NBA Stats Notebook: Giving James Harden the flowers he deserves

NBA Stats Notebook: Giving James Harden the flowers he deserves

Only 18 times in NBA history has a player averaged 20-plus points, 10-plus assists and 5-plus rebounds per game across an entire season. James Harden and Nikola Jokic are on pace to join the list this year.

Three NBA players — Russell Westbrook, Oscar Robertson and Isiah Thomas — have put up at least 20 points and 10 assists per game over four or more separate seasons in their career. Harden is on pace to be the fourth.

Harden missing out on his 11th NBA All-Star appearance is simply a travesty. Maybe it's because the scoring volume is down, or because he's no longer the top bucket-getting option on his team. Whatever the case may be, he deserves applause for the way he has adapted with age and in a new role to help Philadelphia reinvent its path to contention. 

Harden is currently posting 21.0 points, 10.9 assists and 6.4 rebounds per contest. His mark of 14.9 field goal attempts per game is the lowest since his days on the Oklahoma City Thunder, but his overall efficiency is on par with his prime years in Houston — albeit in different forms. And with a dominant scorer in Joel Embiid by his side, Harden has reached new heights as a table-setter.

At 33 years old, Harden doesn't attack the basket with the same ferocity as his peak years. Only 24% of his shot attempts are coming at the rim (career-low), per Cleaning the Glass, and he's driving the basketball 13.3 times per game (lowest since 2013-14), according to Second Spectrum. They're still high numbers for most NBA players, but low by Harden's standards. His straight-line speed, probably still underrated in his heyday, has been sapped a great deal.

That's okay. Harden has been relatively confined to the perimeter, and he's made it work with a 38.8% three-point clip, his best since 2011-12. One key reason for the jump: Harden is canning a red-hot 47.7% of his attempts off the catch, which make up over one-eighth (12.7%) of his total shot diet, according to PBP Stats. That's the largest share of catch-and-shoot treys he's logged since 2016-17 and almost double last year's frequency. 

This isn't to say Harden has completely disavowed his iso-ball ways. According to Synergy, he takes the third-most isolation possessions per game (6.2) in the NBA. But those possessions are less taxing because he has a co-superstar beside him; Embiid actually logs a slightly higher isolation volume (6.3). And Harden doesn't have to will himself to the basket at his age — Embiid is also collapsing defenses.

The Harden-to-Embiid assist combination is the most popular connection in the league this season. The Beard has hit up The Process 150 times, per PBP Stats, including 71 Embiid buckets at the rim. Their 40-assist lead on the second-most prominent combo of Tyrese Haliburton and Buddy Hield (110) is as large as that duo's edge between it and the 31st-ranked coupling (a tie between Jalen Brunson and RJ Barrett, Killian Hayes and Bojan Bogdanovic, and Chris Paul and Deandre Ayton). 

Meanwhile, though much less often, Embiid is the most frequent passer when Harden picks up an assisted bucket. They've teamed up 19 times this season, including 11 Harden makes from beyond the arc.

The Embiid-Harden pick-and-roll has boosted their ascension to perhaps the most dynamic two-man action tandem in the league. But Harden's comfort in Philly is also boosting the supporting cast — most exemplified in Tobias Harris. 

Harris, now 30 years old, has quietly settled into an efficient complementary role while Harden, Embiid, Tyrese Maxey and Shake Milton initiate most offensive possessions. He's shooting a career-best 58% from two-point range. Harris' at-rim frequency (34%), field goal percentage (69%) and assisted-make rate (62%) are all the highest of his four-plus seasons with the Sixers, according to Cleaning the Glass.

The scoring opportunities get easier with Harden on the floor. The former MVP sends 18.1% of his passes to Harris, who in turn makes 59.2% of his ensuing twos and 37.7% of his threes. Harris has typically averaged 8-10 drives per game over the course of his prime years vs. his 6.7 drives this season. The creation burden has been lessened and the efficiency has increased.

It helps that the Sixers added De'Anthony Melton to space the floor and act as a secondary ball-handler, and Maxey certainly gives them another sharp driving punch. But Harden has made everyone, including Harris and Embiid, better since finding his comfort level on the team.

Harden's average of 92.7 touches per game ranks third in the NBA and is still on par with his typical touch rate throughout his career. He's still the ignition for Philly's ninth-ranked offense and a matchup nightmare when he's on the floor, even if the picture looks a little different. 

Whether it's the lack of All-Star recognition or the general lack of buzz, Harden's superstardom has taken a back seat in the national consciousness. Don't make that same mistake.

THE OUTLIERS (a.k.a. other random interesting numbers I found in the void):

  • A cool blocked shot locations graphic from Edoardo Vergani. Look at Bol Bol!
  • Brandon Miller is such a fascinating NBA Draft prospect:
  • The Pacers are an absolutely chaotic basketball team, as shown in this table from Tom Bassine:
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