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NBA Daily: Chasing 40

Can James Harden outdo his last season and drop 40 points per game in 2019-20? History says he can. Drew Mays takes a deep dive into the numbers.

Drew Mays

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As of this writing, James Harden is averaging 38.4 points per game.

Yes, 38.4.

He’s within striking distance of 40 – a number that would put him in the most rarified of air, joining Wilt Chamberlain as the only other player in NBA history to accomplish this feat.

Of course, Wilt averaged over 40 twice – 50.4 in 1961-62 and 44.8 in 1962-63. Harden has played 14 games. There’s a long way to go. But with each passing night, 40 looks more and more in reach.

And why not? He put up 36.1 per contest across 78 games last year. His partitioned game is like a filing system: Put threes there, rim attempts here and free throws in the back. Who says he can’t make one more three and one more free throw per game? He even started this year “slow,” getting 19 and 29 his first two out.

Since those two games, he’s scored under 30 twice. The other 11 games he’s been above 36. Even in today’s game, that’s unheard of – well, unless you’re James Harden.

Only two modern comparisons exist for what Harden’s doing the last 13 months: Michael Jordan in 1986-87 and Kobe Bryant in 2005-06. Jordan averaged 37.1. Kobe averaged 35.4 (for extra points, Rick Barry joins these four in the top-10 scoring seasons of all-time with 35.6 in 1966-67).

This year, Harden has a chance to go supernova — to really pass the Kobe season and to pass Jordan.

On any level, scoring points in the NBA is hard. But scoring at the rate these guys did requires two factors to blend seamlessly into a third. Talent has to meet opportunity in the right era. This equation was true of Wilt’s 50 and 44 seasons, and Jordan and Kobe’s 37 and 35, respectively.

It’s true of Harden’s 2019-20. And he might average 40 because of it.

Kobe, Jordan and Wilt are third, fifth, and seventh in scoring all-time. It’s no surprise they had outlier seasons (though Jordan went for 35 per game the year following 37.1). Harden is currently 55th, but will move into the top 35 or so by year’s end. There’s a good chance he breaks 30,000 career points in the next five years.

The truth is, Harden is as good of a scorer as they were. And he may even be better. Any argument to the contrary isn’t rooted in statistics or results – it’s rooted in a bias against Harden’s ways, or a distorted, reminiscent view of the past. A common refrain against Harden is that his scoring is a product of flopping and free throws – that without that, he wouldn’t be as effective.

Here’s Harden in 2012, still a member of the Thunder.

That looks pretty similar to what he does now — the paced attack; the ball-out, arms-locked attack to incite fouls; the strength to finish anyway.

And here he is the following season, his first as a Rocket.

Copy and paste that into game film from today, and no one notices the difference.

He’s been doing this his whole career…he’s just leveraged his ability with opportunity in the right era to become the most dominant isolation player of the last decade.

Opportunity arises in part because of talent. It’s also borne of team and organizational needs. When Jordan scored 37.1, he was coming off a broken foot and an 18-game season. The 1986-87 campaign saw the Bulls go 40-42, with only three players scoring over 10 per game. Charles Oakley and John Paxson joined Jordan in double figures, with the fourth-highest scorer being Gene Banks at 9.7. Only 8 of the 17 players from ‘86-87 returned the following year.

Charles Oakley scored 9.7 points per game for his career. Paxson scored 7.2. Those were Chicago’s second and third options – with Jordan’s skill level, he had one of the greatest opportunities of all time to put up huge numbers.

In 2005-06, the proud Los Angeles Lakers were on the heels of a 34-48 record and missed the postseason in their first year after Shaquille O’Neal. They entered ’05-06 with Lamar Odom as the only player outside Kobe able to create offense (To our frustration, Smush Parker was as disappointing as we remember him.).

Kobe was all LA had – he obliged by taking 27 shots per game and leading the league in scoring.

Generational, ball-dominant perimeter talents anchoring otherwise average to below-average rosters equal the recipe for lots and lots of points.

That’s where Harden has found himself in Houston, this year more than ever.

