The NBA Playoffs are finally here, but at what cost?
This week, the community said goodbye to two certain Hall of Famers — Dwyane Wade and Dirk Nowitzki.
Beyond their cemented statuses as adored fan favorites for nearly 20 years, the pair also boast an insane amount of professional achievements. Wade finishes his career with the 23rd-most points in NBA history, while Nowitzki closes with the sixth-highest tally at 31,560 — and, importantly, not a single active player in sight. Their statistics back up their cases well, but if that weren’t enough, they share four championships, two Finals MVPs, six All-NBA First Team selections and a whopping 27 All-Star appearances.
Of course, Nowitzki was also the runaway winner for MVP in 2007, handily defeating Steve Nash and Kobe Bryant.
On Wednesday, both Wade and Nowitzki closed their books with memorable moments. In San Antonio, home of Nowitzki’s long-time bitter rivals, the Spurs put together a tribute that moved the German star to tears. Despite losing a step at the age of 40, Nowitzki turned back the clock in his last two games, posting 30 points before dropping 20 points and 10 rebounds during the finale. For Wade, fans and allies alike flocked to the Barclays Center to wish the guard a warm-hearted farewell in Brooklyn.
LeBron James, Chris Paul and Carmelo Anthony all witnessed Wade drop his first triple-double since 2011 — a fifth over in a storied 16-year career — relishing in their best friend’s swan song and encore performance.
This marks the near-end of an era in the NBA and their retirements come sharply in the well-missed footsteps of Manu Ginobili, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, Tim Duncan and other recent legends. The season-long goodbye tours for Dwyane and Dirk didn’t feel hackneyed as their emotional moments — like commissioner Adam Silver naming both as special additions to the All-Star Game — felt deserved and earned.
But irreplaceable as they may be, somebody else new will need to take their mantle as idolized father figures and record-chasing future Hall of Famers. Aside from the obvious and not-quite-old-enough — hello, Kevin Durant — here’s where things stand headed into 2019-20.
LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers
LeBron James’ legacy in the pantheon, even if he suddenly decided to quit tomorrow morning, will never be in question — this much is already clear. The ever-reliable James is fourth in scoring all-time with just Kobe Bryant, Karl Malone and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar left to pass for the elusive top spot. All things considered, health dependant, James will likely reach this summit, along with too many other records to count. It’s not just his bucket-getting prowesses that’ll be on display either as James is already 10th in assists with 8,662 and, as the cherry on top, owns 1,937 steals — good for 17th-best. In conversations about the absolute greatest player of all-time, James’ inclusion is one of the first two or three names on the shortlist.
LeBron James is masterful — but you already knew that. In an ideal world, he’ll be playing long into his forties as well.
Kevin Durant, Golden State Warriors
Like James, Durant is headed straight to the top too.
36th in points and 25th in three-pointers made, Kevin Durant — whether in Seattle, Oklahoma City or Golden State — has been a bonafide scoring machine. Durant has averaged an ungodly 27 points per game over his first 12 NBA seasons and shows no sign of slowing down either. His Warriors-related championships remain a polarizing topic, but the record books will only remember the result, not every detail of his ever-winding journey.
If Durant averages just 22 points per game for the next six years, he’d find himself knocking on the door to the top five scorers in league history. Durant has only scored less than 25 points once in his career, notched way back in his rookie year of 2007-08. So, yeah, love or hate him, Durant is here to stay, smash some records and lock himself into all-time legend status.
Carmelo Anthony, Free Agent
Although it’s possible that the now-forgotten Carmelo Anthony could make a comeback next season, the odds remain stacked against him. In 2018, it took just 10 games before the Rockets tossed him aside as his iso-heavy style of play didn’t mesh with Houston’s uptempo Harden-fueled juggernaut. Following months of flirtations with the Lakers, Anthony sadly stayed on the sidelines and without a franchise for the remainder of the campaign.
