Rockets

It’s Time to Stop Hating on Harden

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Editor’s Note: Bryan Oringher spent the past 7 years working in the NBA. From 2013-17 he was the Head Video Coordinator with the Washington Wizards, and in 17-18 he did Regional Advance Scouting for the Raptors and Hawks. This year, he’s doing NBA analysis on Twitter @ScoutWithBryan and his YouTube channel. You can find all his content to date here. We are proud to have him join us as a National NBA Analyst for the rest of the season! Bryan shares his James Harden video breakdown above. All stats are thru 1/26/19 and updated before the Orlando game. 

 

James Harden is having another MVP season. You can find ten million tweets, stats and absurd records to illustrate that point. Here are a few more, in case you’ve been living under a rock:

  • He’s 1st in the NBA w/ 36.2 PPG, 2nd in 3PM w/ 4.9, 5th in steals w/ 2.08, and 1st in minutes/game with 37.4
  • During Harden’s streak of 30-point games (22 straight), Houston has been outscored by 40 with Harden off the floor
  • He’s scored 296 points over the past six games without a single assisted field goal (which some people *cough COLIN COWHERD cough* have used as a knock on him– more on that later)
  • His usage rate of 39.2% ranks 2nd in the league. Last year he was 4th with 35.1%
  • He’s been the Rockets’ leading scorer in 22 straight games

This should put into perspective just how much of a load he’s shouldering for Houston:

Highest Usage Rates Since 1977-78

2016-17 Russell Westbrook: 41.7%

2005-06 Kobe Bryant: 38.7%

2014-15 Russell Westbrook: 38.4%

2018-19 James Harden: 38.4%

1986-87 Michael Jordan: 38.2%

That, however, doesn’t mean any of the “Harden Hate” has calmed down. Unfortunately, it’s still in some cases strong as ever.

Look– you can dislike watching James Harden. You can wish for the good ol’ days when no one got fouled or took any 3’s. You can love the Spurs/Warriors beautiful system of ball-movement, involve everyone, passing/cutting/screening. All those things are fine.

But please, please, please…don’t let that diminish the greatness that is James Harden.

First, I went through every single offensive possession he was on the floor during his 61-point performance at MSG. I want to help you see through James Harden’s eyes. I want to show you what he sees on the floor, the reads he makes, the system Houston plays in, etc. All these things are important to understanding context.

Initially, this video was an hour long. I clipped out the best 20 minutes of the most important plays for you to get a good feel. Please watch it. I promise you the following:

  • If you already love Harden, you will really appreciate seeing the game from his eyes and pick up on at least a couple subtle brilliant things you probably didn’t even realize in real time.
  • If you are just a basketball junkie, you’ll appreciate a greater understanding of Mike D’Antoni and the system he runs. You’ll understand the dunker spot, his offensive philosophy, the floor vision Harden has, whether or not he travels (hint: he very rarely does), if fouls are called accurately, etc.
  • And if you’re a Harden Hater: watching the video will at least give you a semblance of more appreciation for his game. You’ll see the hockey assists, the brilliant passes even that lead to missed shots, how he reads the coverage, how much work he has to do being pressured full court. You may still dislike his style, but you’ll gain some appreciation for what you’re seeing.

Let’s debunk a few of the biggest Harden myths out there that I touched on in the video:

1. “He Doesn’t Pass”

Probably the most ludicrous critique of all. His 8.2 APG currently ranks 4th in the league. He’s played the majority of the season without Chris Paul and Eric Gordon, is now without Clint Capela, and most of his wing help has been an assorted mosh of 10-days, G-League guys, and guys who can’t shoot. James Ennis is shooting 36.6% from 3 — not bad, on paper. But please remember that he’s taking 4.6 per 36. Trevor Ariza took 7.3. Ennis almost exclusively shoots from the corners, as well:

Ariza, as you can see, could take them from everywhere:

(nbasavant.com)

Additionally, Ennis has taken three shots off pin-downs all season, per Synergy. Ariza took 67 last year. This was an added dimension which was lost when Houston attempted to replace Ariza with a poor man’s version, which Ennis is. But he is a very poor man’s version. Shooting off down screens is a form of shot creation that Joe Harris, Klay Thompson, JJ Redick, Bradley Beal, etc. thrive at. Ariza never thrived at this, but it was at least an added weapon to Houston’s attack that defenses had to respect.

Harden also averaged 11.2 assists/gm in 16-17– leading the league. Last year, his 8.8/game ranked behind only Westbrook, Wall, and LeBron. Pretty good company, if you ask me.

Subpar Teammate Performance

When looking at Harden’s assist numbers, context is important to consider. It may continue to dwindle (as it has lately), and might only rank in the top 10 when the season’s done. Consider this a result of his environment. He’s lost his elite roll man in Capela to injury, lost Ariza’s ability to shoot off screens (and in paces other than the corner), and plays heavy minutes with Austin Rivers (32% from deep on the season), Gerald Green (34.4%), Gary Clark (29.3%), and his best (mostly-healthy) shooter, Eric Gordon, shooting a career-worst 31.2%.