Since the now-infamous Thunder deal, Harden is averaging 29 points per game. He’s on his way to his third straight 30-point-per-game season, and second above 35. His numbers have continued to climb not only due to individual improvement, but also within his permanent place as the unquestioned center of the offense. This is the collection of point guards Harden’s seen during his Houston tenure:

Jeremy Lin, Patrick Beverley, Aaron Brooks, Ty Lawson, Chris Paul.

The latter four were far from central playmakers – Paul was the only other star Harden’s joined forces with, and even he declined significantly last season. Sidenote: We’re also not counting the failed Dwight Howard experiment. While other teams were doubling and tripling down on star-laden rosters, Harden was primarily left as the single-engine to the Rockets’ vehicle. He had no choice but to make all the decisions.

This becomes even more true with Paul gone. Paul and Harden have similar styles in that they both control the ball. Consequently, even with the two often playing staggered minutes, Harden’s opportunities decreased. Paul took some of the slowed-down possessions away from him.

The fit with Russell Westbrook, however, is more complementary. Westbrook has Houston playing at the fastest pace in the NBA. He gets it and goes. When he doesn’t have it in transition, he pulls back and gives it to Harden. Harden isn’t losing those prodding isolation possessions anymore.

As Harden has improved year-by-year, he’s done it amid a changing NBA. His rise has coincided with the three-point boom – and it’s led to the possibility of a 40-point-per-game season.

In 1986, Michael Jordan was doing things on a basketball court that few had ever seen.

The ability to leap and hang in the air wasn’t common then. The clip below encapsulates Jordan’s 37.1 ppg season:

Look at that spacing! Jordan clunkily misses a jumper over a double-team, gets the ball back and makes a play at the basket. He scored because he was more athletic than everyone else. That’s not an indictment on Jordan, and he didn’t only score this way – he was skilled this early in his career, too. But the athleticism was the predominant thing. Just check out this clip from 1988:

You’d have thought MJ was a Salem Witch the way the announcers reacted to a behind-the-back dribble. Imagine if they saw Kyrie back then!

Jordan was unparalleled in talent over the history of the NBA; this was especially true, athletically, in 1986. That, along with the state of the Bulls’ roster, mightily contributed to his single-season top-five scoring average.

Kobe Bryant took 2,173 shots in 2005-06. Of those, 1,655 were two-pointers. And of those two-pointers, 1,041 were taken between 10 feet and the three-point line. Kobe took 27 shots per game and 13 of them were long twos. Think about that: Kobe spent an entire NBA season not only shooting 27 times a night, but taking the least efficient shot in basketball nearly half the time.

(Quick aside: Jordan took 27.8 shots per game in ’86-87. Wilt took 34.6 shots per game in his 44-point season and 39.5 shots per game in his 50-point season. So, when Harden scores 49 on 41 shots as he did in Minnesota last week, please don’t complain while standing up for the other three.)

The league’s climate in ’05-06 was perfect for Bryant to hoist an inordinate amount of mid-range shots. 79.8 percent of the league’s field goal attempts came from two-point range, compared to 62.5 percent this year — Harden’s Rockets are at 49.4 percent. Kobe’s greatest strength was the NBA’s most popular shot, and he took advantage.

That brings us to Harden. If Harden followed Steph Curry’s lead and broke basketball last season, he’s slammed into a million pieces in 2019-20.

Harden set a record last year by attempting 1,028 threes, making up over half of his total field goal attempts. That averages out to 13.2 per night – and most of those were unassisted. His shooting percentage of 61.6 was otherworldly, considering the difficulty of his looks.

Now, he’s back for an encore.

His shot chart is more categorized than ever. 56 percent of his attempts are threes, up slightly from last season. 21 percent come at the rim, and almost 20 come from 3-10 feet – and if you watch, most in the 3-10 range are short floaters. Only 2.9 percent of Harden’s looks are between 10 feet and the three-point line.

He’s taking 13.9 three-point attempts per game. Before last night’s loss in Denver, he’d already taken 200 threes!

His total shot attempts per game are at 25.4 (lower than Wilt, Jordan and Kobe during their historic seasons) and he’s taking 14.5 free throws per game. If you threw twos out the window, Harden would get you 28 points on threes and free throws alone!

