James Harden is the most innovative player of this revolutionary NBA era. Every season, he adds bells and whistles to his game that make him more difficult to stop. Harden has leveraged his incredible arsenal of off-the-bounce moves to become the league's most effective isolation guru. But what will he add this season?
In August, we got a clue: an enticing preview clip of Harden breaking down his defender before suddenly taking some newfangled kind of running, one-legged corner 3:
Harden shows off a new move
James Harden sidesteps and hits a one-legged 3 during a summer pickup game.
What in the world was that?
Then he did it again versus the Shanghai Sharks on Tuesday:
Harden shows off new move
James Harden shows off his new move, a running 3-pointer on one foot.
For any other player, this would be a bizarre shot. For Harden, it's just a logical extension of his game. Last year he exploited his step-back moves to an unprecedented level, shattering unassisted 3-point records in the process. If anyone can normalize a one-legged 3, it's Harden.
Nobody in the history of the NBA has turned perimeter isolations into 3-point attempts as frequently as Harden did last season. Stephen Curry deserves credit for showing the world just how effective off-the-dribble 3s can be, but Harden took notes and raised this skill to another level. In 2018-19, he became the all-time leader in unassisted 3s ... at age 29.
Looking at the past six years of Harden's data, we see wild increases in both unassisted 3s and isolations:
That's intentional. These elements have become a massive part of his game. But how much further can he take this heroic isolation wave?
On Harden Island
Last season, Harden launched more than twice as many unassisted 3s as Kemba Walker, who ranked second in the league with 439 attempts, according to Second Spectrum tracking data. How? It's all about the isolations.
The numbers are absurd. Harden averaged an incredible 19.8 isos per game. Going back to 2013-14, only two teams have averaged more than 20 isolations per game: Harden's Rockets in 2017-18 (22.2) and 2018-19 (30.0). Since the NBA adopted tracking stats leaguewide in 2013-14, no player had ever logged more than 900 isolations in a single season -- until last season when Harden had a cool 1,548.
We're watching the reboot of hero ball, folks. And with Harden at the controls, Mike D'Antoni engineering the sets and Daryl Morey tracking the efficiency metrics. Houston's version should be more aptly called superhero ball. This isn't Carmelo Anthony dribbling into countless ill-advised midrange shots, because Harden's all-world abilities pass the efficiency test with flying colors. His isos are among the most effective half-court actions in a copycat league that increasingly draws inspiration from Space City.
Last year, Houston's offense ranked third in the league by averaging 1.01 points per non-transition chance. But Harden's isos yielded 1.11 per chance, per Second Spectrum data. These plays are some of the best half-court choices readily available to any team in the NBA. The Rockets would be foolish not to cash in on them.
As Tom Ziller pointed out last spring, with NBA defenses switching more and more assignments, hunting and isolating mismatches on the perimeter has become a core strategy in the half court. This tactic is reviving the isolation-heavy aesthetic that fell out of fashion earlier this decade, when analytics revealed its inefficiency. Movement-oriented offenses in San Antonio and Golden State harvested efficiency in ways that iso-scorers like Kobe Bryant and Allen Iverson never could.
Yet Morey and D'Antoni have turned their backs on the egalitarian motion offenses made popular by Gregg Popovich and Steve Kerr. Instead, they've launched a countertrend relying on a simpler attack, featuring their bearded superstar on an island at the top of the arc torching fools in isolation. Unlike early practitioners of hero ball, Harden's game is analytically calibrated. His shot diet is cleaner than Bryant's was, and he gets to the line as much as a prime Shaquille O'Neal.
Still, no other current superstar is expected to outwit individual defenders nearly as often as Harden. In turn, no other player is as motivated to add new gimmicks to his arsenal.
The one-legged math
Which brings us back to that running 3-point shot. It makes perfect sense for Harden to keep finding new ways to create 3s off the dribble, especially when you study the numbers.
Why? Let's start with the shots. After all, 70% of Harden's isos end with him firing away. That's why his footwork is so vital and why that viral clip of his new-look runner is so interesting.
