James Harden – A Model of Consistency

By Scott Barby

The NBA seems to be lacking in your quality prototype shooting guard of old. In the current NBA landscape we have a bevy of misfits. There’s the undersized high scoring combo guard in Monta Ellis. The pure scorer in Eric Gordon or Kevin Martin. The outside threat in Ray Allen. The inefficient and unreliable Joe Johnson or Tyreke Evans. Then we have our veteran staples in Manu Ginobili, Dwyane Wade and Kobe Bryant. Each has their own flaw, but with the league lacking in modern-day talent at the “two” spot, they’ve become rare nuggets of gold in a landscape devoid of superstar talent. They’ve become a luxury.

Elite

What do we look for in a prototype shooting guard? A shooting assassin with extended range. The ability to handle the ball, read screens and split double teams. A great passer, and equally as determined defender. It doesn’t hurt if they can provide a little bit of point guard relief, and are quick enough to get to the rim. They need to be equipped with a high number of shots and repay that supply with reasonable shooting percentages. Above all else, they need to be consistent.

James Harden is all of these things.

After two years at Arizona State, James Harden came into the league as the 3rd overall pick in the 2009 NBA draft. With college averages of 19 points, 5 rebounds and 4 assists in 31 minutes of playing time, the pro expectation bar was set rather high.

Harden would reach All American status whilst at Arizona State

In his rookie year with the Oklahoma City Thunder, Harden struggled as the majority do, and would see no more than 23 minutes per game. Over the course of his rookie campaign, Harden shot the ball at a career low percentage and was quickly branded with the “bust” tag. But looking at his advanced stats told a different story. In the 8 games where Harden played in excess of 30 minutes, he recorded season highs in every statistical category.

Season 2009/10 Points Rebounds Assists FG% FT% 3PT% Efficiency
Regular Season Average 9.9 3.2 1.8 .403 .808 .375 9.7
>30 Minutes Per Game 16 4.3 2.8 .468 .881 .436 17.3

Further to this, in games where Harden produced 13+ points, the Thunder posted a record of 16-7. In the 10 games where Harden produced his highest efficiency rating, he played over 25 minutes, and the Thunder registered an 8-2 record in this stretch. Contrary to this, Harden’s 10 least efficient outings resulted in a 6-4 record for the Thunder, he would play no more than 23 minutes in each of these games. The writing was on the wall, it made sense to get Harden more involved. During his rookie season, Harden failed to rank inside the top 50 league wide for any statistical category, and would rank inside the top 10 among shooting guards in just one category, fouls (7th overall).

“FOUL!” This was a common scene during Harden’s rookie campaign

During his second season as a pro, Harden would increase his playing time to 27 minutes per game and even managed to start on five occasions. Although his game would advance itself across all areas, there were still question marks as to why the “guy with the beard” wasn’t a more significant part of the Thunder. If we apply the same “more than 30 minutes per game” statistical breakdown as we did during his rookie tenure, we can see exactly why those questions were put forward, as his level of production improves across the board.

Season 2010/11 Points Rebounds Assists FG% FT% 3PT% Efficiency
Regular Season Average 12.2 3.1 2.1 .436 .843 .349 12.2
>30 Minutes Per Game 15.3 4.2 3 .472 .835 .362 17

In season 2010/11, there were 33 instances where Harden played 30 minutes or more. The Thunder posted a record of 22-11 in these games. Harden would not rank among the top 40 in any statistical category league wide, and again would only break the top 10 in one category amongst shooting guards, fouls (6th overall).

Stop fouling James!

The 2011/12 season would see Harden finally break the mold and register more than 30 minutes per game. To no surprise this would result in Harden’s most productive year to date. What stands out is his ability to remain sharply consistent with his production despite the added responsibility. The efficient shooting percentages are simply remarkable.