At the time of his release, Anthony was tallying 13.4 points and 5.4 rebounds on 40.5 percent from the field — so it’s hard to believe that the Hall of Famer’s career has come to such a jarring halt, but that might be the harsh reality.
If this the end of the line for Anthony, he’ll march into retirement as the 22nd-best scorer of all-time, an achievement placed proudly alongside his status as one of basketball’s top Olympians.
Vince Carter, Atlanta Hawks
The list of veterans that could ably take the torch from Wade and Nowitzki, both statistically and popularly, is varied — but it must start with Vince Carter. As of now, it’s expected that Carter will return for his 21st campaign, despite a diminishing role over the years. Although the former high-flying dunker has been offered spot minutes on legitimate contenders year after year, Carter has opted for mentoring position on growing rosters. When the prodigious talent does eventually return, he’s still an unlikely candidate to rise too far up the all-time totem pole.
Regardless, a two-nation farewell tour would suit the eloquent and often show-stopping Carter, a walking highlight reel even at the tender age of 42.
Should Carter duplicate his recent 562-point season (7.4 PPG), he’d finish with right around 26,000 on the career — a total that would push him past both Alex English and Carmelo Anthony, but fall short of Kevin Garnett’s 20th-place ranking. While ursurping Jason Terry for fifth in three-pointers made is certainly still in play — only 53 behind — Carter has the potential to be jumped by both Jamal Crawford and James Harden in 2019-20.
Of note, Carter is 47th in steals and 78th in assists all-time.
Despite his achievements both above the rim and overseas, Carter’s legacy would take an even grander leap if he rode off into the sunset with a ring of his own.
That much, however, remains to be seen.
Dwight Howard, Washington Wizards
It’s been a bumpy road for the often-maligned center but his impressive resume will put him in position to become a first ballot Hall of Famer. It goes without saying, but Howard does not own the strongest outward-facing reputation amongst fans these days. No matter how you feel about Howard, statistics are unavoidably cold and the once-league-wide fan favorite still ranks him highly. After beginning the year on the injured list, Howard played in just nine games before he require what would eventually become season-ending surgery.
Still, it’s the worst ailment of Howard’s career by a longshot and he’ll be a strong candidate to pick right back up where he left off. Even if Howard averages just eight boards per contest over a 60-game clip for the next five years, he would cruise into the top seven for all-time rebounds. Indeed, that estimate feels slightly unfair, admittedly, as Howard had never tallied less than 10 rebounds per game until this season — again, in only nine opportunities, he put up 9.2 boards — and has only played less than 60 games in two of his other 14 seasons.
Reaching the 15,000-plus rebound plateau would put Howard in elite company and in the conversation with Tim Duncan, Elvin Hayes, Artis Gilmore, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Moses Malone, Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain. Additionally, Howard owns a puncher’s chance of reaching the top ten in blocks to boot, a reflection of a rim-protecting presence that once won him three consecutive Defensive Player of the Year honors.
At just 32 years old, there’s plenty of time left for Howard to cement his place as an all-timer — just don’t expect many teary-eyed goodbyes in visiting arenas.
Chris Paul, Houston Rockets
Last but not least, there’s Chris Paul, ball-wizard aficionado.
Even if his career ended today, Paul would still be considered one of the best point guards of all-time — that sentiment is hardly up for debate. His awards case, if it’s not already overflown, is comprehensive and far-reaching at the same time. Paul has earned All-Star Game honors on nine occasions and was selected for the All-NBA First Team and All-Defensive First Team eight and nine times, respectively. Furthermore, the 6-foot court general has led the NBA in assists during four different seasons, while he outpaced everybody else for steals in six instances.
Basically, when healthy, Paul is a well-oiled machine of the best variety.
