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Which Teams Need to Upgrade Their Rotation?

Which teams are being dragged down by dead weight? Nate Duncan examines some teams that need a change.

Nate Duncan

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When evaluating the prospects of NBA teams, the focus is so often on their top-end talent. Rightly so, considering the impossibility of winning without it. But another often overlooked variable is the number of actively bad players getting rotation minutes.

With the rise of plus/minus based metrics, we can see more than ever the impact of subpar players on good teams’ bottom lines. For squads with rotational black holes like these, the addition of even a competent NBA rotation player can have an enormous stabilizing effect.

Keep in mind that you won’t see a team like, say, Cleveland on this list. They really need a starting big who can protect the rim, and that’s a much bigger piece than we are talking about here. The idea here is teams that could make a minor deal and improve by adding a competent cog to keep replacement-level players out of the lineup.

Chicago Bulls Wing

Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau has taken his share of heat for extending his players for too many regular season minutes. The last two years’ poster child for the Thibs meat grinder is Jimmy Butler, who leads the league in minutes per game at 40.1 and routinely logs 43 minutes or more in the course of playing entire second halves. The criticisms of Butler’s minutes have merit, both in the short-term (he can look exhausted in the fourth quarter) and the long-term, as he may get worn down by the end of the season.*

*It should be noted that no study that I am aware of in the public domain has truly shown that players’ performance declines with more minutes. The theory makes intuitive sense, and it may well be true, but we should be wary of treating it as gospel until it is actually proven.

However, Thibodeau would feel much better about sitting Butler if the Bulls could find a competent third wing. Tony Snell has failed in that role and is now all but out of the rotation after failing to score a point in December. Kirk Hinrich is a player beloved by his coaches, and the little things he does like ball denials, defensive execution and running the offense have value. However, his 47.8 True Shooting Percentage and 35 percent field goal shooting on twos have a lot more negative value. He is barely a rotation player at this point, especially not at shooting guard where his inability to create leads to precious time bleeding off the shot clock whenever he receives the ball in the clutch. The Bulls have taken to playing E’Twaun Moore in Hinrich’s absence with a hamstring injury, and while he is a bit more confident creating off the dribble, his numbers overall are as ugly as Hinrich’s.

Miami HEAT Big

Despite the fact it did not impress LeBron James, the signing of Josh McRoberts in the offseason was an excellent value since they landed him on a four-year contract worth $22.6 million. And when McRoberts has played, he has been exactly what the HEAT need. Sadly for Miami, he effectively missed the first couple weeks with toe issues and is now out for the season after a meniscus repair. That leaves the big rotation behind Chris Bosh as Shawne Williams, Udonis Haslem, Chris Andersen, Hassan Whiteside and Justin Hamilton. Andersen is effective, but can only reliably play about 20 minutes per game at age 36. Haslem still executes on D, but can’t protect the rim and Miami couldn’t score with him on the floor even when it had James. Williams has a surprising 61.1 True Shooting Percentage, but the HEAT can’t really hope to stop anyone with both he and Bosh on the floor. Whiteside is unproven, while Hamilton has proven himself as more of an end-of-the-bench quality player. If Miami is to maintain a playoff spot, it will need a better performance out of the non-Bosh bigs, especially on defense.

Clippers Backup Point Guard

Oh, you thought it was going to be a wing? Yes, they absolutely could use another one. Maybe they can trade another first-round pick to get back Jared Dudley, who has been excellent as a bench wing and small-ball four for Milwaukee. Snark aside, it must be noted that Los Angeles’ righting of the ship after an early-season swoon has coincided with the revival of Matt Barnes, who now has a 59.9 True Shooting Percentage while taking 56 percent of his shots from downtown.*

*It’s amazing how much a good or bad few weeks at the start of the season can skew our perception of players. So often we assume when a player starts a season hot or cold that the intervening offseason has caused this “new” level of performance. So it was with Barnes, who started the year cold and torpedoed the Clips’ offense as teams helped off him with impunity. That has not been the case since the first few weeks of the year.

