James Harden’s 2014-15 season ended with a splat. If you remember, Harden bumbled and stumbled his way into a 2-11 shooting night with a reckless 12 turnovers and a game score of one. Houston was bounced from the playoffs and Harden had the summer to vanquish whatever demons crept through his pores on that late May day.
That was nearly six months ago, plenty of time to recalibrate and find the touch that made Harden’s 2014-15 campaign one of Houstonian bliss. Ten games into the new season though and whatever oddities plagued Harden at the end of the playoffs have hardened into a crust. He’s a career 44% shooter from the field with a 51% mark at eFG (adjusted to account for threes being worth one more point than a normal field goal). Since his days as a 20-point scorer began, he averages just under four turnovers/game. Through ten games of the 2015-16 season, Harden’s efficiency has nosedived to 37% from the field with 4.9 turnovers/game.
Comparing Harden to players other than Harden doesn’t offer a much more favorable view. Since 1985-86, just six other players have managed 210 shot attempts with sub-40% from the field over their first ten games. Except for Kobe’s banged up/shot slinging 2014-15, each player below saw some degree of improvement from their early struggles to their end season stats. (As an aside, what in the hell happened in the Atlantic division in 2002-03 that three players began the season so ineptly inefficient?)
data courtesy of basketball-reference.com
It’s not that the list above is filled with bad company, rather it’s an ugly snapshot in time of otherwise talented players.
Much of Harden’s woes from the field can be traced to a combination of increased fascination with the three-ball and significantly decreased accuracy from that spot. His current approach to the three is enough to make Antoine Walker un-shimmy. After putting up between six to seven threes/game over the past three seasons, he’s jacking nearly ten/game in 2015. For context, prior to this season, no player in league history had ever averaged nine three-point attempts/game. Stephen Curry’s shooting 11.5/game this year, but he’s also making a whopping 45% of them. By contrast, Harden’s ten attempts/game are coming with a 24% efficiency. There’s no reason to suspect that his accuracy won’t creep back up to the 36-37% rate he’s maintained his entire career, but it’s also hard to envision him maintaining the current volume.
While Houston has plenty of issues that have contributed to a 4-6 record with a pair of three-game losing streaks (most notably a defense giving up 107.8ppg [27th out of 30th] with a DRtg of 108.9 [29th out of 30]), the chart below highlights the Rockets early-season dependence on Harden’s offensive efficiency for success. In wins, he has an eFG% of nearly 54 while in losses that number drops to under 32%. As a reminder, his career average is 51%.
There’s such a paradoxical element to Harden’s young 2015-16. He’s averaging a career-high in points at 28.4ppg bolstered by nearly 12 free throw attempts/night while sinking 86% of those attempts, but that’s countered by a career-low in ORtg (estimate of points created per 100 possessions). He’s getting more rebounds than at any point in his career, but that’s driven by him seeing more minutes than ever at small forward as Houston’s been forced to go small due to injuries. And CBS Sports’ Matt Moore pointed out that even those numbers come with caveats:
The NBA’s SportVU data has Harden logged for the second-most defensive rebound chances on the team, at 10.8 per game. He’s grabbing just 5.5, with only 1.4 contested. That is a horrendous rate, which is fine if he’s not being asked to do that, but with the Rockets going small, the guards have to rebound, and they’re not.
Speaking of said injuries, through ten games, Houston’s dilly dallied with five different starting lineups to accommodate the health of Dwight Howard and dings to Terrence Jones. Reserve guard Patrick Beverley has spent the season banged up and the assimilation of Ty Lawson appears to be confounding the entire populace of Houston – Lawson’s to-date performance as a Rocket makes Harden’s struggles feel like sunbeams and smart vacation. There’s a continuity issue here reflected in their streaky play (three-game losing streak followed by four straight wins then another three-game losing streak) and need for total domination by Harden to win. In wins he’s averaging 38ppg with a near-38% usage rate while losses 22ppg and 32% usage and a despicable 15% from three on 53 attempts.
We have three-plus seasons of video and statistical evidence that defines a true Harden identity. While he’s been historically bad over ten games, history tells us he’ll progress to the mean at some point and we’ve already seen it happen in a few Houston games this season. The question for coach Kevin McHale and Harden are more of a when than an if. But like Alexander’s mother tells him in the book which this post takes its name from: “Some games are like that. Even in Australia.”