James Harden has been one of the more explosive offensive players in the NBA since the moment he entered the league. But when the Houston Rockets traded for him prior to the 2012-13 season, no one expected the kind of MVP-caliber performances the Rockets would get from him. He is loaded with an offensive arsenal unlike any player in the league.
We saw him go neck and neck for the MVP award in 2017 with Russell Westbrook, who averaged a triple double. In any other year, Harden would have won it in a landslide. His line of 29-11-8, which came in a year new coach Mike D’Antoni convinced him to switch positions, was overshadowed by Westbrook, but the Rockets finished with a better record and beat the Oklahoma City Thunder in five games in the first round of the playoffs.
It would appear Harden took the MVP snub seriously.
Despite GM Daryl Morey trading for back court super star Chris Paul, Harden is averaging a career high usage rate, a career high in points per game, taking more shots and more three point shots than he ever has in a full season. His true shooting percentage of 63.4 and effective field goal percentage of 56.7 are both career highs, which is mind-boggling when you consider the increase in volume of his shots. He currently has an insane 31.65 PER rating which is second best in the league, just a hair behind LeBron James at 31.79, and up from his career-best 27.43 from a season ago.
“Last year, I thought he was unbelievable,” says D’Antoni. “Now I guess I’ve got to come up with a new word. I don’t know what he is this year. He’s gone up another level, which I didn’t think was possible.”
Harden is the primary reason the Rockets are 21-4, have won 10 in a row and are 16-1 in their last 17 games. If it’s possible to believe, he’s been even better as an isolation offensive player. He currently leads all players with 1.28 points per possession while in iso, and that’s not even the most impressive state. Per ESPN.com:
No player in the NBA comes close to creating as much isolation production as Harden. According to NBA.com tracking, Harden led the league in points off isolation possessions the past two seasons at 6.4 and 6.6 points per game, respectively. That number has leapt to a league-leading 10.6 points per game off isos this season. And Harden’s iso efficiency has similarly soared, averaging an astounding 1.28 points per possession, the best of any player with at least 20 opportunities.
Harden’s shooting statistics on possessions that he dribbles seven or more times have skyrocketed. He averaged 7.3 shots per game on such possessions last season, including 2.7 3s, shooting 43.1 percent from the floor and 33.3 percent from long range. This season: 53.3 percent on 9.1 attempts, including 44.1 percent on 4.1 3s.
The 10.6 points per game is ahead of LeBron at 6.9 and John Wall at 4.9. He averages more than double all but one player in the league in isolation.
Harden already was one of the most dangerous players in the league off the dribble, and that was before he started draining threes at a career high percentage. The threat of having a three drained in their face is keeping defenders off balanced and it’s become near impossible to stop Harden, who was damn near unstoppable already. It has coaches scratching their heads when trying to come up with a game plan to stop Harden.
“If you find yourself guarding James Harden and your two feet are inside the 3-point line, you’re dead. You’re dead,” Denver Nuggets coach Michael Malone says, repeating what he told his team during a film session. “Guys think they’re playing good defense and get pretty good contests. It’s not good enough, because he’s that good of a player. He takes 11 3s a night and makes a lot of tough shots. You think you’re there, you think you’re there, and now here’s that step-back.
“That step-back 3 is lethal. It’s a shot where you can play great defense and he can still score. And he just needs that much separation and airspace to get that shot off, which is where the real problem lies. You switch pick-and-rolls, now you’ve got a guy up on him: ‘I got him! I got him!’ Swish. You didn’t have him.”
How “lethal” is Harden’s step-back 3? He made 26 of 46 of them (56.5 percent) this season, per NBA.com tracking. “I would think that most coaches, if you’re going against him, would think, ‘OK, he hit a tough shot. Live with it,'” D’Antoni says. “But that’s some hard living.”
“You’ve just got to try to get a good contest, not foul so he doesn’t get three free throws and hope for the best,” says Utah Jazz coach Quin Snyder, whose team was scorched by Harden for a career-high 56 points on 25 shots on Nov. 5, including 7-of-8 from 3-point range. “That’s really all you can do when a guy’s on that level.
“There’s a lot of situations with him where you say, ‘Good defense, better offense.'”
The step-back has always been among his weapons, but he has gone from hitting it at a 40 percent clip the last two seasons to the aforementioned 56.5 percent. He took a career high 70 last season and already has 46 through 25 games. He is looking to take defenders out with the step back, knowing what kind of demoralizing effect it can have on a player who thinks he has played good defense. And he knows when guys are afraid.
“Sometimes I hear on the bench, ‘Don’t let him shoot it! Step-back coming! Step-back coming!’ So obviously then, the scouting report is, make him drive,” Harden says.
Harden has been working on the step back since he landed in Houston, and it has become a near perfect weapon to defeat all comers.
“There’s a jab, there’s a step, there’s a sidestep,” Harden says. “To the side, left or right, back, at different angles. Are they shaky? Are they moving while I’m dribbling? If their feet stop, I’m going by them because they can’t move fast enough. [If they lean back], then I’m shooting it in their face.”
If Harden continues to shoot at career high clips across the board (save for free throws, which is still an elite 86 percent this season and above his career number), he will continue to terrorize defenses and should lead the Rockets deep in the playoffs.