Unfortunately, that’s been his Achilles heel as of late and it may just cripple his attempt at snagging the title of best-ever at his position. Paul has played 58 games in back-to-back seasons and he’s already 33 years old — so it’s fair to ask how much longer he’ll play at an elite level. Given that his assists have dropped with the MVP-worthy rise of James Harden, Paul’s odds of catching John Stockton’s nearly-untouchable assists record of 15,806 are next-to-none. But it’s all gravy from here on out for Paul, who will finish his Hall of Fame-worthy career in the same breath as Jason Kidd, Steve Nash, Magic Johnson and Oscar Robertson.
If that wasn’t enough, Paul only needs 392 steals to pass Michael Jordan for third all-time. For a stellar guard that’s finished with under 100 steals in a season just twice, that’s like playing with house money. Whenever Paul does say goodbye — with or without a championship ring on his finger — you can bet that the country will roll out the red carpet to celebrate basketball’s high-level orchestrator.
Ultimately, the loss of Wade and Nowitzki will sting, thanks in part to their strong community ties, statistical achievements and overall cultural influence on the game. Replacing them will be difficult, if not nearly impossible, but there are more than a few worthy candidates to consider. As Carter, Howard and Paul continue to climb the leaderboards alongside James and Durant, the league is clearly in safe and secure hands.
Eventually, however, all great careers must come to a close — for now, let’s just hope there’s a tiny break in Father Time’s unrelenting march toward mortality… ‘cause we’re all out of tears for now.
A New Beginning for Malcolm Brogdon
When he signed with the Indiana Pacers, success wasn’t a guarantee for Malcolm Brogdon. But he bet on himself, taking on a larger role than any he saw in Milwaukee. Drew Maresca breaks down how Brogdon has faired in that decision thus far.
Leaving a franchise on the precipice of greatness is slightly unusual. When faced with the opportunity to leave such a team, some players are torn.
But others want more: an extensive role or greater challenge. While the ultimate goal is to win, that desire for more can push certain players out of their comfort zone and into a situation in which they can prove themselves capable.
That’s Malcolm Brogdon in a nutshell.
On the surface, the decision was likely an easy one. Not only has Brogdon stepped into a vital role, but he was paid handsomely to do so, as he earned a hefty four-year, $85 million raise after making a pittance in his first three seasons. And the fact that the Milwaukee Bucks likely couldn’t have come close to that number, given they re-signed Khris Middleton and must maintain flexibility for a Giannis Antetokounmpo mega-deal in the near future, almost certainly made it even easier for Brogdon.
But, in reality, such drastic change is never easy, no matter how well one is paid. It would have been easy to sit back in Milwaukee, to cling to a role he was familiar with and a team that he knew would be one of the best in the NBA. But Brogdon, instead, chose to bet on himself.
“It was a great situation for me in Milwaukee,” Brogdon recently told Basketball Insiders. “This was simply a better opportunity for me.”
Of course, that “better” opportunity is unfamiliar territory to Brogdon: a new city, a new coach, new teammates and a new system aren’t easy to grasp right away. And yet, Brogdon hasn’t missed a beat. On the contrary, rather, Brogdon has flourished in his short time with Indiana.
It may be just 12 games, but Brogdon, thus far, has averaged career-highs in minutes, points, assists and rebounds per game with 33, 19.2, 8.2 and 4.8, respectively. Milwaukee’s fourth leading scorer a season ago, Brogdon has paced Indiana in the scoring department in 2019-20. If it wasn’t obvious, he’s proven that is capable of that larger role he sought out, and may deserve even more responsibility.
While his scoring has been impressive, Brogdon may be at this best when creating for others. Time and time again, Brogdon has broken down opposing defense and set his teammates up for the easy bucket. While everyone has the occasional slip, Brogdon, more often than not, will make the right play, the play that puts his team in the best chance to win every possession.
In fact, while anyone wants to get their own, it was the opportunity to step into a playmaking role, the chance to create for others on a consistent basis, that made the Pacers such an appealing destination to Brogdon.
“[It was] huge, to come here and play point guard, lead guard,” Brogdon said. “I wanted that role.”
