James Harden's improved sleight of hand fueling the undefeated Rockets
In his first five games of the season, James Harden has taken his most efficient practices to their natural limit. The result is nearly a caricature: A creator who draws contact so easily as to garner almost half his points from the free throw line. No other player has yet been able to keep up with Harden's free throw parade or even come close. Those nearest (Dwight Howard and Kobe Bryant) trail by 20 attempts. Even the pace of Harden's previous season falls short, as in this opening stretch he's earned nearly four more free throw tries per game than he did in last year's All-NBA run.
That influx in free throw attempts helps mark a banner beginning for Harden, who has been monstrously productive for one of the league's three remaining unbeaten teams. Some of this newfound production will fade against time and a tougher schedule. For now, though, Harden's scoring is up by way of converting 95.3 percent of his high-piled free throws attempts and connecting on 40.6 percent of his three-pointers. His assists have leapt from 6.1 per game last season to 7.4 thus far by the hot hand of Trevor Ariza. Even Harden's rebounding has taken a jump for the better as the 6-foot-5 guard has pulled in 6.8 boards per game, pillar production relative to his career average.
Fundamentally, though, Harden is unchanged. He is ball-dominant by choice and, in the context of the current Rockets, by some sort of necessity. Ariza has fulfilled his role in Houston beautifully thus far in part because of his tempered responsibilities with the ball. Losing Jeremy Lin, too, has only put the ball in Harden's hands more often. With possession, Harden goes to work. He activates when the ball comes his way, leveraging speed and balance to gain any spatial advantage possible: a slip into the lane, a duck around a screen, a step-back into an open look.
Those talents give Harden's game its groundwork. What makes his superstardom so distinct, though, is its architecture. Harden has built his career in Houston from a design to get to the line at all costs. In doing so he turns the defense's own tools – instincts and physicality – against it. For this Harden is an agent of counterculture, whether he realizes it or not. Basketball players are taught to defend in a certain way and with certain priorities. Yet those who keep their arms extended while guarding Harden are liable have them used in an unintended foul. Those opponents who try to play Harden closely risk his turning every bump into a whistle. Fundamentals themselves can become a burden in the context of his matchup.
With time, Harden's intentions have only grown more clear. Often he will drive into traffic without aim to create a clear shooting angle. Instead, Harden sweeps through with the ball and initiates contact in a way that requires the play be called dead. This does not make for pleasant basketball nor particularly happy fans. The returns, though, are undeniable; Harden's blend of mathematical precision and counter-intuitive movement makes him a great player if not always a great show. Houston ranked tops in the league in free throw rate last season and steadied its offense as a direct result of his maneuverings.
Harden, for his part, has remarkable control over when and how he is fouled. All of the NBA's best offensive players create contact and dictate calls as best they can. Harden, though, has drawn just 6.8 personal fouls per game to yield 12.2 free throw attempts. And-one and bonus scenarios skew the numbers slightly, yet it's noticeable that the vast majority of the fouls Harden earns net free throw attempts. This does not happen by coincidence. Just as other ball handlers make moves to shake free for a drive or a jumper, Harden works diligently to lull his opponent into fouling position. On some level, all of basketball is about salesmanship. That Harden engages in a slightly different sort than most doesn't make his enterprise any less legitimate.
And, if this season's early going offers any indication, Harden's sell is only getting stronger. When considering what year-to-year growth might be in order for Harden, defense ranks a right headliner. He has room to grow, too, in terms of picking his spots within the half-court offense. Yet as Harden inches forward in address of those relative weaknesses, he also builds upon that which he already does so well. Craftiness is the domain of veterans, after all, and with another year in the pilot seat of Houston's offense should come further refinement of Harden's misdirections.