Sunday, November 4, 2012

Player File: James Harden

The Player File will appear every weekend and go in-depth on a certain player's strengths and weaknesses, accentuated by video and stills. 
One of the biggest stories going into the season was the James Harden situation.   With Harden up for a contract extension, the Thunder weren’t willing to pay up and promptly traded him in a surprising deal to the Houston Rockets.  I won’t spend this piece ranting on the trade, many have already done that.  My opinion in a couple of sentences: You were a no-call away from being up 2-0 in a series and championship chances don’t come often.  You may get there once and never get back.  Remember when Payton/Kemp, or Walton/Lucas/Hollins were the next big things.  What happened there.  Anyway, Harden was given the five year deal by the Rockets and the rest has been history (literally; only Jordan and Wilt have combined for more points in first two games with a team).  But how is Harden getting his points?  Why is he so efficient?  What makes him such an unstoppable offensive player?  We’ll look at a couple of things from his first two games with the Rockets.

Shot Chart Don’t Lie:

These are the shot charts from Harden’s first two games.  Notice anything? Not many inefficient top of the key threes.  Only a couple midrange jumpers, almost all off the pick and roll.  And SOOOOOO many shots at the rim.  Remember, shot charts don’t even record fouls.  Considering Harden has shot 23 free throws combined over the two games, there are certainly a couple other efficient shots not recorded.  So how does he get these shots?

To put it simply, James Harden is a monster in transition.  The combination of his long stride, euro-stepping prowess, and ability to finish through contact make guarding him in this situation nearly impossible.  One of the things that makes him so hard to deal with is the way he holds the ball over his head, tempting opponents to go for the steal and foul him. In transition last year, he drew a foul a whopping 17.6% of the time. The other thing that makes him so tough in this situation is the euro-step.  He can finish with either hand, making it nearly impossible to predict which side he’s going to go to.  And that’s before you factor in that he is weaving from side to side, all the while tempting defenders with the ball.  Last year, transition was 19% of his total offense, second behind the pick and roll per Synergy Sports.  He has already used his transition prowess effectively as you’ll see in this cut-up from the first two games.

Pick and Roll:
The pick and roll is Harden’s bread and butter.  Need a sure two points?  Just clear everybody out and run a high screen and roll.  Harden shot 45% on the pick and roll last year and was fouled almost 17% of the time per Synergy Sports.  His efficiency is due to the fact that he almost always gets to the rim of the pick and roll.  Usually when Harden comes around the screen he sees this:

Harden attacks the body of the big man, keeping him backpedaling.  This doesn’t allow the hedger to recover and set his feet to block a shot.  The ball is once again raised over his head forcing all kinds of silly fouls.  Oh yeah, and if you help off Harden’s teammates in the corners he’s a killer passer.  The main effect of the pick and roll is springing for an attack Harden at the rim.  And from He shot 70% at the rim last year, 9th in the NBA among guards (ironically one spot ahead of Kevin Martin).  Some of Harden’s pick and rolls so far this year:

Spot Ups and Cuts
Going by points per possession from Synergy Sports, Harden was the 3rd ranked cutter and 28th ranked spot up shooter.  That’s pretty damn good.  Harden’s basketball IQ contributes to his strong sense of when and where to cut and his ability to finish in traffic comes in handy once he gets the ball.  When it comes to spot ups, Harden is just a flat up good shooter.  His 58 eFG% last year on threes put him top thirty in the league, and this season Harden has been hitting them as efficiently as ever.  One of the most common shots you see Harden take is the wing three off of a dribble handoff from a big man (most notably Nick Collison last year).  His astounding 1.32 PPP on handoff plays last year was ranked first in the NBA by Synergy Sports, and he shot above 50% on three pointers on this play type.  We haven’t seen that Collison play yet, but it is sure to pop into the playbook at some point.

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