James Harden is out of his mind right now. To start the 2019-20 NBA season, Harden is averaging a league-leading 38.9 points per game for the 13-6 Houston Rockets. The wild thing about this — outside of the fact that it would be the third-best points per game output in league history if he kept it up — is that he’s been an efficiency monster up to this point, averaging the second-highest true shooting and effective field goal percentages of his career. He also leads the NBA in usage rate.
Basically, the Rockets are giving James Harden the basketball and telling him to do something, which is not a new thing for them. Still, he’s better at doing this than he’s ever been in a Houston jersey, which has led to both the team and player thriving. His most recent gigantic outing came on Saturday, when he dropped 60 points in 31 minutes and sat the entire fourth quarter in a blowout win over the Atlanta Hawks.
Next up for Harden is a matchup with the porous defense of the San Antonio Spurs on Tuesday night. Before the game, Spurs guard DeMar DeRozan heaped some serious praise on the former league MVP.
“I’m pretty sure if he (Harden) put his mind to it, he could score 100,” DeRozan said, according to Jeff McDonald of the San Antonio Express-News.
There has, of course, been one person who has reached the 100-point mark in a basketball game. Back on March 2, 1962, Wilt Chamberlain’s Philadelphia Warriors beat the New York Knicks, 169-147. Chamberlain played all 48 minutes and achieved basketball’s holy grail, scoring exactly 100 points on 36-for-63 shooting from the field and 28-for-32 shooting from the charity stripe. He also did some serious work on the glass, hauling in 25 rebounds.
There are obvious, major differences between how the game was played then and how it’s played now. Harden has the benefit of the three-point line, while the game was ultra-friendly to big men during Chamberlain’s era, especially one as physically dominant as himself. He mixed length, athleticism, and skill in such a way that no one could check him — the season he scored 100 in a game, Chamberlain averaged 50.4 points and 25.7 rebounds a night.
Harden is not going to match those numbers over the course of an entire season because no one is ever going to do that again. But for one night, the thought of him matching Chamberlain, while remarkably difficult, is not impossible.
No basketball player, save for Career Finale Kobe Bryant, has been afforded a greener light this decade than Harden. Between how he plays and his ability to find open teammates, the Rockets are happy to let him do basically whatever he wants, because him doing stuff more often than not leads to points. He plays the game in a very formulaic way — threes + shots at rim + free throws = efficient scoring — which is both why people can hate watching him and why he is capable of putting up breathtaking numbers on a nightly basis.
There is no number more breathtaking, however, than 100 points in one basketball game. Based on his averages for this season (with a little bit of rounding up), here’s the sort of game Harden would need to reach that mark:
Two-pointers (57.3 percent on the year): 23-for-40, 46 points
Three-pointers (35.5 percent): 9-for-26, 27 points
Free throws (86.5 percent): 27-for-31, 27 points
Now, you are going to look at all of that and say something to the extent of, “My god, that’s next to impossible.” And you’re mostly correct. Harden’s personal record for twos and threes attempted in a game is 23, while his record for free throws attempted in a game is 27. In the above allocation of shots, Harden would have one fewer free throw than Chamberlain did when he dropped 100, while his 66 shot attempts (which blows out his personal best of 41) would top Chamberlain’s 63. Basically, it is probably safe to say that if he were to get to that mark, two things would need to happen:
1. His teammates would be cool with him letting it fly, particularly against a bad defense, and…
2. He’d have to be a bit more efficient from the field.
The good news, though, is we’ve seen what Harden can do on the days where he’s especially locked in. Most notably, it usually involves him hitting far more than 35.5 percent of his threes, with an excellent example of this coming in his 60-point outing against the Hawks. Harden went 8-for-14 (57.1 percent) from deep, and he’d need that sort of outing over an entire game if he were to hit 100.
As previously mentioned, he played 31 minutes in that game, sitting out the entire fourth quarter while Houston picked up a win. But what if he took the floor for the entire fourth quarter? In addition to that mark from deep, Harden shot 8-for-10 from two and 20-for-23 on free throws. So let’s play with the numbers a bit — projecting what it’d look like if he kept up these averages in 43 minutes — and see what would have happened if he kept up that pace for another 12 minutes.
Two-pointers: 11-for-14, 22 points
Three-pointers: 11-for-19, 33 points
Free throws: 28-for-32, 28 points
That puts him at 83 points, which tops Bryant’s record for points in a game by a guard but doesn’t quite put him in Chamberlain territory. If he just stayed on the floor all game and put these percentages up, well…
Two-pointers: 12-for-15, 24 points
Three-pointers: 13-for-22, 39 points
Free throws: 30-for-35, 30 points
Still a little short, as he’d be at 93 points. This also doesn’t consider that part of what makes Harden so good is his ability to distribute, making it so opponents have to respect his teammates and giving him the 1-on-1 situations where he’s so lethal. On top of that, as we saw in the decade’s highest-scoring performance — Devin Booker dropping 70 on the Boston Celtics — opponents start getting really mad at someone scoring that much and throw everything they have at him to slow him down.
All of this is to say that while Harden is the kind of lethal scorer who can boatloads of buckets, he’d still need some good fortune to get in the ballpark of a 100-point game. The mix of a bad defensive team, him really being on his game, and never really leaving the floor is the formula. It requires everything going right, basically, but if there’s a perfect mix of a player who can maybe do this and a team who would give him the green light to go for triple-digits, it’s Harden and these Rockets.