On Saturday night, Harden dropped 60 points on the Atlanta Hawks in less than three quarters of play. It was another virtuoso performance by the world's greatest offensive basketball player. Through 19 games, Harden is averaging an incredible 38.9 points per game and, barring injury, he's on pace to win his third consecutive scoring title, something only MJ and Kevin Durant have done in the 3-point era.
But the most stunning thing about Harden isn't his numbers -- it's his style. He's a rarity in pro basketball, regularly inventing new fundamentals. We haven't seen scoring numbers this big since a 23-year-old Jordan put up 37.1 PPG. Before that, the only comparison was Wilt Chamberlain's prime in the early 1960s. And Harden thrives much like Chamberlain did -- in the kinds of isolated one-on-one matchups that were supposed to be dead by now.
Hero ball is back and we owe it all Harden, whose offensive techniques are reforming the conventional wisdom of the modern NBA in real time. Very few people thought Harden would get even better and more productive following an incomprehensible scoring season in 2018-19. Ever after pairing up with Russell Westbrook, here is how Harden is doing things nobody else has ever done in ways that no one has ever even tried.
Harden's isolation feast
Let's start with Harden's 60-burger against Atlanta: His 24 shot attempts were the fewest ever in a 60-point game in NBA history. He shot 8-for-10 in the paint, 8-for-14 from 3-point range and 20-for-23 from the free throw line. Pure Harden -- tons of 3s, a handful of rim attacks and a mind-numbing volume of foul shots. But shot selection is one thing. It's how he's getting to these shots that's truly unusual.
Of those 60 points, 31 came straight out of isolation plays. His 17 isos were actually below his season average of 18.5, according to Second Spectrum data. For context, no other player has logged more than 12 isos per game in a season dating back to 2013-14, which is the furthest back we have tracking data.
Harden is both the most efficient and the most active perimeter isolation player in the world.
Harden's isolation volume and efficiency are both tops in the league. Over 50% of Harden's points stem from isos. None of the league's 11 other 25 PPG scorers are even approaching 30%. While most other teams in the NBA frown upon hero ball as an inefficient strategy reserved only for necessary moments, the Rockets have reached the opposite conclusion simply because they have Harden. He is an offense unto himself, and the numbers are startling.
Consider this: Since the beginning of the 2017-18 season, 122 NBA players have run at least 200 isolation plays, and Harden leads the way with 1.14 points per iso. The average half-court play in the NBA has only been worth 0.96 points this season, so the Rockets would be foolish not to exploit such a giant margin. At the end of a decade that will be remembered for its analytical awakening, Harden and the Rockets are making us rethink the virtues of hero ball, a ridiculed tactic that looked left for dead years ago as motion offenses started dominating the league.
We can't track pure isos back earlier than 2013-14, but we do have data on assisted and unassisted field goals dating back to 2000-01, via Basketball-Reference.com. Fewer than 14% of Harden's made field goals from this season and last season have been assisted. Here's that breakdown for the season-long scoring champs with at least 30 PPG over the past two decades.
Harden isn't even a throwback to early-2000s hero ball -- those dudes like Allen Iverson and Tracy McGrady can't compare to Harden's on-an-island approach. More than a third of their buckets came with the help of an assist. Harden is really a revamped version of Chamberlain's squads from back in the day: Get the ball to your best player and get the heck out of the way. Rinse and repeat.
Why do anything different? Why run motion sets or even pass the ball when your best player and primary ball handler is unstoppable? Why not just let him bring the ball up and let him do his thing? The answers to those questions are fueling the NBA's most unconventional offense. Dating back to 2013-14 ...
... no team has passed the ball less frequently than the 2019-20 Rockets
... and no team has run more isolation plays than the 2019-20 Rockets
Pass less, isolate more, harvest buckets.
How the isos work
NBA history is lined with dominant scorers like Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Shaquille O'Neal who used to camp out down on the block. Harden sets up at the top of the arc, but the idea is the same: Let your superstar devastate lonely defenders. It might be the most tried and true strategy in basketball history, but not everyone is amused.
Many observers, including myself from time to time, have derided the monotonous aesthetic of Rockets basketball. Critics argue there's too much dribbling and not enough passing. The whole thing is gimmicky, predictable and tiresome.
Rockets general manager Daryl Morey sees some hypocrisy there.
"Nobody was mad when Kareem was getting it dozens of times per game," Morey told ESPN.
He also believes that some critics are tougher on Harden because he's doing this as a guard and not as a big.
"There's a long-held basketball perception that the guy who holds the ball initially shouldn't shoot," he said. "Even when you play pickup, there's a rule that the guy who checks it in can't shoot."
Many of Harden's key iso sequences do begin as soon as he brings the ball up the floor. At that point, he becomes the most dangerous man in the NBA.
More than two-thirds of his isos end with him taking a shot, and his 1.34 points per possession on those plays is a better mark than all but two NBA offenses this season, per Second Spectrum data. Another 13% of the time, Harden draws a foul on his isos, leading to a nearly automatic 1.72 points per possession. You can't do much better than that. An offense made up entirely of Harden isos leading to shots and fouls would average more than 140 points per game based on those scoring rates.
