Breaking Down James Harden’s Offensive Game

Scott Halleran

Just days before the start of the 2012-13 season, the Oklahoma City Thunder shocked the NBA by trading Sixth Man of the Year, James Harden, to the Houston Rockets for pennies on the dollar.

For a Rockets team that had missed the playoffs the past three seasons, the addition of Harden was just the kind of move Houston had been waiting for to thrust them back into playoff contention.

While some doubted how well Harden would transition into his role as the main option on offense, Harden proved that he was more than capable. Despite his usage percentage increasing nearly 8.5% this past season, Harden's true shooting percentage (TS%) only dropped 6%, and was the 11th highest true shooting percentage in the league.

How was Harden able to take on more offensive responsibilities while still managing to perform at such a high level?

Let's take a look at Harden's offensive game.


If you've spent any time watching the Rockets play, you know that their first option on offense is scoring in transition.

According to Synergy, 17.2% of the Rockets possessions were in transition, and they scored on 54.6% of those possessions. Looking at Harden specifically, 21.7% of his possessions were in transition where he averaged 1.22 points per possession and scored on 59.1% of those plays.

Harden Transition on Hawks (via ShakyAnkles)

When the shot goes up, instead of crashing the boards, Harden relies on Asik to grab the defensive board and hit him with the outlet pass. Using his speed, Harden is able to beat defenders from one end of the court to the other, creating an easy layup at the rim.

In the instances where Harden gets the defensive board, he still leads the way in transition, often beating defenders down the floor.

As you can see, when Harden is in transition the first thing he is looking to do is catch the defense out of position and get to the rim.

Even the most-spirited transition defense can leave you empty-handed (and with a serious loss of dignity) when Harden is leading the charge.

Harden's skill set makes him one of the more deadly transition players in the game, but his offensive aptitude does not stop there.

If running the floor in transition doesn't yield an easy layup early on in the shot clock, Harden slows the pace up, allowing teammates to setup the pick-and-roll.

When defending Harden in the pick-and-roll, opponents can either fight over the top of the pick in order to defend against Harden's shot, or they can opt to go under the pick to prevent him from driving to the basket.

Regardless of the strategy defenders choose, Harden can make them pay.

If they come over the top of the screen, Harden is able to use his quickness and guile to get to the bucket.

Or, if the defender goes under the screen, Harden simply pulls up and drains a three.

Harden isn't just great at scoring in the pick-and-roll; he's also an adroit passer with decent court vision.

If Harden would just, for the love of all things good, stop throwing SO MANY SKIP PASSES, he would minimize his turnovers and take his game one step further.

Although Houston's [notoriously thin] playbook revolves around running a high percentage of pick-and-roll plays, Harden still finds himself in isolation frequently (27% of his possessions).

No pick? No problem.

Shot Selection

Although Harden's field goal percentage dropped from 49.1% to 43.8%, the number of field goal attempts he averaged last season went up a significant amount, from 10.1 attempts to 17.1 per game, and as mentioned earlier, his TS% remained relatively steady.

Harden's TS% isn't the only thing that has remained steady. His disdain for the midrange shot, too, has persisted despite an increase in field goal attempts.

With one picture, Kirk Goldsberry displays this perfectly.



As you can see, Harden makes use of the midrange shot about as frequently as he makes use of a Gillette razor.

Not only does Harden emphasize taking shots at the rim or from long-distance, but also he's also most efficient from the areas where he shoots most[1].





In 2011-12, Harden shot 29-71 (40.8%) from midrange, and last season he shot 76-226 (33.6%) from the same area, but Harden's numbers from the other spots on the court tell a very different story.

Per, Harden's field goal percentage less than five feet from the rim was 57.1%, and from behind the three-point line it was 55.2%.

Another thing to note about Harden's shooting is that, while some shooters excel at hitting shots either off-the-dribble (Steph Curry) or in spot-up situations (Kyle Korver), Harden is relatively proficient at both, which makes him much tougher to defend.

Give Harden too much space; he will do this to you.

But if you think that the defensive solution is to guard Harden very closely, you've got another thing coming.

Driving and Drawing Fouls

Harden's ability to knock down shots from the three-point line opens up the floor for him to take advantage of defenses with another aspect of his game. Harden's quickness, strength, balance and proficient use of the eurostep makes him one of the best at getting from the perimeter to the rim, something we also observed when dissecting his game in transition.

Watch what he does to Thabo Sefolosha.

Sefolosha realizes the dilemma he is in, and his uncertainty is so evident.

He knows that if he gives Harden too much space, Harden is capable, and more than willing, to pull up and drain the three. On the other hand, if he picks up Harden that far from the rim, Harden will do exactly what he does here and drive right past Sefolosha for the dunk.

Initially, Sefolosha jumps pretty far out to scare Harden off of the pull-up three, but then lunges back in an attempt to position himself so that Harden can't drive past him. Harden sees this, catches Sefolosha off balance with a nice hesitation move (as the bearded wonder is so adept at doing), and drives to the rim with ease.

Even when defenders make it their one goal to shut Harden down, he still finds a way to score.

You can't get any more in Harden's face than Kobe does on that play, yet Harden somehow manages to not only draw the foul, but get the And 1 as well.

Here he is again, doing the same thing to Quincy Pondexter.

According to Zach Lowe at Grantland, as of February, Harden was fifth in the league[2] in drives per game with 9, and the Rockets averaged an astounding 1.51 points per possession on those Harden drives.

Not only can Harden get to the rim and score, but he also led the league in free throw attempts per game (10.2 FTA), and shot 85% on those attempts, which means that more than 8 of the 26 points Harden scored per game came as a result of him getting to the free throw line.

Perhaps I'm beating a dead horse here, but I think I've made my point: give Harden too much room, and he'll make you pay from deep; guard him closely, and he'll use a litany of moves to get past you and to the rim.

Harden's move to Houston came with an increase in offensive expectations, which could have easily led to an increase in inefficiency. However, due to Harden's ability to score easy buckets in transition, take smart shots and his profound knack for drawing fouls, not only did Harden meet these expectations by scoring 26 points a game, he did so as one of the league's most efficient players.

If Harden can continue to play at this level then Houston, meet the NBA's best new shooting guard.

[1] This seems like an obvious statement, but players don't always choose to shoot from where they're most efficient. This explains why Josh Smith took 201 three-point attempts despite being a 28.3% career three-point shooter.

[2] The data used to reach this conclusion comes from SportVu tracking technology, but is not entirely complete because only 15 teams actually have the cameras installed in their arenas.

No cursing in title. No pirated material, such as links to online game streams. Do not cut/paste entire sections of content from other websites. Thanks.

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