The free throw rate should slightly regress. He took 11 per game last year and should stay in that 11-12 range. But his shooting percentages are down; he’s shooting 42.5 from the field and 34 from three, about two percentage points lower than his Houston norms. Assuming those tick back up, there’s no reason to believe he can’t add a few points per game to break 40.

Averaging 40 is next to impossible. Only one person has ever done it – and he did it towering over the league, on 39.5 and 34.6 shots each night, at a breakneck pace. Jordan, Kobe and Harden are the only players in the last 30 years or so to even sniff it.

Harden is at the peak of his powers. He plays with a team that relies on him to be the offense and a star running mate whose game doesn’t clash with his. He’s reached the heights of his game at the summit of the three-ball movement, where shot distribution and efficiency are king.

He still has to prove it can work in the playoffs. And even if he can’t, maybe that’s okay. Maybe, among the detractors whining about his style, complaining about his methods, we should enjoy this for what it is: an all-time scorer tearing through the league.

Jordan had a funny quote about his 37.1-point season that went something like this: It was hard, because he’d score 32 one night and then realize, man, I have to get 42 tomorrow to stay on track.

Harden had 27 last night. He’d need 53 Friday to keep the pace.

It’s kind of ridiculous when you think about it that way. Still, it seems unwise to bet against him.

Drew Mays is a basketball writer currently based in Louisville, Kentucky. Find him on Twitter @dmays0

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NBA Daily: Kobe’s 81 Is An Untouchable Feat

Of Kobe Bryant’s lengthy list of accomplishments and records, his 81-point game is the one that has no peer.

Douglas Farmer

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Of Kobe Bryant’s lengthy list of accolades, accomplishments and records, the most obvious of them may also be the most under-appreciated.

NBA fans can cite Kobe contemporaries that can match his five NBA championships. In addition to Tim Duncan and Steve Kerr, LeBron James is at No. 3 and still counting. And of course, James passed Kobe’s 33,643 career points just this weekend, moving into third all-time.

Kobe’s career-high 35.4 points per game in 2005-06 falls short of James Harden’s current stretch, averaging 36.07 this season and 36.13 last year. In fact, Harden’s career average of 24.97 points slots just behind Kobe’s 24.99, both behind LeBron’s 27.10 and Kevin Durant’s 27.02.

But no modern player has come close to Kobe’s legendary 81-point game during that 2006 season. Sure, Devin Booker tallied 70 three years ago and David Robinson got to 71 back in 1994, but neither were actually that close to Kobe’s iconic torching of the Toronto Raptors.

When Booker poured in 70 against the Boston Celtics, he needed 40 field goal attempts to do it. At his shooting rates that March night, he would have needed to take another seven shots to reach Kobe’s 81. If he didn’t attempt more free throws, then that number ticks up to 10 more attempts.

Sticking to that math, Robinson’s 71 would have needed six more hoists to beat Kobe to 81, a total of 47 hypothetical attempts.

By no means was Kobe the epitome of efficiency when he outscored everyone but Wilt Chamberlain by going 28-of-46 and 7-of-13 from deep – supplemented by an 18-of-20 performance at the free throw line. Nonetheless, he was hardly detrimental to the Los Angeles Lakers’ offense.

In the last 40 years, only five players have come within 20 points of Kobe’s singular feat while shooting at rates such that they could have theoretically gotten to 81 points on fewer than his 46 field goal attempts. Two of those, naturally, came from Kobe himself.

Player Date Points FGA Total FGA needed to reach 81
Michael Jordan 3/28/1990 69 37 44
Kobe Bryant 12/20/2005 62 31 41
LeBron James 3/3/2014 61 33 44
Kobe Bryant 2/2/2009 61 31 42
Karl Malone 1/27/1990 61 26 35
Klay Thompson 12/5/2016 60 33 45

For someone long-criticized for his shot volume, Kobe was the definition of an efficient mass scorer more often than anyone else, to such a degree he has essentially been without a peer for 30 years.

