guards in the NBA on the ball. His upper body strength makes going through Harden difficult without altering how the ball is shot.
Overall, his defense is below average but has a lot of room for improvement based on the physical skills Harden possesses.
As much as Harden is lauded for his passing ability, this combined with his increased usage have resulted in a league leading 295 turnovers (Lin is 10th with 236, to add to the issue). His per game average is surpassed only by Rajon Rondo's truncated 2012-13 campaign.
Though the pocket pass and the flare screens are beautiful sights when they go according to plan, they look like total disasters when off by even fractions of a second or even an inch. That combined with the no-look nature of Harden's moves make for some ugly endings to offensive possessions.
The Rockets are actually a wonderful half-court defense, thanks to Omer Asik's nimble, roaming 7-foot frame. It's transition defense that kills us. Harden's turnovers are particularly harmful because they are hardly ever dead ball fouls like travelling or even charges. 20.8% of Harden's turnovers were of the dead-ball variety and whopping 79.2% are live ball turnovers that result from bad passes or from getting the ball stripped (prospectively as he is trying to draw fouls on drives unsuccessfully).
In the month of April, Harden has been worse than normal in this regard. In just 9 games this month, he has amassed 41 total turnovers. His per game average jumped from 3.8 for the season to 4.5 during this critical month.
While his offensive production is worth making the trade for turnovers by a very long shot, they still offer teams one of the keys to beating Houston while at the same time negating our most potent offensive weapon.
Turnovers will definitely be a highly monitored statistics this playoff series (KD and Westbrook are also in the top 5 in this category) and Harden is the regular season turnover king.
James Harden, to me, seems very much like Kevin Martin's game in Paul Pierce's body. Harden has Pierce's size, herky-jerky body movements, and his under-rated passing ability paired with K-Mart's hyper-efficient tendencies for arm-flailing drives to the rim for fouls/layups and his (and Pierce's) dead-eye 3-point shooting.
Harden's high volume scoring and excellent playmaking ability make him the clear engine of Houston's offense. He can make his young teammates comfortable in the post-season with his experience and leadership as well as his ability to get them the ball in a position to score with ease.
If he can keep his turnovers down and not let Thabo Sefolosha score a career high 28 points against like the last game they played, the Rockets will have a chance to put themselves in position to take a couple of games in this series that few expected they could.