Season 2011/12 Points Rebounds Assists FG% FT% 3PT% Efficiency
Regular Season Average 16.8 4.2 3.7 .491 .846 .390 17.5

The focus must now switch to increasing the minutes even more, as the Thunder post an 11-3 record when Harden plays greater than 35 minutes. With more minutes comes more production, it’s just the natural Harden effect. When he scores 24 or more points, Oklahoma are 9-0. For those who witnessed Harden takeover against the Dallas Mavericks on the road in Game 4 of the Playoffs, making him a more vocal point of the offense is an extremely logical move. In season 2012, his first with receiving 30 minutes or more per game, Harden would rank inside the Top 50 league wide in 9 separate statistical categories. He would also rank Top 10 amongst shooting guards in these same 9 categories. More importantly, he would finish Top 3 in efficiency and field goal percentage. This is unprecedented territory given the added responsibility. For these two statistical areas to increase is a true credit to James Harden’s basketball IQ and proven consistency. His efficiency numbers are through the fucking clouds let alone the roof.

Pay this man.

A Max Contract awaits…

The basic formula for Coach Brooks is; More minutes + More touches for the Beard = More wins. If only it were all that simple. For starters, try telling that to Russell Westbrook. Math is clearly not his strong suit. If you’re not convinced, the following graph from 82games.com sums it up to perfection.

Courtesy of 82games.com

In 61% of overall game time played, Harden has a net production value far exceeding that of his opponent. From a team perspective, when he plays the Thunder are +8.2 overall, which means he has the second highest level of statistical impact on the team behind Kevin Durant. Not only does Harden impact the majority of the core minutes, he is also primarily responsible for the output of the second unit, an area where Oklahoma ranks inside the NBA’s top ten teams.

The above numbers along with Harden’s constant improvement are impressive, but does he play defense like our prototype shooting guard? The short answer? Yes. According to hoopsstats.com there were 56 occurrences this season where Harden and his direct opponent went head to head for 25 minutes or more. This is a significant enough of a sample size for us to make an educated evaluation on who won the one on one battle. In these 56 games Harden, from an overall efficiency standpoint, finished with a record of 38-18. In comparison, Kobe Bryant produced a record of 35-20 against his direct opponent.

James Harden plays defense.

Of the 38 games where Harden was more efficient than his direct opponent, the Thunder went 29-9. In the 18 matchups he lost, 11-7. Thus it’s overwhelmingly clear that the more productive Harden is against his opponent, the more successful Oklahoma are against theirs.

When Harden plays well, they win

So far we’ve ticked off that James Harden is efficient, plays defense, shoots the ball at an elite percentage and is the definition of consistency, but can he get to the rim? The following table indicates Harden’s Field Goal makes across the floor. As you will see, 48% of his made baskets are at the rim, with only 30.7% of these being assisted on. This tells us that Harden creates his own path to the cup and does so at a 70% success rate. He’s efficient because he’s smart. The man’s basketball IQ is that of a 10 year veteran. He can beat you getting to the rim, or from outside.

Shot Location Made Attempted FG% % Assisted
At Rim 2.4 3.4 70.4% 30.7%
3-9 Feet 0.3 0.8 30.8% 12.5%
10-15 Feet 0.1 0.1 62.5% 0.0%
16-23 Feet 0.4 1.0 38% 29.2%
Threes 1.8 4.7 (e) 58.5% 86%

(Note: The 3PT percentage is recorded as “effective field goal percentage”. This statistic adjusts for the fact that a 3-point field goal is worth one more point than a 2-point field goal. E.g. Player “A” goes 4/10 with two 3’s, whilst player “B” goes 5/10 with zero 3’s, each player would have 10 points, thus the same effective field goal percentage of 50%)

This brings us to our final requirement for our prototype shooting guard. Can the player in question handle the ball and provide a little bit of point guard relief? At face value, James Harden looks fairly capable of doing so. He ranks 7th overall in assists amongst shooting guards (3.7 per game) along with 2.2 turnovers, for an assist to turnover ratio of 1.67. For comparison sake, Kobe Bryant is marginally worse at 1.29, whilst Chris Paul has an elite assist to turnover ratio of 4.38. Harden still beats out teammate Russell Westbrook who comes in last amongst NBA starting point guards at a ratio of 1.52. Can I get a slow clap started for Russell please? According to 82games.com and their turnover/ball handling ratings, Harden has a “hands rating” of 14.4 which is quite pedestrian compared to fellow shooting guards with a high ball usage rating.