He also is elite at making the hockey assist– the pass that leads directly to an assist. He ranks top 15 in the league in secondary assists. Prior to the New Year, Harden was averaging 0.6 hockey assists per game, which ranked 43rd. Since? He’s top 5 in the NBA with 1.3 per game.

What does this indicate? The type of defense teams are playing against Harden. They’ve revved up their traps against him so much that Harden is having to get rid of the ball sooner and frequently hit the big man in the pocket, where he has an advantage to play 4-on-3 (with two guys being on the ball in Harden). This very frequently means the big isn’t taking the shot, especially since none of Houston’s bigs can make (or are allowed to take) mid-range jumpers. So Harden very obviously can’t get an assist here– but he’s playing unselfish basketball and making the right pass.

He’s also ranked top 5 in potential assists since 16-17. In assisted points created — basically an assists version of eFG% — Harden ranks 6th this year after ranking 4th last year and 1st two years ago. Finally, 77% of Harden’s teammates’ baskets are assisted whenever he is on the court compared to 56% when he is off. In other words: 21% more of Harden’s teammates shots come off assists when he’s in the game. That’s a pretty damning number as to how much offense he creates for others.

As a team, Houston plays D’Antoni’s system. D’Antoni famously hates post-ups and pretty much runs exclusively spread PNR. With Harden destroying teams like he has all season, most teams have adapted to forcing the ball out of Harden’s hands by trapping him. Now, — especially without an elite roll man in Capela — this is an even more obvious strategy. So instead of continually bringing a double-team to their best offensive player, the Rockets still run a decent amount of spread PNR and let Harden make the right pass out against the trap.

But, they also very logically hunt for the best matchup advantage of guys that would switch onto Harden, and get in their familiar formation for his iso’s: five man in the dunker if he can’t shoot (like Faried), or four out if he can (like Tucker). If you don’t like D’Antoni’s offense, you can have your personal preference– but you can’t question its effectiveness.

HOU rank in ORTG/ # of passes

2018-19: 2nd/ 29th

2017-18: 1st/ 29th

2016-17: 2nd/ 28th 

Additionally, those “old-school” players longing for the days of constant passing and moving are misguided. Passing just for the sake of passing helps no one. Indeed, in ’17-18: of the top 10 teams in # of passes made, the median ORTG (offensive rating) was 18th-19th out of 30. Of those teams, ONLY the Warriors were better than 14th in ORTG. Of the top 10 teams in ORTG, the median rank in number of passes was around 23rd. From those 10 teams, only the Warriors again ranked better than 12th in number of passes. In other words, there appears to be a negative correlation (and perhaps a pretty strong one) between passes and offensive efficiency.

When you hear coaches talk about moving the ball side-to-side, making the defense guard, ball movement and player movement — they aren’t talking about passing for the heck of it. Additionally, the 18/19 season is the best season EVER in terms of ORTG. Six teams had an ORTG of 110 in the 16/17 and 17/18 seasons– 13 teams are above that mark this year. Offenses are as effective as they’ve ever been, and James Harden’s Rockets with Mike D’Antoni have been right at the top.

2. “HE HAS THE REFS TRICKED”

Another common refrain. Truthfully, most of the fouls he draws are fouls. No ref has ever called a perfect game just like no player has ever played one. Watching the video, you’ll see that a huge % of his fouls are guys undercutting his landing area on his step-back. It’s a foul. Smart defenders contest his step-back w/ their hands straight up while being SURE to jump to his side and give him room to land after the shoot. When they don’t, it’s correctly called a foul.

Driving the ball, he gets fouled plenty as well. Any “manipulation” he does here is smart manipulation that every NBA player would do if they could, and many have already copied Harden to some extent. When he drives, he keeps the ball extended out. If defenders make the mistake of reaching for it then, especially with two hands– it’s a foul. Coaches continually remind their guys in film sessions to “keep their hands out of the cookie jar” with Harden, a refrain common with DeMar DeRozan as well.

When he beats guys off the dribble, he’s very comfortable driving all the way to the basket with his left. You’ll see in the video: I agree with Scottie Pippen here and really disagreed with the Knicks’ gameplan. Harden loves driving all the way going left and is a much better finisher and passer going that way. You’ll see the Knicks very frequently influenced him there, leading to a ton of layups. The Bucks were onto something pressuring him 94 feet all game (which the Knicks did mostly copy, to their credit), showing their hands (didn’t do as well), and making him go right every time.

On isolation’s, Harden is scoring:

Going Left: 1.216 PPP (93rd percentile)

Going Right: 0.854 (45th percentile)

When he goes R, he drives to the basket 41.3%; going L he drives 53.2%

(Synergy)

In my video, you’ll see that when Harden’s left is taken away, he frequently will cross back to his right. Using his speed and incredible handle, this is frequently enough to get by his defender going to his right. Since he isn’t as comfortable getting all the way to the rim going right, he’ll frequently drift back into the defender who’s chasing from behind after being beat by this left-to-right crossover move. Is this seeking out contact? Sure. But it’s a foul that’s a result of him making a good enough move to get by a defender in the first place, and plenty of players would gladly take this foul if they got by their man.

