How Should We Assess James Harden's Uneven Offensive Start?

Michael Shapiro

Rockets head coach Mike D'Antoni isn't one to question James Harden, even amid painful shooting stretches in each of the last four seasons. D'Antoni has good reason to trust Harden. The former Thunder third wheel has won one MVP and two scoring titles with D'Antoni, leading the Rockets to 50-plus wins in each of the last three seasons. When Harden slides off track, D'Antoni is patient waiting for the recalibration. 

"His shooting is the last thing I'm concerned with," D'Antoni said after Harden's 8-29 clunker against the Pelicans on Oct. 26. "That's one thing you can take to the bank, he's fine."

So just how much has D'Antoni's patience been tested this season? It may be hard to parse. Harden is in the midst of one of the most bizzare scoring stretches of his career, posting stat lines that are particularly jarring depending on the column you scan. He's been a free-throw savant and a shockingly inefficient shooter, waltzing his way to 36.6 points per game despite failing to find much of a rhythm through each of the last two weeks. Let's assess the mixed bag that is Harden's start to 2019-20. 

The Good

Let's take a minute to appreciate Harden's free-throw frequency through seven games. He's made 104 free throws in seven games, nearly double Kyrie Irving, who sits in second place at 53. Harden is also lapping the field across NBA history. Jerry West holds the all-time mark for made free throws in a season at 840. Harden would eclipse that mark in game 56 (at Utah in February) at his current pace. If Harden were to play 80 games free-throw rate, he'd attempt 1,291 over the course of the season, trailing only Wilt Chamberlain for the most in NBA history. We'd write off any other player at such a torrid pace as a product of small sample size. Harden is the outlier. He's a master at manipulating contact, and he should be in store for a historic season at the foul line in 2019-20. 

Harden's shot profile supports his astounding free throw rate. He's driven to the rim 157 times per NBA data, 37 ahead of DeMar DeRozan for the league lead. His 114 driving points lead the league, as does his 21 assists as a driver. Harden's three-point shot hasn't cooperated this season–more on that below–but he's compensated with consistent attacks at the rim. 

The Ugly

We'll skip the bad when digesting the rest of Harden's early performance as his shooting numbers have been downright ugly thus far. The surface metrics are the first noticeable eyesore. Harden is shooting just 25.3% from three on a league-most 95 attempts, and he's shooting a career low 38.1% from the field. Of the 42 players to attempt at least 80 shots in 2019-20, only Julius Randle and teammate Eric Gordon have posted a lower effective field goal percentage. 

Harden's isolation game has taken a dip in efficiency to start the season, dropping from last year's dominant 1.11 points per possession to a more middling 0.87 mark this season. But Harden appears to be settling into a groove as an iso scorer if Monday's win over Memphis is any indication. Harden made a season-high seven triples on Monday, four of which came in isolation. Poor Dillon Brooks had no chance on Harden's final three of the evening.

The greater troubles for Harden are coming early in the shot clock. Harden blew past the league with 342 pull-up threes last season (Kemba Walker finished second at 175), and he shot a healthy 36.3% on those attempts despite the gaudy volume. Give Harden an extra foot in a defensive backpedal and he'll pounce. Few players can casually walk into a three with so much ease. The pull-up three has become a Harden staple in previous years, yet it's abandoned him thus far in 2019-20. 

Harden ranks fourth in pull-up points this season, trailing only Damian Lillard, Irving and Kawhi Leonard. Houston's guard actually ranks second behind Lillard in made pull-up threes, though the percentages wash away any positivity. 43 players have attempted 30 pull-up shots in 2019-20. Harden ranks 42nd in field goal percentage, leading only Terrence Ross. Harden falls to rock bottom among the players with at least five made pull-up threes. He's shooting 23.8% on pull-up triples, the worst mark of 39 qualified players. Harden will rise out of the cellar sooner than later as a pull-up shooter, though his efficiency could very well take a dip after last year's dominant campaign. 

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