Player Hands Rating
Manu Ginobili 24.6
Monta Ellis 20.3
Dwyane Wade 18.3
Rodney Stuckey 16.7
Joe Johnson 16.2
Kobe Bryant 15.4
Tyreke Evans 15.3
Eric Gordon 14.7
James Harden 14.4
OJ Mayo 12.3
Kevin Martin 12.1

It’s evident that Harden still has a long way to go in terms of point guard efficiency. Although after witnessing his ability to manage Game 4 in the 4th quarter against Dallas, I’m happy to throw every stat under the bus and give him playmaking God status. Despite any shortcomings, the good news is that 64% of Harden’s assists are via two point baskets, with more than half of those being at the rim as opposed to bail out three pointers with the shot clock winding down. Can Harden effectively handle the ball full-time? No. In extended stretches? Possibly. In spurts depending on the game situation? Definitely.

Harden’s playmaking abilities still need work

There’s no doubting that James Harden still sits behind Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade on the shooting guard pecking order. That’s not the question here and at this stage of Harden’s career it isn’t even debatable. There is one comparison which has significant merit though, right down to the spooky parallels of elite efficiency, high shooting percentages, coming off the bench and being left-handed. That player in question? Manu Ginobili.

James, is that you?

Some may shrug their shoulders. Is Manu a Superstar? No. Perennial All Star? Yes. If you go the extra step and compare the numbers between Ginobili’s first year coming off the bench and Harden’s most recent regular season, things start to get a little weird.

Player Minutes Per Game Points Per Game Rebounds Assists FG% 3PT% FT%
Manu Ginobili 27.5 16.5 4.4 3.5 .464 .396 .860
James Harden 31.4 16.8 4.1 3.7 .491 .390 .846

The numbers are almost freakishly identical. If Manu Ginobili shows up on a basketball court with a giant beard any time soon, I’m heading straight for the fucking basement.

Provided James Harden continues to improve, who knows what his ceiling could be. Has there ever been another great all around super efficient shooting guard like Manu Ginobili in the league before? Comparing Harden to Manu is no insult. We’re all so quick to forget that Ginobili is a guy who joined the league at 25 years of age and was struck down at his peak by significant injury. What surprises is that James Harden is mirroring Manu’s prime output at the mere age of 22. Harden is a baby in terms of Pro basketball experience, yet he already has a hoops IQ that instantly puts him in the Basketball Mensa. The tremendous base is there, the potential still oozes, the attitude is right and the motivation seems evident. If he etched out a Manu like career? It may seem selfish but from what I’ve seen from James Harden so far, I’d call that about par.

I want to see Harden exceed the Ginobili expectation. I hope Scott Brooks and the Oklahoma City Thunder provide him that opportunity. They’re on the right path thus far, even despite what looks like the best efforts of in-house sabotage from Russell Westbrook. In saying that, if Harden’s growth stagnates and he turns into Manu part deuce, would the Thunder be disappointed? No chance in hell.

At this point it’s all just opinion. We’re still 5 years away from James Harden entering his prime. Those of us who are basketball purists that value high IQ Hoops and extreme efficiency should simultaneously wet ourselves in anticipation of that journey. All things being well, the next chapter will begin with Manu and Harden going head to head in the Western Conference Finals. Knowing the NBA’s ability to constantly let us down in these spots, there’s probably zero chance of that happening. It’s just how the league works, and why we’re yet to have LeBron v Kobe in the Finals. Stop flipping the script, NBA. Try some vanilla flavor for once.

Separated at birth, at least statistically speaking

It’s virtually impossible to determine which Russell Westbrook will show up on any given night, and whether or not Kevin Durant will lay a 5/17 stinkbomb like he did in Game 2 against the Mavs, or drop a 50 point special. With a series against the Lakers looming, who can we bookmark to show up and consistently perform? According to the current numbers, Kobe Bryant will, World Peace will, Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum might. Provided Coach Brooks has him in on the floor, and World Peace keeps his elbows by his side, like he has proven at every level of competition throughout his career, James Harden will.

(Thanks to Hoopsstats.com 82games.com and hoopdata.com for the numbers)

You can follow Scott on Twitter: @Scottywashere

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Posted on May 13, 2012, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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