James Harden's absurd season represented in five stats
Houston's James Harden, defended by Minnesota's Robert Covington, averages a ridiculous 39.5 points this season. Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

James Harden's absurd season represented in five stats

Houston's James Harden is going to average 40 points this season. Read that sentence again. 40 POINTS. EVERY GAME. FOR AN ENTIRE SEASON. Absolutely absurd.

Here we thought that last season, when Harden averaged 36.1 points (the most since Michael Jordan’s 37.1 in 1986-87), was a historical anomaly made possible by injuries and the Rockets' extreme reliance on advanced analytics. Well, it looks like we were dead wrong. Last season wasn’t an anomaly, it was just the beginning. This season, despite Houston adding arguably the most ball-dominant player in NBA history in Russell Westbrook, Harden has taken his one-on-one offensive game to a ridiculous level, pushing the bounds of what we considered possible.

Harden’s playing style, which resembles driveway basketball, seems like a gimmick. But it's extremely effective in today’s NBA, and it has Houston (10-3) near the top of the West, trailing only the Lakers (11-2).  If you haven’t started to take Harden's statistical feats seriously, that needs to change. To help you, I did a deep dive and found these five statistics that represent the absurdity of James Harden:

1. Harden is shooting 41.7 percent from the field, 33.2 percent from three

Harden averages 39.5 points although he's shooting poorly through 13 games. His shot is so off  that the next 15 leading scorers all shoot higher percentages from the field. Combined, they average 48.6 percent from the field and 36.2 percent from three.

This prompts a couple questions: How is Harden scoring so much on such inefficient shooting and still leading the Rockets to the second-best record in the West? And will his scoring regress to the mean? The answer to the first question boils down to shot selection and free throws -– we’ll address those with some of the other absurd statistics below.

The answer to the second question might surprise you: His scoring will probably continue to increase. Why? Because Harden is a better shooter than this. As a matter of fact, Harden’s current field goal percentage would be the lowest since his rookie season (40.3 percent) , and his current three-point percentage would be the lowest in his entire career. In his seven previous seasons with Houston, Harden shot 44.3 percent from the field and 36.4 percent from three. If you adjust his current stats to his average shooting percentages, he’d average 40.4 points.

Look a little deeper, however, and you’ll see that Harden had two bad shooting games to start the season and has shot efficiently since. If you take away his first two games (19- and 29-point efforts), chalking those up to getting used to playing with Westbrook and getting his regular season legs under him, Harden is averaging 42.3 points. Minus those two games, he’s shooting exactly how he has always shot while on the Rockets -– 44.2 percent from the field and 36.6 percent from three. 40 points per game is happening, people!

2. Harden is averaging 15.0 isolation possessions per game

In a vacuum, this stat doesn’t mean anything. But let's provide context: LeBron James, who averages the second-most isolation possessions per game, only averages 6.0 a game. That makes what Harden's doing absolutely outlandish. Nearly four times a quarter, Harden clears everyone out of the lane, sizes up his defender, lulling him to sleep with an array of tight handles, and proceeds to either blow past him with his lightning-quick first step or counters with his patented step-back three. His propensity to go one-on-one like it’s a game in the driveway is so disproportionate to the rest of the league that the statistic should seriously be called a “Harden.”

Since the isolation stat was first tracked in 2015-16, Harden has led the league every season, with last season (16.4 isolations per game) besting this season. Since 2015, no other player has averaged more than 6.4 isolations a game in a season (Westbrook and LeBron both hit that mark). The player perhaps most associated with Iso-Ball in recent years, new Trail Blazer Carmelo Anthony, topped out at 5.5 isolations. Harden has averaged double-digit isolations since 2017-18. Don’t expect him to drop below double-digits for a while either. Harden has averaged over 1.0 point per possession on these play types since 2017-18 -– an indicator of an efficient offensive play inside half court. In fact, this play type has become so synonymous with Harden that I think the first “tell” that he’s past his prime will be a drop-off in the number of his isolations.

3. Harden’s usage percentage is 41.4 percent

Per Basketball-Reference.com, “usage percentage” is an estimate of the percentage of team plays used by a player while he was on the floor. Only two players have had a usage rate over 40. Can you guess the players and seasons? (I’ll give you a hint: It wasn’t Michael Jordan when he scored 37.1 points in 1986-87, and it wasn’t Kobe Bryant when he scored 35.4 points.)

It was Westbrook (41.7 percent) during his MVP season in 2016-17 and Harden (40.5 percent) last season. Although the Rockets traded one of the best passing point guards in NBA history (Chris Paul) for Westbrook, the player with the highest usage rate ever, Harden’s usage percentage has gone up from last season. Harden’s usage has remained incredibly high because he’s not only leading the league in field goal attempts (336), but he’s easily tops in the league with 22.8 drives per game (second place is the Spurs' DeMar DeRozan, with 19). With Houston's Eric Gordon sidelined with a knee injury for the next six weeks, it wouldn’t be shocking to see Harden break the usage record this season.

4. Harden is making 13.1 free throws per game

Free throws are the easiest points in basketball -- that’s why they call them “free.” Sorry for going fifth-grade YMCA coach on you, but this age-old adage couldn’t be more applicable to Harden. This guy gets to the line at a historically high frequency –- he averages 14.8 free throws a game, which, multiplied by 82 games, would give him the second-most attempts in NBA history and make him the only non-Wilt Chamberlain player in the top six. Also worth noting is the fact he makes 88.1 percent of those free throws. At his current rate, Harden is on pace to make 1,074 free throws, which would obliterate Hall of Famer Jerry West’s record of 840 made free throws. It may be miserable to watch, but Harden is probably the most gifted player in NBA history at drawing fouls, and his made free throws count when they tally the final score.

5. Harden is attempting 14.6 three-pointers per game

Free throws, layups and three-pointers -- those are the most efficient shots in basketball. Those also happen to be essentially the only shots Harden attempts. Check out his shot distribution:

0-3 feet3-10 feet10-16 feet16 feet-3 point3 point
21.7%18.5%2.7%0.6%56.5%

78.2 percent of his shot attempts are layups or three-pointers! And if he isn’t taking a layup or three-pointer, he's putting up a shot inside the paint –- less than 4 percent of his shots come between 10 feet and the three-point line. His shot chart resembles something even the most numbers-centric basketball nerds never thought possible. Harden is exploiting the math of basketball, which allows him to miss 15 shots a game and still be an efficient scorer.

Assuming he remains healthy, Harden is going to set so many offensive records it’ll be nauseating to keep track of –- almost as nauseating as how the Rockets’ offense looks when Harden gets tired and just attempts to draw fouls instead of actually making real basketball plays. (ZING!! I wasn’t going to go the entire column without throwing some shade Harden’s way.) You may love his playing style, you may hate his play style, but one thing is certain: You’re going to remember James Harden's regular season.

Pat Heery began his sports writing career in 2016 for The Has Been Sports Blog. He practices real estate law during the day and runs pick & rolls at night. Follow him on Twitter: @pheery12

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