Aside from Thompson, the obvious nominee of who might match Kobe is a healthy Stephen Curry, even though he has never scored more than 54 points in a game. When Curry reached that mark at Madison Square Garden in 2013, he would have needed to take another 14 shots to have a genuine chance at 81, for a total of 42 attempts. His 53-point effort in 2015 would have also needed to get to 42 attempts to be on pace to match Kobe.

There is, however, another volume scorer to watch, one who came within 20 points of Kobe’s best just last week. Damian Lillard’s week warrants Kobe-esque notice.

Last Monday: 61 points on 17-of-37 shooting against the Warriors; would have need 50 shots to catch Kobe.

Thursday: 47 points on 16-of-28 shooting against the Mavericks; would have needed 49 shots to catch Kobe.

Sunday: 50 points on 14-of-23 shooting against the Pacers, would have needed 38 shots to catch Kobe.

To wit, take last night as an example: Lillard scored 50 points in an impeccably efficient matter, but if he had somehow not missed a single shot, he would have scored only 74 points.

Fittingly, a monomaniacal guard with a penchant for game-winning shots is the one scoring in bunches in ways that can be compared to only Kobe – yet the Portland Trail Blazers’ guard remains far short of the 81-point standard.

But that just goes to show how amazing Kobe’s night on Jan. 22, 2006 really was.

The five-time champion, first-ballot Hall of Famer achieved many things and left an imprint beyond our grasp this tragic week, but his one night of heaviest binge scoring may be the least likely piece of his career to ever be repeated.

It has no modern peer and even those the closest to matching it have tended to fall a dozen shots and 20 points short.

But that day? In today’s modern NBA landscape, that’s a great chance we’ll never, ever see something quite like it again.

Kobe Bryant, a legend and icon in so, so many ways.

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NBA Daily: Deadline Dilemma In Toronto

After winning the 2019 NBA Championship and losing Kawhi Leonard, the Toronto Raptors have defied the odds, winning 30 of their first 44 games this season — but Drew Maresca argues that conceding this season in hopes of building an even stronger future roster is the smarter long-term move.

Drew Maresca

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The Raptors have overachieved in a ridiculous way in 2019-20. They were +700 to repeat as NBA champions prior to the 2019 free agency period, according to the Draft Kings.

Immediately after Kawhi Leonard fled West, the Raptors’ odds grew to +2200 to repeat – tied with the Celtics, who just lost Kyrie Irving, and the Nets, whose best player was set to miss the entire year. And yet through 44 games, the Raptors are third in the Eastern Conference with a 31-14 record and only one-and-a-half games behind last year’s pace (32-12).

But what’s in a record? There’s more to unpack than just wins and losses, especially when success has almost certainly been redefined in a city that just experienced its first NBA championship ever. So a logical test is how well you’re playing against the crème de la crème. And in that regard, the Raptors haven’t fared too well. Including their home win against Philadelphia on Wednesday night, the Raptors are still only 7-12 against winning teams with a net rating of minus-37 in those 19 games.

Very few teams would be terribly upset to be in a similar situation as the Raptors. In fact, most teams would be thrilled to be third overall in their conference. But the Raptors are barreling toward an interesting decision: embrace the opportunity to continue to gain playoff experience (and additional playoff revenue) or expedite a miniature rebuild. This writer’s thoughts on the matter are well documented in our 2019-20 Toronto Raptors Season Preview and our recent Atlantic Division – buyers or sellers piece. But let’s officially build a case supporting the Raptors trading some of their veterans in an attempt to add assets prior to the Feb. 6 trade deadline.

The Raptors’ most valuable trade chip is also their longest-tenured player – starting point guard, Kyle Lowry. Lowry is 33 years old and experiencing a career resurgence after taking a back seat to Leonard last year. Lowry is averaging a near career-high 37.1 minutes per game, in which time he’s scoring 20 points per game – more than he’s scored since 2016-17 — and dishing out 7.5 assists.

