James Harden does not wake up on the mornings of playoff games and decide to suck that night. No player as good as Harden – arguably a top 30 player of all-time already – should have such a large gap in his success between the regular season and postseason.
It has nothing to do with how skilled a player is. It’s all about how they respond mentally to the pressure, the potential presence of a hostile crowd, and the elevated competition. We’re lying to ourselves if we don’t see lesser performances from Harden in the playoffs every year, but what if none of it was actually his fault?
No player in NBA history has had a greater workload during the regular season and gotten farther in the playoffs than Harden did during 2018-19 season based on usage rate and playoff games played. The Rockets guard finished with a usage rate of 40.47 percent, the second-highest number of all-time. That year, the Rockets played 11 games in the postseason. The same goes for the 2017-18 season as well. Harden’s 36.07 percent usage rate ranked 13th all-time, and Houston played in 17 playoff games. None of the 12 players ranked above Harden played in more.
The year before that, in 2016-17, only four players in NBA history got farther in the playoffs than Harden did with a highest usage percentage (34.24 percent and 11 playoff games played): Allen Iverson in 2001-02, Carmelo Anthony in 2012-13, Dominique Wilkins in 1987-88 and Michael Jordan in 1992-93.
“Workload” is subjective and there’s not much we can do with that. Usage rate is the best statistic we have to help quantify that. At the same time, it’s worth acknowledging that there has perhaps been no greater carry-job than LeBron James willing the Cavaliers along in the 2015 NBA Finals or getting them to the 2007 NBA Finals. Those were, however, shortened sprints with lesser game totals – the maximum amount of games a team can play in the playoffs is 28. Harden’s statistics are spread across an 82 game season. It’s easier for statistics to be less accurate with a lower sample size.
But Harden is playing the game differently than anyone else in basketball history. The former MVP has been the conductor of an offense that hasn’t only led the league in average three point attempts per game over the past four years (including this 2019-20 regular season that has yet to be completed), but for three of the past four has put up the highest number ever in that statistic. Harden also has the record for most three point attempts in a season with 1,028 in 2017-18, which was a historic season in its own right as mentioned above.
Threes are easier yet harder shots both at the same time. They’re easy because they can be jacked up with little risk – rebounds bounce out faster and farther than any other shot, giving the offense a better chance of retrieving it. That also comes with high reward: a 50 percent increase in total value over that of a two point field goal if either are made.
But threes secretly take their toll in ways that statistics and even the eye test can’t communicate: arm fatigue. Shooting from beyond the arc requires a lot more mustard on the ball than any other shot on the court. While it does build strength, it can also wear you down, just like a pitcher’s arm does late in the MLB playoffs.
If this is Harden’s problem, then why haven’t shooters like Stephen Curry experienced the same thing? Well, even though the total number of three pointers attempted is quite close (Harden’s career 3PAs is 6,320 while Curry’s is 5,739 – keep in mind Curry has missed almost all of this 2019-20 season and dealt with injuries early in his career, which makes up the large gap numerically), there is a difference: you won’t find Curry’s name anywhere close to Harden’s on the all-time usage rate chart. The system Curry’s played in since he emerged as a superstar doesn’t rely on his volume of shots. It relies on his gravity and the team’s ball movement instead. Meanwhile, Houston is isolating every possession and then putting up threes – a much tougher task for Harden and its other players which builds fatigue and tires quicker.
In addition, Harden has four of the top 52 seasons ever in free throw attempts, and in 2016-17 attempted 881 shots from the line, good for 24th all-time (which is tied with Oscar Robertson 1965-66) in a single season. Even more impressive, Harden’s 2016-17 season at the free throw line is just one of three seasons since 2000 that rank in the top 25. He’s the second person this past decade behind Dwight Howard in 2010-2011 to attempt that many as well.
You can say that Harden leans into defenders and doesn’t draw his fouls the right way – those criticisms are fair and they rightfully draw frustration from players, coaches and fans alike. But he still takes a beating (He’s fouled consistently driving to the rim too), and you don’t luck into potentially 20 free throws a game by cheating the refs every single call.
Harden and the Rockets were likely on yet another path to postseason letdown this year. Harden’s usage percentage before the suspension of the season was 10th all-time at 36.41 percent, and the should-be third place finisher in MVP voting was scoring a ridiculous 34.4 points per game this year. Meltdown was likely on the horizon again, especially with the road to the Western Conference Finals clogged by the Lakers and Clippers – it would have been stunning – and maybe still will be– to see one of those teams not play for a trip to the Finals.
But in a way, the suspension of the NBA season couldn’t have benefitted Houston more. Even with Eric Gordon’s ankle injury that will cost him two weeks (Which is essentially the length of the eight seeding games prior to the playoffs), the Rockets might be the scariest team in basketball right now. Harden’s had almost five months off – the length of an entire normal offseason. If his playoff meltdowns are caused by the heavy usage and insane numbers he puts up during the regular season rather than pure choking, then the NBA is about to experience a Harden they’ve never seen before come playoff time. With Clint Capela gone and Russell Westbrook fully unleashed, Houston can outscore anyone even though their center is a 6-foot-7 wing. The ungodly amount of shots that Harden misses in the playoffs will go in at a much higher rate. Cold shooting nights will truly be cold shooting nights – they won’t happen every other game like they have previously.
The Lakers are likely Houston’s biggest problem. They’ve had success with an old-school approach – one that not even the biggest supporters of analytics and small-ball can detest because Anthony Davis is one of the most gifted and unique talents we’ve ever seen on a basketball court. P.J. Tucker has been pretty effective at center, and Houston should be able to get away with it given their offense. The Lakers are likely the exception to that. Davis is so big and skilled he could legitimately score every time he gets the ball. The Lakers continuously feeding him would be easy buckets, and help them keep pace on a good shooting night from Houston. A bad shooting night – even with a Harden that’s not in the middle of a postseason letdown – would be devastating for the Rockets.
Perhaps Houston could stand more of a chance against the Lakers if they varied their offensive approach. Constant isolations resulting in pull-up threes can lead to bad things quickly if the shots aren’t going in. Westbrook driving – and likely not kicking – is the closest thing to ball movement that they have. Getting better shots increases the likelihood of shots going in. It would also make a Lakers defense – down one of their key defenders – work a bit harder and cover the whole floor.
Houston has seen this work before. The strategy has been staring them in the face for years. It – not Harden – is what’s led to the underwhelming losses of the past, and now is their chance to fix it.