Instead, the bigger problem has been backup point guard. While Doc Rivers surely hopes to reduce 29-year-old Chris Paul’s minutes, the Clippers have been outscored by 8.2 points per 100 possessions with him off the floor. Jordan Farmar, who was signed to replace Darren Collison with the Bi-Annual Exception, has been a disappointment. While he has made standstill threes at a decent rate, he has been completely unable to create for others. Overall, he has managed a mere 8.4 PER. Farmar has missed significant time with hamstring issues that have plagued him much of his career, and is a good bet to miss more time this year given his history. Behind him, unproven Jared Cunningham has a 5.6 PER and 42.0 True Shooting Percentage in limited minutes. He has not shown he is much of a distributor even if he can get his own offense going.

With the Clippers precariously near the apron, few expendable trade assets on the roster and major problems trading future first-rounders (they already owe one to the Celtics for Doc Rivers and one to the Bucks for dumping Dudley over the summer), they may just have to hope Farmar returns to the form he flashed last year for the Lakers.

Mavs Backup Big

The Mavericks’ loss of Brandan Wright in the Rajon Rondo deal was a major one. Sans Wright, the Mavs are relying on Greg Smith and Charlie Villanueva behind Dirk Nowitzki and Tyson Chandler. Dallas has been totally unable to score with Smith on the floor. His floor-bound game as a beefy, undersized center has not provided the same threat as Wright’s alley-oop finishing for the second unit. All told, the Mavs have been outscored by 4.3 points/100 in his court time, which is telling for a team with a positive 7.3 net rating. Villanueva has shot well, but provides little resistance on defense even at his natural power forward slot.

Incidentally, for those who have blamed Rondo for the Mavs’ perceived poor performance since the trade, note that the Mavs are outscoring teams by 10.7 points/100 with him on the court. The loss of Wright has hurt, but that isn’t Rondo’s fault. While the tables may turn, to this point it’s hard to say the team is performing poorly because of Rondo. Dallas has been linked to some free agent centers, such as Jermaine O’Neal, who may be able to help.

New Orleans Pelicans Smalls

Pelicans smalls might be the worst position group in the entire league among potential playoff contenders. Check out this list of luminaries: John Salmons, Luke Babbitt, Jimmer Fredette, Dante Cunningham and Austin Rivers. The Pelicans are now playing Cunningham the most of that group at the three; although he is a natural power forward, he is still better on the wing than the rest. Even if Eric Gordon comes back in relatively short order, there will still be a massive need on the wing and at backup point guard.

Like the Clippers, New Orleans has few tradeable assets after trading away what will likely be three consecutive first-rounders (two for Jrue Holiday and one for Omer Asik). With wings in short supply around the league, they likely do not have the assets to pick up a starter-level player at the three. But with the Knicks’ season continuing its descent into the maelstrom, Jose Calderon might be available as Phil Jackson turns to using his 2015 cap space and (potentially) maximizing his 2015 draft pick. Calderon would be a great fit for the Pelicans as a competent backup point guard who shoots the lights out and can pass (a skill in short supply in New Orleans). Calderon can also play with Jrue Holiday, who would guard twos and help alleviate the lack of decent wings. The downside of Calderon is his contract, which runs for another two seasons after this one at an average of $7.5 million per year. However, New Orleans has little chance of cap space in those years and his deal would not be immovable if needed as it nears its conclusion.

Would the Knicks be willing to offload Calderon for, say, a second-round pick, Rivers, Salmons and any other flotsam totaling only the minimum 66.7 percent of Calderon’s salary (and whomever else New York might want to trade), reducing their luxury tax bill in the process? It is difficult to imagine another team topping that offer, since Calderon’s contract and age probably make him a slightly negative asset. But for a front office under pressure with little way to improve, taking on Calderon makes sense.

Teams can sign free agents until the end of the regular season and make trades until the deadline on Feb. 19.

Nate Duncan is an NBA analyst and attorney. He writes regular features for Basketball Insiders and chats weekly at 11 Eastern on Tuesdays.

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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.

Drew Maresca

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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.

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NBA

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.

Douglas Farmer

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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.

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NBA

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.

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