But Lowry is probably the last guy the team wants to move. He’s a fan favorite and has been with the team for eight consecutive seasons; Lowry is currently third overall for games played in franchise history. But if they chose to dangle Lowry on the trade market, they would certainly get a good amount of interest from teams like the Lakers, HEAT, 76ers and maybe even the Jazz and Nuggets. What interested parties would offer is an entirely different story, but it would have to be pretty aggressive to get the Raptors to part with their franchise player.

But there are other guys who make more sense in a trade.

There’s Marc Gasol, their soon-to-be 35-year-old center. Unlike Lowry, Gasol is not experiencing a career renaissance. He’s missed 12 of their 44 games, with down years in scoring (7.8 points per game compared to his 14.7 career average), two-point shooting (44% compared to his from 49.7% career average) and rebounds (6.4 rebounds compared to his 7.6. career average). But he still has a good amount of utility in him. After all, he leads the Raptors in defensive plus/minus, per Basketball Reference – something that he’s prided himself on throughout his career and an attribute that would be a welcomed addition to most contenders.

There’s also Serge Ibaka, their 30-year-old sometimes-starting, sometimes-backup big man. Ibaka is actually outpacing career averages in scoring (14.9), rebounds (8.4) and assists (1.3). Ibaka is still widely viewed as an above-average and versatile defender, and the fact that he’s shooting 37% on three-pointers makes him all the more valuable to teams like the Boston Celtics – who lack a true big man who can stretch the floor.

Gasol and Ibaka’s standing in Toronto is especially vulnerable since both will enter free agency this summer — whereas Lowry signed an extension last year that runs through 2020-21, when he’ll make $30.5 million. The Raptors could choose to keep Gasol and/or Ibaka, but either or both could walk without returning any assets as soon as this July. Further, the team is unlikely to break the bank for either considering they’ll have to make a generous offer to retain soon-to-be free agent guard Fred VanVleet – who is having a breakout season, averaging 18.7 points and 6.7 assists per game while shooting 38.8% on a career-high 6.9 three-point attempts per game. VanVleet is only 25 years old and fits alongside Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby and the team’s young role players like Norman Powell far better than Ibaka or Gasol.

As it stands, the Raptors have about $85 million in salary commitments for 2020-21 with $3.8 million in a player option (Stanley Johnson) and another $1.5 million in a team option (Terence Davis). The cap is projected at $116 million with the luxury tax kicking in at $141 million. They can (and should) invest between $20 and $25 million per year in VanVleet, which brings them up to about $110 million. If negotiations begin creeping north of $25 million per year, the Raptors will have to make concessions elsewhere if they hope to retain VanVleet – Ibaka would theoretically be among those concessions since he’ll probably be looking for at least one more generous payday. It’s unclear what Gasol would seek in a new contract.

All three of the aforementioned Raptors have at least one thing in common – they are the only three Raptors born before 1990. So whether they like it or not, the Raptors have turned their roster over quickly and effectively to the extent that they have a talented young core with the framework of a contender in the making.

All three veteran players can definitely continue contributing for at least the remainder of this season – and to varying degrees, well beyond it. But their impact will be more profound on a contender looking to add quality veterans. And despite what their record tells us, that’s just not the Raptors right now.

Instead, the Raptors are a team in the very fortunate position of being able to reload relatively quickly around a blossoming young core. Yes, they’re significantly better than average, but which would you prefer: a team that qualifies for the conference semifinals in 2019-20 or a team that loses in the first round of the 2019-20 playoffs, but adds additional assets — some of whom help the team remain competitive for years to come?

Granted, dislodging Lowry from Toronto requires a monster offer and would result in at least some backlash; but neglecting to trade Gasol and/or Ibaka is likely to result in one or both leaving to pursue more money and/or additional championships – neither of which can the Raptors offer. The Raptors and team president Masai Ujiri have made bold moves time and again. There is no reason to hold off on moving either Gasol and/or Ibaka before Feb. 6 – and if a sweetheart offer comes in for Lowry, then him, too.

Regardless, the Raptors are fairly well set up for the future, so it is unlikely that this move (or lack of it) is analyzed too aggressively in the future. And also, there is certainly a fine line between being opportunist and greedy. But trading one, both or all veterans allows the team to add additional assets to a cupboard that already looks pretty well stocked.

