You might not like it, but what James Harden is doing in the NBA this year is even more historic than his last two incredible seasons. He’s having one he best offensive seasons the league has ever seen. The game’s beard-wearing, analytics-embracing, points-getter is playing like an even more extreme version of himself, and the Rockets are rolling.
Harden’s averaging 38.9 points per game, which is just nuts, and he’s doing it on the best shooting percentages of his entire Hall of Fame-worthy career. Houston’s 13-6, mostly because of the numbers he’s producing, which includes 15 games (out of 19) scoring 32 points or more. Most recently, Harden scored 60 points in less than 31 minutes, playing just three quarters of a 47-point blowout win over the Hawks.
It’s hard to understate how dominant Harden is against the best basketball players in the world.
Let’s talk about Harden’s 38.9 points per game
If the season ended today, Harden’s campaign would finish as the third-most prolific single season scoring one in NBA history behind two Wilt Chamberlain seasons that shouldn’t even count. In the modern playing era, nobody’s particularly close to what Harden’s doing. Aside from Harden’s season last year, Michael Jordan is the next-closest non-Chamberlain star, averaging 37.1 points in 1987. Otherwise Kobe Bryant is closest among players in the last two decades, averaging 35.4 per game.
The man is a scoring machine whose numbers only sound more ridiculous when compared to his peers. Harden’s scored 739 points this season, and Giannis Antetokounmpo, the reigning MVP, is in second place, trailing by … 121 points. LeBron James has only played three minutes less than Harden this year and has scored 513 points, 226 less than Harden.
Harden’s ability to put the ball in the hoop is total freak behavior.
Harden’s taking 14.4 free throw per game
Harden is on pace to shatter the NBA’s free throw attempts record for a season in the modern era by more than 200 tries. If Harden continues at this rate, he’ll take 1,182 for the year. In 1987, Jordan took 972.
This year has been something else for the Rockets star. Harden’s taking 14.4 per game, which is way up from last year’s ridiculous 11, and that’s helping his scoring totals. Out of 274 attempts this year, he’s made 237, good for 87 percent from the line.
Regardless of how he gets to the line, how much you may not like it, and how much he might flop, what Harden’s doing has never been seen before. Getting to the line is a skill, and a very valuable one for a player making nearly 9-out-of-10 he takes. They’re free points for Harden when his shot isn’t falling, and he’s nearly taking as many as entire teams.
The Indiana Pacers, in the same amount of games as Harden, have taken just 67 more free throws than James Harden the person. The whole damn team! And Harden’s only made 41 less of them. He’s only made 22 less than the Denver Nuggets.
Harden is taking 14 threes per game
What’s maybe the most bonkers of Harden’s entire statline is how many three-point shots he’s taking. He’s firing 14 per game, which is up nearly an entire attempt from last year, and making five per night (36 percent.) Only Buddy Hield takes more than even 10 at 10.2 per game.
Harden’s an analytics angel as nearly all of his shots come from either inside the paint or behind the arc. Just six percent of his shots have been taken from 10 feet out to the three-point line. Fifty-eight percent have come from three-ball territory.
Harden is so special because only 16 percent of his three-point shots are assisted. Harden’s dancing his way around the line and launching on his own with a good succession rate. Nearly 30 percent of his attempted triples come after he takes seven or more dribbles.
To compare him to entire teams around the league again, Harden has made and taken more than half of the amount of three-point shots as the entire Denver Nuggets and Indiana Pacers teams. Harden’s sunk 94 of 265 tries, the Nuggets have made 177 of 502 and Pacers 179 of 494. Devonte Graham has made the second-most threes this season among players, trailing Harden by 22 makes.
Let’s just marvel at Harden’s shot chart for a quick second
All threes or shots in the paint with the exception of what? Four shots? It’s beautiful.
Yes, James Harden is having a better year than Kobe’s best scoring one
Harden’s peak is better than Bryant ever was, but most of you aren’t ready for that discussion yet. So let’s just pick apart Bryant’s best season, which was the second-highest scoring one of the last two decades, aside from Harden’s season last year.
In 2006, Bryant averaged 35.4 points per game, which is extremely good. His points came on 27 shots per game of which he made 45 percent. He took nearly seven threes and made 35 percent of those, and made 85 percent of his 10 free throws. He also had five assists, five rebounds and two steals.
Through 19 games, Harden is averaging 38.9 points per game on 24 shots. That’s three fewer attempts! He’s also shooting 45 percent from the field, and 35 percent from three, but taking 14 free throws and making 87 percent of those. Harden’s also averaging eights assists, six rebounds and two steals.
For the more intricate numbers followers, Harden’s assist percentage is 14 percent higher than Bryant’s was, his PER is 29.8 to Bryant’s 28.0, his win share per 48 minutes is .302 to Bryant’s .224, and his true shooting percentage is .64 compared to Bryant’s .559.
The Rockets have no business being 13-6. Harden is carrying them there
For those unable to appreciate individual greatness, understand that the Rockets should be a lot worse. If Harden were a league average player, they’d probably be a .500 team.
Russell Westbrook is shooting the ball really poorly at 43 percent from the field and 23 percent from three. Eric Gordon had knee surgery and has played only nine games (and played them poorly.) Outside of Clint Capela and P.J. Tucker, the Rockets employ role players most casual fans have never heard of.
Harden is one of few players in the world who can take this Houston roster to the heights its reaching. The Rockets have the eighth-best net rating in the league, ahead of the Sixers, Nuggets and Jazz. Offensively, they’re the second-most efficient in the league.
Can Harden do this for an entire season?
He’s done something similar for the last eight years, so why stop now? We’re nearly a quarter of the way through the season, and he’s showing no signs of slowing down. Heck, if he played in the fourth quarter of the game against the Hawks, he might’ve beaten Kobe’s 81 point game.
What Harden’s doing is replicable so long as he stays healthy.