The Future of Basketball Is Here, and It Looks a Lot Like James Harden

Kirk Goldsberry

As of today, James Harden is the leading scorer in the NBA and the most important offensive force on a team in the thick of the Western Conference title race. He’s a legitimate MVP candidate, quite clearly the best shooting guard in the league. And yet, he’s more than that. Those plaudits only scratch the surface of what he’s doing this season.

When Daryl Morey, the mad scientist of analytics, landed Harden in the trade of the decade, he not only got the superstar he coveted, he also acquired the perfect instrument for his basketball laboratory. Morey told Grantland that Harden “is a good fit here, but James would be a good fit with all 30 teams.” Be that as it may, the pair has become perhaps the most stylistically harmonious player-GM arrangement in the NBA over the last two months. By design or by happy accident, Harden plays a brand of basketball that beautifully conforms to his GM’s innovative visions.

Symbolically, Harden might be the most important player in the world. He’s a manifestation of the current trends in offensive basketball. The things that make him such an unusual superstar serve as a leaguewide harbinger of what’s to come.

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By now, everyone knows that the Rockets’ offensive philosophy is built around 3s and paint shots; they avoid the midrange the same way Gwyneth Paltrow avoids Quiznos. As this chart shows, they invest heavily around the hoop and behind the 3-point line.

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For Houston, even a below-average 3-pointer or paint shot is a better investment than a good shot in Kobe and Byron Scott’s hairy midrange neighborhood. As a result, the team scores a minuscule 6.2 percent of its points in the midrange, and is happy to sacrifice efficiency in its favorite spaces in favor of volume. While Bryant and Scott turn a blind eye toward the newfangled ways of the NBA, Morey and Harden bask in their glow.

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A cursory glance at Houston’s shot chart seems to suggest that the Rockets are an inefficient jump-shooting team. That’s technically true, but it’s misleading. Being slightly “inefficient” within an extremely efficient area, it turns out, is better than being efficient inside an inefficient area. Thanks to their lopsided shot distribution, the Rockets remain among the NBA’s top 10 most efficient jump-shooting outfits.

As the Rockets go, so goes Harden. His shot chart is a microcosm of the team as a whole.

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How can such an “average” shooter translate into one of the league’s most ferocious offensive players? To really appreciate Harden, you need to recognize the three things that don’t show up on shot charts — the three things he does as well as or better than anyone else playing the game right now.

1. Getting to the Line

Where’s the best place to score in the NBA? The free throw line, where Harden goes to subsidize that average shooting efficiency. As I wrote about last season, he’s the league’s free throw master. This season, he’s getting to the line a league-best nine times per game, with an average of eight of his 27 points per contest coming at the stripe. When you shoot almost 90 percent from the line, drawing a shooting foul — or any free throws, for that matter — elevates the value of a possession to 1.8 points. Considering the average NBA possession is worth about 1.04 points, that’s a big upgrade.

2. Functional Misses

Most people know about Harden’s Eurostep, which creates new, awkward angles as he drives to the rack.

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But even when his attempts fail, they have a chance of succeeding. The entropy from his slashing drives, which scramble defenses, enables his teammates to slip into great rebounding positions. Not all missed shots are created equal, and sometimes they function a lot like inadvertent passes or shot-clock reset buttons.

As of January 1, Harden’s close-range field goal percentage ranked a mediocre 21st within a group of 27 NBA players who had attempted at least 200 shots within eight feet of the hoop. But a closer examination reveals that, incredibly, the Rockets retrieve a ridiculous 55 percent of Harden’s close-range misses, which is by far the highest share for any volume shooter in the league. Put another way: Harden converts only 54 percent of his interior chances, but when you consider that freakish offensive rebounding rate, a whopping 79 percent of his close-range attempts result in either a bucket or a fresh 24 for his team.

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Within this same group of 27 basket attackers, Harden has the lowest assist rate, which means he also creates his own close-range shots at the highest rate in the NBA. In an era increasingly defined by basket-attacking wings, it’s not hard to argue that Harden — especially with LeBron James currently on the shelf — is the most devastating attacker in the league right now.

3. The Arc-hitect

Despite those hidden efficiencies as an aggressor, Harden’s ball distribution is probably the most overlooked part of his game. Over the past few years, he has evolved into the perfect catalyst for Houston’s 3-happy offense. He currently ranks 11th in assists per game — but again, that deceptively undersells him, as he also ranks sixth in the NBA in points created via assists. Why the jump? Harden leads the NBA in assists that lead to 3-point shots, and he’s especially great at finding open teammates in Morey’s happy spot: the corners.

