The last time we saw Portland Trail Blazers shooting guard C.J. McCollum, he was lighting up the Memphis Grizzlies in the postseason.
In the final three games of that Blazers-Grizzlies series, he scored 77 points (despite coming off of the bench in two of those three contests). The 23-year-old was remarkably efficient as well, shooting 60.9 percent from the field and 64.7 percent from three-point range.
Entering his third NBA season, McCollum is hoping to pick up right where he left off in the playoffs and he’ll have every opportunity to do so on the new-look Blazers.
After losing veterans LaMarcus Aldridge, Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum, Robin Lopez and Arron Afflalo this summer, McCollum is poised to take on a much larger role for Portland. Since being the 10th overall pick in the 2013 NBA Draft, McCollum has averaged just 14.5 minutes and started only four of his 111 games because the Blazers were a veteran-laden contender.
Now, Portland needs someone to emerge as their new second-leading scorer behind All-Star point guard Damian Lillard. McCollum seems like best option, and he insists that he’s 100 percent ready to step into that role.
“I’m going to have ample opportunities and I plan on taking full advantage,” McCollum told Basketball Insiders. “I’ve been preparing for this moment for a long time, even when I wasn’t playing a lot or when I was out of the rotation. In the back of my mind, I always knew that there was going to come a time when I was going to get my chance to play and have an extended role. So I think I’m definitely ready. I definitely feel like I’m in a position now where, mentally and physically, I’m ready to handle whatever responsibilities they thrust upon me.
“I definitely relish the opportunity. This is when you prove yourself. This is when you prove why you were drafted where you were drafted. This is when you justify the organization’s decision to pick you and make them say, ‘This is why we drafted this kid; we always knew this was going to happen.’ That’s what I want them to be able to say when it’s all said and done.”
If the huge strides he made at the end of last season are any indication, he’s ready to thrive in the Blazers’ backcourt. After putting up strong numbers in the final month of the regular season and then having that scoring outburst against a very good Memphis defense, McCollum is feeling very good entering this season.
“My confidence level is definitely very high,” McCollum said. “Even if I had struggled throughout the playoff series, I would have been fine because I know the type of work I put in and I think confidence comes from preparation. It comes from just continuing to be prepared. But, yes, when you see yourself have some individual success, that definitely gives you a boost of confidence. Mentally, I’m ready. Physically, my game is there. I’m just continuing to learn and continuing to try to learn from last season. Obviously I finished the year strong, but it is a new year now so I kind of need to move on while taking things away from it, seeing what things I was able to do well and trying to duplicate that and then working on some things I wasn’t able to do so well.”
Keep in mind, this wouldn’t be McCollum’s first time as a major offensive contributor. During his four seasons at Lehigh University, McCollum was the team’s go-to scorer. In fact, he was one of the top offensive players in the country. He averaged 19.1 points as a freshman, 21.8 points as a sophomore, 21.9 points as a junior and 23.9 points as a senior. He believes that experience as Lehigh’s focal point prepared him to play an increased role in the NBA, as he’ll do in Portland this year.
“I think it helps mentally because I know what it’s like to be the focal point of an offense,” McCollum said. “I know what it’s like to initiate an offense and I know what it’s like to be keyed in on [by defenses] every night. Obviously the stakes are raised because it is the NBA; there’s advanced scouting, there’s more focus on breaking things down and there’s better players and better technology. But I think from a mental standpoint, you definitely understand the seriousness of it, such as how in shape you have to be to carry that load. I think from that standpoint, I’m definitely ready.”
As he prepares for his potential breakout year, McCollum has been working extremely hard this summer. He has spent most of the offseason training in Portland, but he has also made stops in California to work out at Peak Performance Project (P3) as well as Toronto to work out with two-time Most Valuable Player Steve Nash.
“This offseason, I have been working on everything,” McCollum said. “Starting off each day, we do morning lifts. Usually we’re there at 8 a.m. or 9 a.m. depending on the day. We lift in the morning and then we go through a series of function movements, dynamic movements, where we focus on core and back. I’ve been doing a lot of leg lifts this summer to strengthen my lower half to make sure I can finish games, be able to maneuver through pick and rolls and withstand the rigors of carrying a heavier load. Then, we get on the court and go through a series of shooting drills – it’s a lot of catch-and-shoot, a lot of shooting off the move, a lot of working on shooting out of sets that I’ll be involved in. Then, we move onto pick-and-roll stuff, ball-handling drills, a lot of passing, working on just getting different shots in different areas, floaters and things like that. I’ve really been working on everything. I’ve even been incorporating some yoga here and there and just trying to take complete advantage of my [offseason] time. It has been very productive and I’ve prepared – mentally and physically – for the season.”
