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James Harden's Dribbling Is Hurting His Three Point Shooting

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Harden is experiencing his worst three point shooting season of his career while holding the ball longer and dribbling more.

James Harden is taking more contested threes this season.
James Harden is taking more contested threes this season.
Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports

James Harden is shooting a career low 30.1% from behind the three point line this season while holding the ball longer and dribbling more on three point shots than ever before.

Watch a few Houston Rockets games and you'll see Harden putting up more contested threes than ever before and working harder to get the still-contested looks. Numbers from NBA Savant tell the story. The more James Harden dribbles and holds the ball, the more likely he is to miss a subsequent three point attempt.

The Rockets

The Houston Rockets take an average of 31 three pointers a game. Second in the NBA to the undefeated Golden State Warriors as of Wednesday morning.

The Rockets made an average of 10.2 three pointers a game. Third in the NBA to the Warriors and the Phoenix Suns.

The Rockets shoot 32.9% from three on the season. That ranks 21st in the NBA while the Warriors are first and the Suns are third. Last season the Rockets topped the league in makes and attempts per game while registering a higher 34.8% from three.

There's a clear disconnect this season between the rate the Rockets take and make three pointers. It's easy to say this falls at the feet of James Harden, who attempts 8.5 threes a game while currently shooting 30.1%.  Last season that number was 37.5%. The 2015 - 2016 season is a career low.

What gives?

James Harden

James Harden is holding the ball longer on offense. And it isn't helping his three point shooting.

In the 2015 - 2016 season James Harden is holding the ball an average 4.74 seconds and taking 3.63 dribbles before shooting a three. When Harden misses this season, those numbers inch up to 4.92 seconds and 3.79 dribbles. This isn't new.

Compare Harden's misses and makes. Over the last three years, Harden's missed threes come with a longer average time of ball possession and a higher number of dribbles.

The more a player tries to create a shot (or struggles to create a shot), the more they possess the ball and dribble.

Spreadsheet Key:

3PM-A = Three points made and attempted
Shot Distance = Average distance in feet a three pointer is attempted from
Dribbles = Average dribbles before taking a three pointer
Touch Time = Average amount of time possessing a ball before taking a three
Defender Distance = Average distance in feet a defender is to the shooter attempting a three
Shot Clock = Average time on the shot clock when a three is attempted

Patrick Beverley currently leads the Rockets in three point percentage, albeit taking one hundred and forty less threes than Harden. While there's not much similarity in Harden and Beverley's offensive game, Beverley averages almost two more feet between him and the closest defender when attempting a three. Frankly, Bev is just plain getting more open three point shots.

There's not much science here. Harden handling the ball more means he's taking more contested three pointers. Beverley is waiting to take a shot that's open (defender distance) or in the corner (shot distance) and benefits from the ball being kicked around the court or even from a James Harden drive (shot clock).

Least surprising statement of the day: Beverley and Harden don't operate the same on offense. The comparison still proves it's merit by showing how much more Harden holds and dribbles than another ball handler, as opposed to a pure spot up shooter like Jason Terry.

So here's an attempt at science or logic or witchcraft... It's no wonder James Harden is shooting a career low from three this season. He's holding the ball for over a second more on average for a three point attempt and he's taking nearly one more dribble per attempt. The numbers tell the story that Harden is forcing it.

Here's how Harden performs on his misses:

Dribbles up. Touch time up. Defender distance appears as an outlier in this season. In previous seasons Harden's misses come when a defender is closer.

And here's the makes:

Makes come later in the shot clock and from further distance than misses. A set of numbers which indicate the shooting slump Harden still appears to be working through.

The numbers reinforce what Rockets fans see while watching games. Harden is struggling to get three pointers up and the shots increasingly come while he attempts to create his own shot or in transition after bringing the ball up the court. Doing so has created the worst three point shooting season of his career.