The Roar
The Roar

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Houston's solution: Understanding James Harden

James Harden and the Rockets have forced Mark Cuban to shut the hell up. (Derral Chen / Flickr)
Expert
13th April, 2015
5

Houston should have had a problem. They should have had a lot of problems. Dwight Howard has missed 40 games, Terrence Jones has missed 49 and tragically Josh Smith has barely missed any.

Their second and third best players this season have probably been Donatas Motiejunas and Trevor Ariza, the latter of whom is having his worst season in four years. On top of that they’re playing in one of basketball’s historically brutal conferences and the toughest division in the game.

Remarkably though, thanks to one man they’ve weathered the storm and currently sit a half-game out from the West’s number two seed. The Rockets have been thin in talent and luck all season but they’ve been thick in beard, and that’s all that’s mattered.

It’s clichéd these days to use statistical vocabulary to describe Houston, the most analytically-minded of the 30 NBA teams, but James Harden really is their common denominator. With the world falling apart around him with Dwight rehab sessions, Ariza bricked threes, Terrence Jones’ collapsed lungs and Josh Smith’s collapsed conscience, Harden has kept Houston intact. But not only has he kept them intact; he’s driven them past even the most optimistic expectations.

We’ve been gifted a number of remarkable NBA stories this year; the historic Warriors, the sublime Hawks, the out-of-nowhere Bucks and even the sneaky Jazz (18-9 since the All-Star break). But Houston is the most inexplicable story. Jason Terry, a man who died and was locked in the morgue three years ago, is their starting point guard. Trevor Ariza has spent the vast majority of the season shooting under 40 per cent. Howard and Jones, their two best big men, have combined to miss 89 of a possible 160 games. Somehow, that adds up to a 54-26 record, which is three wins better than Cleveland, in a vastly superior conference.

The only explanation for this inexplicable season is Harden. The basic stats are impressive; 27.5 points, 6.9 assists, 5.6 rebounds, 1.9 steals and 44-38-87 shooting splits. His efficiency is what is truly remarkable, though, and in a world without Steph Curry it would almost be unprecedented.

The two most efficient shots in basketball are those at the rim (where the likelihood or scoring is highest) and from behind the arc (where the reward is greatest). Harden has made a living at those two destinations. He has made 43.5 per cent of his shots in the paint and 37.6 per cent from three. He treats the mid-range like Gerald Green treats passing – with utter disdain.

Only 18.9 per cent of Harden’s shots come from the least rewarding place on the floor. By comparison, Kobe Bryant took 43.6 per cent of his shots this year from the dreaded mid-range, while Demar DeRozan is taking a shocking 51.2 per cent of his shots there. Bryant and DeRozan shoot 37 per cent and 35 per cent respectively in the mid-range, earning their reputations as some of the least efficient scorers in the league today.

Of course, no analysis of Harden’s scoring can come without mention of his free throws. He leads the league in free throw attempts (10.1 per game) and knocks them down at an elite rate (87 per cent). Get to the rim, live at the line and unleash from the arc – James Harden is the ultimate modern basketball player.

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The problem with Harden, or at least the perception of him, is that efficiency often isn’t aesthetically pleasing. Harden is an offensive genius, but not in the way that Steph Curry is. Curry is accessible. He breaks ankles like a Mafia goon and swishes off-balance threes from just past half court seemingly whenever he feels like it. Everyone, even someone with no appreciation for basketball, can marvel at what Curry does well. He’s a Hollywood blockbuster, one with some significant depth mind you (think The Dark Knight), and has the crowd appeal to match.

Harden on the other hand is a foreign language film. His brilliance is subtle but rewarding. He’s the best and most methodical one-on-one scorer in the league; he leverages his opponent’s tendencies, body weight and positioning against them, waiting for a half second of weakness to pounce and either drive past them or pull-up. He’s made an art out of drawing contact, exposing his arms like a Scandinavian girl at a nightclub, seducing the hapless into clawing at them.

Harden has become the most complete offensive player in the league not born in Akron, Ohio. He has the strength to finish through contact and the quickness to create space for himself whenever he wants a shot. He’s an unselfish teammate with no on-court ego and he’s become one of the league’s best passers out of the pick and roll. He also has one of the nastiest crossovers in basketball.

None of the reasons to dislike Harden are rational. Is watching Harden drive into crowds of players, get his arms chopped, exaggerate the contact and shoot free throws especially fun to watch? Not necessarily, but like Joel Selwood raising his shoulder, it’s smart and it gives his team the best chance to win.

Harden was justifiably roasted for his comical indifference to playing defence last year (this video will live on in basketball history) but he’s made a commitment to the defensive end this year, improbably ranking 15th in the entire league in defensive win shares. And please, do not make the argument that Harden is soft. His trademark play is driving towards a handful of seven-foot 120-kilogram men whose primary objective is to knock him down and make him feel pain. There’s a hardness to James.

This likely isn’t going to be a championship year for Harden and the Rockets. Beverley and Motiejunas are done for the season, crippling their backcourt defence and frontcourt scoring. Howard is a shadow of himself and Jones will be underdone at best, absent at worst. And yet, it seems foolish to write off a team that has been written off all year.

When Harden and Howard have shared the floor this season, something they’ll do with more regularity in the playoffs, Houston has outscored its opponents by a mammoth 10.4 points per 100 possessions. The Rockets have a top ten defence and when Harden is on the floor they have a top five offence.

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And for all of Daryl Morey’s analytics and Houston’s obsession with data points and efficiency, basketball is often a beautifully simple game that comes down to one simple question: who’s the guy that can get you a bucket when you need it most? To that question at least, Houston has the solution.