And it’s probably one of the final opportunities to add talent before their core takes its final form — and if that form results in future championships is partially dependent on how the Raptors proceed before the 2020 trade deadline.

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NBA Daily: Raptors’ Thomas Patiently Perseveres

It took a tight family, two years in Spain and a broken finger, but Matt Thomas’ chance to showcase his shooting on the biggest stage might be finally just around the corner.

Douglas Farmer

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Matt Thomas’ long-awaited break was disrupted by a more literal break. After the shooting guard spent two years impressing in the Liga ACB in Spain, Thomas’ first season with the Toronto Raptors was supposed to be his chance to prove himself NBA-ready.

And as the Raptors suffered injury after injury in November, that chance looked like it could grow into a full-blown role, if only on a temporary basis.

“He’s shown he can play at this level, where we can come out there and run stuff for him and he can do work,” Toronto head coach Nick Nurse said. “He’s a really good team defender; he’s much better defensively than maybe people give him credit for.”

Instead, Thomas joined the walking wounded with a broken finger, the first injury to force him to miss extended time in his professional career.

“Anytime you’re injured, it’s hard,” Thomas said. “As a competitor, I want to be on the court, especially we had so many injuries. There was a big opportunity on the table for a first-year guy like myself.”

Thomas had hit 14-of-26 threes at that point, 53.8 percent, already arguably the best shooter on the Raptors’ roster, albeit in limited minutes. The Iowa State product was making the most of his break until his break.

He had waited for it since finishing his four-year career in Ames and Thomas seemed on the verge of reaching the NBA right away in 2017. He spent that Summer League with the Los Angeles Lakers, knowing the Raptors were keeping a close eye. In time, though, Valencia beckoned, a tough decision for someone exceptionally close with his family. Up until that point, the closeness had been as literal as figurative, with Iowa State a four-hour drive from Thomas’ hometown of Onalaska, Wisconsin.

“I wanted to spread my wings and get out of my comfort zone a little bit,” Thomas said of his two years in Spain where he averaged 13.3 points and shot 47.2 percent from deep. “The distance is tough. The time change is the other thing. It’s a 7-to-8 hour time difference, so you really have to coordinate when you’re going to talk to people.”

That was frustrating for a brother intent on keeping up on his sister’s college career, now a senior at the University of Dubuque. Moreover, it was an even bigger change for a family that had been tight-knit since Thomas lost his father in fifth grade.

Thomas’s mother, brother and sister did manage to visit him in Spain, but watching games stateside is obviously much easier. At least, in theory. When the Midwestern winter dumped five inches of snow on the highways between the Target Center and his hometown about 2.5 hours away, that recent trek to see him became that much tougher.

Nonetheless, about four dozen Thomas supporters filled a section above the Raptors’ bench. They were most noticeable when Nurse subbed in the sharpshooter with just a minute left in the first half.

“It’s special because I have a really good support system,” Thomas said. “I’ve had that my entire life . . . It’s just really special to have so many people make the trip, especially given the weather conditions. I was talking to one of my cousins from Iowa; he was driving 30 on the highway. He got here in six hours, it would normally take maybe three.”

If anyone could understand that Midwestern stubbornness, it would be Nurse, himself from just four hours south of the Twin Cities. When asked why his fan club was not as vocal as Thomas’, Nurse joked his was stuck “in a snowdrift somewhere in Carroll County, Iowa.”

It might not have been a joke.

Nurse did not insert Thomas just to appease his loyal cheering section. The end of half situation called for a shooter — he had gone 7-of-18 in his four games after returning from the broken finger. Of players averaging at least two attempts from beyond the arc per game, Thomas leads Toronto with a 46.7 percentage.

“It’s too bad that he was one of the guys out when we had everybody out because he could have logged some serious minutes,” Nurse said. “Now he gets back and everybody’s back and he kind of gets filtered in.”

That close family, that time in Spain, that broken finger and now that filtering in have all been a part of Thomas getting a chance to prove himself in the NBA.

If he has to wait a bit longer before seeing serious minutes, so be it.

The Raptors did, after all, give him a three-year contract. He has time on his side.

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