- When going down the list of the greatest shooters of all time, Houston Rockets guard James Harden is rarely mentioned. But at the end of next season, he will likely rank in the top five in career three-pointers made.
At some point this season, amid hundreds of makes, James Harden established himself as one of the greatest three-point shooters in NBA history. Let that idea sink in. For all of the consideration of Harden as a scorer and his step-back as a curiosity, it’s odd that he’s rarely discussed as a pantheon shooter. Stephen Curry is so clearly the greatest shooter of all time that it became a casual inclusion in his biography. Yet at present, Harden outpaces Curry—and the entire league—in threes made for a second straight season. Reggie Miller and Ray Allen were touted as standard bearers, lauded for their specificity of skill and records long since broken. Harden, on the other hand, is understood differently—as an MVP, a superstar, and even an innovator, but almost never as a pure shooter.
Harden may not fit the archetype, but he’s a master of the same craft. It’s just that he comes to it sideways, or even backwards. A Harden three-pointer has a distinct relationship to the physical space that surrounds it; what allows him to even attempt so many threes is that his step-back actively repels defenders. Getting open doesn’t require that Harden fly around the court at a dead sprint, only that he sell a convincing feint and skip back, just out of reach. What Harden has pulled off this season is a revolution of access. A three-point shooter can only be effective insofar as they can get off a clean shot, and Harden can now effectively get off a clean shot whenever he wants. He may not have invented the step-back, but he certainly reinvented it.
This is why Harden can walk into Memphis and knock down nine threes with apparent ease. It’s how Harden has made more total threes this season than Kyrie Irving and Donovan Mitchell combined. The volume is the point. Defenses already know what’s coming. To even attempt as many long-range shots as he does with any reasonable accuracy is a showcase of historic talent. No player on record* has made more unassisted threes over the course of their career, a fact indicative of the way that Harden has made the shot his own. Curry waged war on defenses by pulling up from impossible distances. Harden does plenty of that, too, though he also created an entirely new style of offense by isolating repeatedly (and immutably) from the top of the floor. Harden had the touch and the handle to turn what should be a junk shot into something viable.
By raw percentage, it would be easy to find Harden’s credentials (35.8% this season, 36.3% for his career) lacking. It would also be a rather extreme case of divorcing shots from their context. One might fight that Horace Grant converted a higher percentage on mid-range set shots than Michael Jordan did on fadeaways, but the function of each is totally different. The same goes for Harden relative to catch-and-shoot types. Just because Steve Kerr (45.4%) and Hubert Davis (44.1%) have the highest career three-point percentages doesn’t mean we have to regard them as the best three-point shooters of all time. The circumstances that created those numbers has to matter, or else the numbers lose all meaning. Steve Nash deserves consideration as one of the NBA’s great shooters, even though he never took as many threes as we now know he should have. There’s a place in the conversation for Larry Bird, even though he only made as many threes in a season as Harden might in a month.
Harden championed a version of the three-pointer that is inherently more difficult and wields it at a scale that should be untenable. Instead, it works as the driving force of one of the more efficient offenses the NBA has ever seen. If that isn’t all-time great shooting, what is? By the end of next season, Harden—at age 30—will likely already rank in the top five in career three-pointers made. It will only be a matter of time before he elbows past Kyle Korver and climbs over Reggie for a spot in the top three. The totals will be there. The impact, the technique, and the style already are. Harden’s three-point shooting is changing the way basketball is played, its effects even tricking down to the NCAA tournament. It’s impossible to watch this step-back three from Murray State sensation Ja Morant without seeing Harden’s imprint:
So let’s call him what he is. Harden isn’t only a scorer, or a superstar with a shot to win back-to-back MVPs. This is one of the great shooters in the history of the game at work, pushing the boundaries so far as to redefine what a shot can even mean.
*Detailed play-by-play data only technically extends back to the 2000-01 season, but considering that Harden’s 1,071 unassisted threes alone would rank 92nd on the all-time list as it is, that previous eras were more averse to shooting threes in general, and that unassisted threes were frowned upon for decades, it seems a safe assumption that Harden is actually the all-time leader in unassisted three-point shooting.