He also almost always makes the right play and is more than willing to give the ball up. This season, he's creating 20.9 points per game via assists. On the 14% of iso possessions when Harden passes, Houston generates 1.19 points. One other underrated Harden edge is that he only has 12 total turnovers out of isolations all season, making up just 3% of his solo plays.
But here's the stat that really matters: 51% of Harden's isos lead to a 3-pointer from himself or a teammate.
The dominant trends of the 2010s were never really about ball movement or motion. They were always about 3-point shooting and the quest for efficiency. For a few years in the middle part of the decade, it looked as though beautiful, pass-happy offenses were the best way to harvest more triples. Think of the San Antonio Spurs team that took a title from LeBron James' Miami Heat or of Stephen Curry's Golden State Warriors.
But then Harden started to develop his step-back in the iso lab. Now, as we approach the end of this decade, his signature move enables him to generate valuable 3-point shots at will, making him the league's most prolific threat from deep. Harden is on pace to break his own record for the most 3-point attempts in a season with 1,143. And more impressively, at his current clip, he's on track to sink 405 total 3s, breaking Curry's record of 402 from 2015 to '16.
The final element that makes Harden's iso game work so well is the phenomenal countermove to his step-back 3: He's the NBA's most active driver.
Since the beginning of last season, Harden is averaging a mind-blowing 19.6 drives per game, and he's pretty good at it. Out of 187 players with at least 200 drives over that period, only Durant and James have been more efficient. Despite that league-leading volume, an average Harden drive yields 1.12 points -- again, a huge upgrade over an average NBA half-court chance.
Harden's historic efficiency
Between all the step-backs and driving rim attacks, Harden produces a predictable shot signature. His chart reveals just two areas of real activity: beyond the arc and in the paint.
Despite awesome scoring totals, Harden's percentages from the field aren't as dominant as other great scorers. He converts his shots at average rates, but that's deceptive because he hedges on efficiency by only shooting in the best spots. And he achieves a massive subsidy by getting to the line more than anyone else in the NBA.
Harden is the savviest foul-hunting guard this league has ever seen. He's led the NBA in made free throws in each of the past five seasons, but he's taking it to new heights this season. The dude is going to the line 14.4 times per game, and over 12 of his nearly 39 points per night are coming at the charity stripe.
Trivia time: Who was the most recent NBA player to score over 12 PPG at the free throw line? Nobody, folks. No player in NBA history has ever averaged more than 10.6 made free throws per game. Harden is currently scoring more points at the line than teammates Eric Gordon and PJ Tucker are earning overall. Think about it this way: It's feasible for Harden to break Curry's 3-point shooting record and Jerry West's free throw record in the same season. That's astounding.
Even though Harden's step-backs and drives are very good statistical options, they pale in comparison to the boon of the whistle. And while many observers tend to roll their eyes at Harden's foul-drawing antics, opponents do so at their own peril. Harden's ability to draw whistles is central to his game, not just because free throws are ridiculously efficient, but also because it keeps his defenders honest.
In many cases, it even sends them to the bench. Just ask Patrick Beverley:
(Oh, by the way, not only is Harden already the all-time leader in unassisted 3-pointers, he's also the all-time leader in four-point plays with 61.)
When you ask Morey why he thinks Harden is the greatest scorer of this era, his answer -- just like the Rockets' offense -- is simple: "James is generating more points per possession than pretty much anyone in history."
The numbers back up the bold claim. Harden's 48.2 points per 100 possessions last season was more than any player has logged dating back to 1973-74. And this season he's doing it ... again. There's no question that post-Jordan scorers such as Durant, Curry, James and Kobe Bryant are phenomenal. Each has changed the game in his own way. However, none of them combined volume and efficiency as well as Harden has over this sustained run of excellence.
Maybe hero ball isn't so bad after all. What's wrong with watching a virtuoso? What's so bad about a strategy that showcases the world's best scorer on repeat? Maybe the Rockets are an acquired taste, but I found myself loving every minute of Harden's masterpiece Saturday night. He was making perfect decisions every time down the floor. If you're not impressed, I don't know what to tell you, except that James Harden is a harbinger of what's next. Just watch this season's breakout sensation, Luka Doncic, and you'll see that the future of the league is bending toward Hardenism.
The only true knock against Harden claiming the scoring crown for this era: He has yet to get over the hump in the playoffs, whereas the other contenders have all had defining postseason moments. Does Harden wilt under pressure? If he's so great, why can't he get to the Finals? Hero ball might work in December, but does it work in June? Does it work when the best teams in the league have seven games to focus and solve it?
Until Harden silences those concerns, many folks around the NBA will remain skeptical and refute the idea that he's is an all-time great. But just as it's fair to criticize the Rockets for their playoff failures, you also have to acknowledge that Harden is still just 30 years old, and his team took an all-time dynasty to the brink. Wilt didn't win a title until his 30s. Harden has got time to show us that his superhero ball can do more than just rack up unprecedented regular season stats.