Also, many seem to treat the free throws like they’re cheap, easily-acquired points without doing the hard work. There’s certainly a few exaggerated examples, but don’t diminish the work that Harden is doing to generate this many free throws as well. He ranks 1st in the league with 19.6 drives per game. The highlights of course show plenty of Harden dribble moves – combo moves involving behind the backs, crossovers, thru the legs, etc. into his world-famous step-back.

But focusing on only these diminish the reason he has them in the 1st place – defenses spend so much energy loading up to him and trying to prevent his drives that he has to have that many extra ‘solutions’ to get his shot off. Don’t forget that he has an unbelievable handle to start with capable of getting by almost any defender in the league.

His step-back may come very close to bending the rules. The version against Ricky Rubio was certainly a double step-back that Harden botched and should’ve been called. I even find a travel on a move off the catch in the video that wasn’t called. But I’d say 98% of his step-backs use the gather step (taking a step as he still gathers the ball in the process of a dribble move) into a 1-2. This is two steps, and it’s legal. You’ll see this in painstaking detail in the video. You’ll also see the example of Hardaway fouling him on the three in the corner. This move also drives some ‘purists’ nuts.

While I agree it gives the appearance of being pretty cheap, the fact is that very few players are guarded with such aggressive contact out there. Harden is, because of the unbelievable respect guys have for his shot and how elite he is making shots from any spot on the floor. When Harden feels illegal contact – such as Hardaway having his hand on Harden’s waist before he’s dribbled – he tends to automatically rip up into his shot. This isn’t a Harden original, and it is a foul.

3. “HE DOESN’T GET ANY ASSISTED SHOTS”

Of all the criticisms, this is probably most bewildering to me. Some have used this to praise Harden, but some have used it to support their biases against him as a player. My take? You try getting an assisted basket being face-guarded to half-court when you don’t have the ball. Literally, there is almost nothing he CAN do. How unbelievably well he is scoring, particularly in relation to his weakened supporting cast, has led teams to literally eschew all normal help defense concepts and play 4-on-4 when he doesn’t have the ball. This is unheard of in the NBA. It’s the kind of defense Steph Curry saw in college – although Jimmy Patsos took it to an extreme and played 3-on-4.

The fact that the Rockets can’t score every time while playing 4v4 is more an indictment of their other offensive players. Eric Gordon and Austin Rivers are basically the only others who can even create their own shot off the dribble without Chris Paul. Rivers famously is playing complete Moreyball this season, refusing to take anything between the rim and 3PT line (which undoubtedly made Houston want to sign him in the first place). If anything, level this criticism at Houston’s philosophy and Daryl Morey.

As you obviously know by now, they don’t want midrange shots. Harden and Paul are good enough that they’re allowed to occasionally deviate and take them, but even they take far fewer than they would on other teams. The Rockets have their philosophy, and Harden is the most-ardent believer in it besides maybe Morey and D’Antoni themselves.

As a criticism of Harden, this makes no sense. Why he would be at fault for his teammates’ inability to deliver him a pass leading to a basket, or the defense denying him without the ball to half court, or any of the other absurd amount of things that lead to him not getting many assisted baskets is beyond me.

He’s obviously perfectly capable of playing off-the-ball. He’s an excellent spot-up shooter (61.7 eFG%, per Synergy), great off DHO’s (59.1%), and even shot 57% off pindowns in 2014-15 before D’Antoni came around. Full denying him without the ball is designed to make him unable to get ANY shots from spotting up or any of these other ways. As you’ll see in the video, he lets Houston play 4-on-4 when he doesn’t have the ball, and the Knicks not having a help defender in the right spots as a result frequently led to great offense for Houston. Harden isn’t running into the fray demanding the ball. He isn’t selfish and cares more about the right basketball play.

The numbers back this up as well. In 15/16, Harden took 127 jump shots without dribbling. In 16/17 he took 97, and 17/18 he took 67. This year, he’s on pace to take 17. Indeed, his % of FG’s assisted has come tumbling down over the years, as more and more defenses locked in to not allowing him to do anything off the ball:

2015-16 29.4% of FGM were assisted
2016-17 18.1% of FGM were assisted
2017-18 15.8% of FGM were assisted
2018-19 11.2% of FGM were assisted

Here’s Harden’s adjusted FG% year by year on no-dribble jumpers starting with 2012-13. Keep in mind, the sample size this year is nine shots.

No Dribble Adj FG%
61.30%
54.90%
68%
64.60%
61.60%
42.20%
28.10%

LAST WORD belongs to Chris Paul:

Appreciate greatness.

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About Bryan Oringher

Bryan Oringher spent the past 7 years working in the NBA. From 2013-17 he was the Head Video Coordinator with the Washington Wizards, and in 17-18 he did Regional Advance Scouting for the Raptors and Hawks. This year, he’s doing NBA analysis on Twitter @ScoutWithBryan and his YouTube channel. You can find all his content to date here.

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