His 8.2 assists per game, compared to just 3.2 a season ago, represent a major step in the progression of Brogdon’s game. The 2018-19 Bucks, as many teams have in recent seasons, employed a point guard-by-committee approach; Brogdon, for the majority of the season, started alongside Eric Bledsoe, giving Milwaukee two competent ball handlers. But, with Antetokounmpo as the team’s primary everything, Brogdon was often held back in what he was able to do.
Indiana has since freed Brogdon from that confinement. And he has responded: as of this writing, Brogdon is fourth in the NBA in assists per game and ninth in total assists.
Not bad for the 36th pick in the 2016 NBA Draft.
The Pacers, as they stand, are still missing a major piece. Their biggest piece, even: Victor Oladipo, a player whose impact could shift not only the team’s makeup, but the Eastern Conference hierarchy as well. What could his return mean for Brogdon and his role, which may have expanded beyond what even he expected in Oladipo’s absence?
To summarize, he isn’t exactly worried. “Our personalities match . . . our styles of play match really well,” Brogdon said. “Vic is an NBA All-Star. He’s going to come back and establish himself and we’ll take it from there.”
While one might worry about Brogdon’s involvement upon Oladipo’s return, there are plenty of teams that similarly employ two talented dynamos: while their rosters differ, the Los Angeles Clippers (Paul George and Kawhi Leonard), the Houston Rockets, (James Harden and Russell Westbrook) and the Portland Trail Blazers (Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum) have found success with a similar makeup.
And, whatever his role may ultimately become, Brogdon should continue to see a greater usage than he did in Milwaukee. Last season, Brogdon averaged 28.6 minutes per game with just the sixth-highest usage rate on the team (20.7 percent), both a result of the Bucks’ depth and the presence of Antetokounmpo.
In contrast, Brogdon has set his aforementioned career-high in minutes played, 33, and has seen a usage rate of 27 percent through the start of the 2019-20 season.
Indiana bought Brogdon in because they know he can be a special player in this league. If the eventual goal is to win, and it always is, the Pacers know they would be best served using Oladipo (once he’s back up to speed, anyway) and Brogdon in a high-usage tandem, rather than one or the other.
So, until Oladipo’s return, Brogdon should continue to serve as their interim team leader. From there, he’ll be poised to step into a role that, while it may not prove as extensive as it is now, is far larger than any he served in Milwaukee.
Can Brogdon and the Pacers push for an NBA title? Or could they even do so before the Bucks? We may never know for certain, but it hasn’t always been about that for Brogdon. Ultimately, Brogdon wanted to prove to everyone that he’s a more-than-capable high-end player. Making the jump from Milwaukee to Indiana, Brogdon bet on himself.
And, so far, it would appear as if his gamble has paid off.
NBA Daily: Sixth Man of the Year Watch — 11/22/2019
Douglas Farmer checks back in on the top second-unit players in the league with another edition of Basketball Insiders’ Sixth Man watch.
Just like any season-long award, health is crucial to remaining in the Sixth Man of the Year conversation. Even a slight ankle injury can halt a campaign, though Serge Ibaka’s inclusion a couple weeks ago was more nominal than anything. Similarly, missing five of the Detroit Pistons’ last eight games returns Derrick Rose to his usual status of spot contributor.
Unlike other season-long awards, though, success can halt a Sixth Man bid. At some point, that may befall a name below, but as long as a certain Charlotte Hornets guard stays out of the starting lineup more often than not, his breakout season will include a chance at this hardware.
Spencer Dinwiddie — Brooklyn Nets
While the Nets have stumbled to a 6-8 start, they are still in the playoff race and figure to improve upon their No. 7 standing as the team coalesces around Kyrie Irving. As Irving’s backup, Dinwiddie’s role may seem minimal, but with Irving currently sidelined by a shoulder injury, that has meant more time for Dinwiddie. He responded with 24, 28 and 20 points in Brooklyn’s last three games, raising his season average to 18.6 points with 5.1 assists per game.