Harden's off-the-bounce jumpers all start with choreography. A quintessential Harden iso is about dribbling and jabbing and trying to create even the slightest imbalance in his defender. Per NBA tracking data, Harden was the only player in the league to dribble more than 500 times per game last season. While most players use their dribbles to get from point A to point B, Harden uses his as a means to destroy his defender's balance. As soon as Harden gets his man to lean just a bit too much, he either surges past him on a drive to the rack or he shuffles into ample space to launch a step-back 3.
Defending Harden is a pick-your-poison affair: overplay the step-back and he'll drive right by you; overplay the drive and he'll launch a jumper. The problem for defenders is that both options are very effective. He is by far the most prolific half-court scorer in the game because of that combination of drives and step-backs:
From a volume standpoint, he's clearly on another level, but this efficiency isn't bad either. That 1.16 points per step-back is a gold mine in the context of half-court sets. Keep in mind the average non-transition shot in the NBA yielded just 1.04 points last season, and 99% of Harden's step-back 3s occurred in such situations.
Harden's 613 step-back 3s last season helped prove that Houston loves to arbitrage offensive efficiency in ways no other team can or will. That's why we should expect even more of them this season. It's also why his one-legged J could be game-changing, even if he breaks it out only occasionally.
The move allows Harden to generate shooting space in new directions, depending on how his defender is shading him. It could represent a new way for the Rockets to extract even more efficiency from the mineral-rich mines of Harden Island. He no longer needs to take the time to gather, and the set up breeds unpredictability. If he's now a threat to pull up off one leg on the move, how are you supposed to contest that and take away a path to the rim? Good luck.
Folks, here's the scary part: Harden is only getting started. He just turned 30 this summer, and there's still room for him to grow. We could see 25-30 Harden isos per game this season, and a few hundred more unassisted 3-point tries. Why not? Russell Westbrook will get his touches, but unless the Rockets feature Russ a lot more than they featured Chris Paul, it's hard to imagine Houston looking at these half-court numbers and doing anything other than having Harden do more work.
Superhero ball and the postseason
If superstar NBA ball handlers can effectively create and make hundreds of unassisted 3s, there's no reason to expect anything other than a massive isolation explosion. We're already seeing hints of it with Luka Doncic. And once again, Houston is ahead of the curve.
An average Rockets game has become a recital of superhero ball as Harden hunts and pecks at targeted defenders each trip down the floor. As a result, by the end of the 2018-19 season, Harden had become the most used and most unusual superstar in the league, racking up the wildest totals we've seen in a long time.
Check out this ridiculous list of stats Harden led the NBA in last season: field goals attempted, field goals made, points, usage rate, win shares, free throws attempted, free throws made, 3-pointers attempted, 3-pointers made, direct picks, dribbles, drives, isolations and turnovers.
Skeptics will argue that these are merely impressive regular-season numbers in a system that isn't built for postseason basketball. The Western Conference playoffs almost always include eight strong teams, making it fair to question whether the same approach that destroys Charlotte in March can get four wins in a series against the Utah Jazz in May.
That's the big question for the Rockets this season: Can they finally get over the hump? As coaches study opponents, research matchups and calibrate defensive coverages, points get harder to come by and adjustments become paramount. We saw it last season when Nick Nurse put Kawhi Leonard on Giannis Antetokounmpo and completely changed the Eastern Conference finals.
If there's a glaring weakness in Houston's résumé, it's that the Rockets have yet to solve their playoff riddles. In 2017, they looked listless against the Spurs. In 2018, they went ice cold in their biggest game. In 2019, they couldn't match the firepower of Golden State.
Harden's solo work is key here, too. Last year, isolations jumped leaguewide from 13.9 occurrences per 100 possessions in the regular season to 18.9 in the postseason, per Second Spectrum tracking. And Harden gets just slightly worse at this important play, dropping from 1.08 points per half-court iso chance in the regular season to 1.02 in the playoffs over the past three seasons. Still a very good number ... but when you run more than 27 isos per 100 possessions, that dip matters.
Maybe this new move helps his postseason efficiency. Maybe Westbrook giving Harden spells running the offense conserves his energy. Or maybe Houston falls short again.
If they don't write a different story in the 2020 playoffs, D'Antoni might be gone and the narrative around this group will be more Dan Marino than Joe Montana. But the West is wide open. Harden is in his prime. D'Antoni is in a contract year. And the Rockets will go as far as superhero ball takes them.