Working out with Nash in Toronto was special for McCollum, since the legendary point guard is someone he watched a lot as he was growing up. Nash is nearing a deal to be a part-time player development consultant with the Golden State Warriors, but McCollum is hoping they can continue to work together going forward because he enjoyed the experience and learned a lot.
“It was a lot of fun learning from him and seeing his approach to the game and having the chance to actually have him physically work me out and push me through some different drills,” McCollum said of Nash. “He showed me some different techniques and [I was able] to just get a better understanding of how he sees the game. One of the biggest things for me was just getting an understanding of his thought process on shooting versus passing. I also got to understand how he reads pick and rolls, and how crucial it is to execute late-shot-clock and late-game situations, especially in the playoffs. It was a very good experience for me and one that I will cherish. I will continue to try and build a relationship with him throughout the future. Although I’ve heard he may be working for the Warriors soon, hopefully he can still spend a little bit of time with me during the summer.”
In addition to his training, McCollum has been watching a ton of film this offseason. Sometimes, the difference between being good or great in the NBA comes down to a player’s attention to detail and how much time they devote to learning new things and improving their craft. McCollum knows this, which is why he’s borderline obsessed with studying film.
“I’ve been doing a lot of film study, watching Synergy Sports,” McCollum said. “I’ve been breaking down my shot, my pick and rolls, Dame’s pick and rolls, a lot of players’ shots across the league. Just yesterday, I got film of some of the better two-guards who are great at moving without the ball and are accustomed to doing that. Then, I recently got film of guys who guard the pick and roll well. I’m just looking at different stuff: transitions, finishes, floaters in the lane, some of the best guys at the pick and roll in the NBA and just watching them on Synergy on my iPad. Our staff does a great job of breaking down stuff for us, and our video coordinator is always on the spot. Whenever we need anything, he gets it done.
“I watch a lot. As soon as the season ends, I just text my video coordinator and list the things I want, list the guys that I want on and off the ball, list the possessions from previous games and then he gets it back to me and I just have it all summer. Then, when I’m done watching it, he just reloads it and gives me different stuff like ways I could score in our sets. I just watch to try to get a better understanding of everything. I watch film all the time when I fly, because I always have my iPad with me when I’m flying. I watch when I have my NormaTec [recovery equipment] on, which I wear for an hour several times a week. If I can’t sleep at night, I’ll just grab the iPad and start going through stuff, whether it be my shot, Dame’s shot, Wesley’s shot. Or I would just watch post-ups to see how I can relocate off the ball, but now that we don’t have LaMarcus it’ll be a little different. Basically, whenever I’m bored or whenever I have the urge, I just watch film because my iPad is always in my possession.”
When asked which specific players he has been watching, McCollum revealed a very diverse group of individuals he has been studying lately.
“I study everybody,” McCollum said. “I study guys who don’t dribble a lot and are efficient at getting their shot off, like Kyle Korver. Obviously, you want to try to take the least amount of dribbles as possible because that’s how you become more efficient. I also study guys like James Harden, who’s the primary ball handler in Houston but also can play off the ball. I study Klay Thompson because he does a little bit of both, playing on and off the ball. I watch Steph Curry, a guy who handles the ball a lot. I watch Dame. I watch Wesley Matthews. I watch Eric Bledsoe. I watch Goran Dragic. I watch Chris Paul. I watch Mike Conley. I watch Isaiah Thomas from the Celtics because he’s really good with pick and rolls and he’s a guy who can score in bunches and distribute. I watch a lot of Tony Allen, a lot of guys who are good at defending pick and rolls. I watch those guys and just try to go through Synergy to see where guys are ranked and just see how I can improve and what kind of tricks I could learn from each player. So I don’t just watch guys who handle the ball, I also watch guys who move without the ball or who thrive in transition or who defend well because I’m always trying to add different stuff to my game.”
This season, McCollum will likely spend time playing alongside his close friend Lillard. The two players have been friends since they were in college and now it’s very possible they’ll be Portland’s top two scorers this season. McCollum is expecting Lillard to have a huge year now that he’ll be the Blazers’ focal point.