If Irving ends up out longer than expected, and there is no reason to anticipate such, Dinwiddie’s starting role will damage his Sixth Man candidacy. If, however, Irving gets back into action after Dinwiddie has found a rhythm, it should mean more minutes for Dinwiddie the backup, burgeoning these chances.
Dwight Howard — Los Angeles Lakers
Yes, you read that correctly. No. 39, Dwight Howard. His numbers may be only middling — 6.7 points, 7.6 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game — but he has been an undeniable part of the Lakers’ recent success. He has a +6.0 net rating, after all.
Howard’s fit this season will somehow be underrated, partly due to his lack of gross numbers. However, that is evidence of his fit. By accepting a secondary role — and if there was a tier after secondary but before bench, then that would be the role Howard is in — he has allowed the Lakers to hum along, easing Anthony Davis’ load when possible and giving Davis the spotlight when needed. Without Howard, the wear on Davis may simply be too much, especially given his lengthy injury history.
The Sixth Man of the Year is almost always a microwave scorer known for boosting his team’s offense (hey Ben Gordon, Eric Gordon, Jamal Crawford, Lou Williams), but Howard’s contribution betters the Lakers just as much, if not more.
Lou Williams — Los Angeles Clippers
Lou Williams sees this space’s concerns about his inefficient early-season shooting, and he laughs. Those were his closing minutes that helped power the Clippers to a three-point win against the Boston Celtics on Wednesday, finishing 10-of-21 for 27 points. That was his 31-point, 9-assist night at New Orleans that almost carried Los Angeles to a shorthanded victory on Nov. 14. In the next game, he merely went 15-of-15 at the free-throw line to get to 25 points.
Along the way, Williams’ effective field goal percentage rose to 46.5 percent and his shooting percentage climbed to 42.1, right in line with his career figure. It may have taken Williams a few weeks to find his groove, but the three-time winner of this award is now averaging 22.5 points and 5.7 assists per game and should be considered a threat to win his fourth, barring injury.
Devonte’ Graham — Charlotte Hornets
At some point, the Hornets may have to admit they made a $57 million mistake in signing Terry Rozier to helm their offense. His 16.5 points and 4.5 assists per game are not paltry, but they pale in comparison to Graham’s 18.2 and 6.9. When it comes to shooting percentages, the argument skews even further in Graham’s direction.
Admitting that mistake will obviously be difficult; it could lead to three years of regret. Instead of moving Rozier to the second unit, Charlotte benched third-year guard Dwayne Bacon. Plugging Graham in for him has raised Graham’s average to 18.8 points. In the two games before the promotion from the bench, Graham dished out 10 assists in each, doing so again in this second game as a starter.
Graham has now started 5 of 15 games. If he remains a starter for the next five, he will be removed from these considerations. The second-year guard’s breakout may deprive him of hardware.
Montrezl Harrell — Los Angeles Clippers
Harrell is not matching his aforementioned teammate’s scoring, but otherwise the big forward is the clear class of the Clippers’ stellar bench. Harrell averages 18.1 points, 7.3 rebounds and 1.3 blocks per game while shooting 59.2 percent. Los Angeles could want little more from its high-energy big man in small lineups.
This is a distinct continuation of Harrell’s long-term growth. His points, rebounds and blocks per game numbers have ticked up every year of his five-year career, and his per-36 averages have tracked closely to linear progression. Thus, there should be every presumption Harrell will keep this up all season. Doing so on a title contender should land Harrell the Sixth Man of the Year.
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.
As of this writing, James Harden is averaging 38.4 points per game.
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:
(1988) Jordan breaks out a wrap around dribble to his same hand and the commentators go crazy.
"I can't explain what he just did." pic.twitter.com/iv2KSTKLRK
— Timeless Sports (@timelesssports_) August 14, 2019
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.