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 …
Pass less, is