“I just expect him to continue to do a lot of the things he has done in the past: being a good leader, orchestrating the offense, being aggressive like he has been and just being a killer,” McCollum said of Lillard. “I always joke with him and tell him this is just like when he was at Weber State only he’s got more help. He’s going to take on the bulk load of attention from an in-game standpoint and a media standpoint so a lot of pressure is going to be on him, but I think he’s ready for it. Offensively, he has all the tools to be an All-Star again and I think where he will make strides this year is defensively – just continuing to understand the importance of defense and the importance of guarding pick and rolls. I think it starts with him and it finishes with the rest of us because we follow his lead. I look forward to the opportunity to play alongside him and I think he’ll have a tremendous year. He’s ready. He looks like he’s in great shape, his jumper looks good, he looks sharp and I think he’s focused. Everyone’s on a mission to prove something this year; they just want to show they can play at a high level year in and year out.”
This was a tough summer for the Blazers since they lost so many key players, but fans’ frustration will turn to optimism if the team’s young core can play at a high level.
“I’m really excited,” McCollum said. “Obviously this is a big change our team is going through, with the influx of new young talent and the loss of a lot of starters. We lost a lot of people who kind of changed the franchise – with LaMarcus having been here nine years, Wes and Nico each having a great career here and RoLo, even in his short time here, being very successful. So it’ll be different, but I’m glad the opportunity is available [for me] and as a young player, that’s what you look forward to. You look forward to the opportunity where you get to prove yourself, get a chance to play more minutes and get to play through mistakes. I think I’ve earned the right to do a lot of that stuff, and now I’m in a position where I’m on a young team and where I’m moving up the ranks and where I get to prove myself. I think this is a very unique opportunity for our team and for a lot of young players to prove themselves and to take advantage of opportunities they may not have been given in the past. And I’m not just talking about myself; we have a lot of guys who have been on teams where their role was reduced and now their role will continue to grow.
“It’s nice to have a lot of fresh, new faces around. [On last year’s team] we all got along because we lived similar lifestyles – not being married and focusing a lot of our energy and attention to the game. I think it’ll be the same with this influx of 23-to-27-year-olds. All of the guys are focused on basketball, focused on trying to get better and focused on proving themselves. The only difference is a lot of the guys on this year’s team are in a position where their back is against the wall and they need to prove themselves, whereas some of the veterans we had before had already established and proven themselves in the league and racked up accolades. Now, we’re on the opposite side of the spectrum just trying to prove ourselves and enjoy our time in the NBA and establish our reputation.”
McCollum was surprised to see so many of the team’s veterans leave this summer, but he tried to just focus on the things that he could control. Now that he has seen all of the team’s moves and knows the front office’s long-term plan, he’s very confident that the organization is moving in a positive direction.
“I mean, I found out probably the same way a lot of you guys did,” McCollum said of the free agent departures. “I think my agent gave me a call and informed me some of the stuff that was going on, some of the stuff that had happened early on free agency before the draft. But just as a player though, you don’t really worry about that stuff. You’re focusing on your job. What you prepare for each day is just trying to get better. Whether they bring in players or trade players or keep players, you just need to be ready to perform. That’s kind of how I approached it, knowing it is a business and that anything can happen. But I trust the organization. They are doing a great job of putting a plan together and I think we’re going to execute it to perfection. Now, it’s just about us performing and backing up what they’ve done.”
With so many veterans leaving and young players arriving, many people are projecting Portland to freefall down the Western Conference standings. While it’s very likely that the team won’t match last year’s 51 wins, McCollum is ignoring the doubters who say a trip to the lottery is inevitable. He believes a playoff berth is possible if the team jells and things fall into place.
“I don’t really worry about what people write or say,” McCollum said. “People obviously have a right to their own opinion, but I don’t read too much into it [when people say we’ll miss the playoffs]. I’m just really focused on individually having a better year, staying ready and continuing to help my team. I definitely think there is a reason why you play the games. There’s a reason why the schedule is made. The NBA Finals aren’t decided in September, so it’s just more about continuing to get acclimated with our teammates and control what we can control, which is to go out and play hard every night and put ourselves in the best position to succeed. We have a new team in place, a lot of new pieces, and we just have to continue to get used to each other offensively and defensively. But there’s a reason why the games have to be played, and I think everybody is looking forward to the challenge.”
In order for the Blazers to have any chance of shocking the basketball world and exceeding expectations, they’ll certainly need their young shooting guard to step up. After a summer that featured rigorous training and countless hours of film study, McCollum is prepared to do his part.
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.