Just look at how much defensive attention he draws here before finding Nick Johnson open in the corner …

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… and then stick around for the excited fan in the golf shirt. This is just the kind of joy Harden brings to Polk Street.

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Morey loves his players to shoot 3s, but there’s more to it than just deciding to take more long-range shots. The act of generating 3-point offense has just as much to do with playmaking and assisting as it does with actually knocking down those shots; 84 percent of the league’s triples (and 96 percent of its corner 3s) are assisted.

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In other words, any team hell-bent on shooting more 3s1 needs to be a team looking to create more 3s. And when it comes to generating those long-range buckets for teammates, nobody is as prolific as Harden.

The top 3-point assisters, as of January 4:

1. Harden – 113
2. Ty Lawson – 105
3. John Wall – 93
4. Rajon Rondo – 89
5. Eric Bledsoe – 86

The top corner-3 assisters, as of January 4:

1. James Harden – 58
2. Ty Lawson – 40
3. John Wall – 39
4. LeBron James – 34
5. Josh Smith – 31

Currently, Portland’s Wesley Matthews leads the league with 105 made 3s, but Harden’s 113 3-point assists are arguably more impressive. What’s harder, knocking down a spot-up chance or generating a spot-up chance? When you consider that Harden has also made 82 of his own, it’s clear he’s the dominant 3-point artisan in the league right now. And when we combine both shooting and assisting, Harden is far ahead of the pack

The top 3-point producers (made 3s + assisted 3s), as of January 4:

1. James Harden – 195
2. Damian Lillard – 170
3. Stephen Curry – 159
4. Kyle Lowry – 141
5. Ty Lawson – 138

This is Daryl Morey’s dream come true — but not everyone goes to bed hoping to see corner 3s and shots from the charity stripe while they sleep.

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Harden has endured many critiques throughout his short career, but none have been as loud as those about his lackluster defense. Any evaluation of his overall game must include this important limitation. He was a terrible defender last year — you don’t need a hilarious YouTube compilation to know that. However, this is a new season, and it must be noted that Harden is now the second-leading-minutes guy on the league’s second-most effective defense. He may never be Kawhi Leonard, but to his credit, the Rockets remain an elite NBA defense when he’s on the court.

The other Harden critique is one of aesthetics. There’s a lot of grumbling about the Rockets out there, with many dismissing Rocketball as ugly and/or gimmicky. Morey and Harden have designed approaches to maximize success within the framework of the league rules. The NBA has legislated this brave new hoops world into existence — promoting the worth of the 3-point shot and free throws over other forms of scoring.

For those of us who grew up watching Bird, Magic, and Jordan, there’s an increasing dissonance between what we perceive to be dominant basketball and what actually is dominant basketball. Sometimes the two are aligned, but they seem to be increasingly divergent — and perhaps the most tragic analytical realization is that the league’s rapidly growing 3-point economy has inherently downgraded some of the sport’s most aesthetically beautiful skill sets. You can’t be Bernard King or Alex English, bobbing and weaving into space on the elbow or along the baseline, anymore. Hell, it’s hard to even be LaMarcus Aldridge or Al Jefferson. The Chris Boshes and Serge Ibakas of the world, once forever camped out in the post, now stray beyond the arc. That unassuming curved line has forever changed the NBA. For every graying Garnett, Duncan, or Kobe, lugging their 2-point jumpers toward the exit, there’s an upstart Harden or Love hanging out behind the 3-point line.

Houston thrives on the perceptual dissonance that separates traditionally great basketball from contemporarily smart basketball. While the rest of the league gradually meanders from the old way to the new way, the Rockets seem happy to exploit margins to extremes that no other team does — yet.

Whether he cares to be or not, Harden has become the on-court apostle of the analytics generation. Viewed through a conventional box-score lens, his performance looks quite nice, but if you climb to a dorkier plateau, his greater prowess becomes evident. You may not like the way he plays, but your resistance is futile. Dr. Moreystein’s monster is the perfect emblem of contemporary basketball thought.

Filed Under: NBA, Daryl Morey, Houston Rockets, James Harden, Western Conference, NBA MVP

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Kirk Goldsberry is a professor and Grantland staff writer.

Archive @ kirkgoldsberry