James Harden is having one of the greatest individual offensive seasons in NBA history, as he’s been forced to totally take over for the Rockets due to various injuries to the likes of Chris Paul, Eric Gordon, and most recently Clint Capela.
The reigning MVP is looking to become the latest back-to-back MVP in the NBA, and has taken the lead with oddsmakers thanks to his ridiculous play over the last month. Harden is averaging 34.8 points per game, more than five more on a nightly basis than Steph Curry and Anthony Davis, to go along with 8.6 assists and 6.3 rebounds each night. His 39.9 percent usage rate is the highest in the league, as he’s being asked to do just about everything in Houston.
What’s amazing is that he’s doing everything and doing it efficiently, shooting 43.7 percent from the field, 38.7 percent from three-point range, and 86.3 percent from the free throw line, where he takes more than 11 per game. However, there is the concern of whether Harden having to do this much is going to end poorly for the Rockets in the postseason. Prior to the 2018 playoffs, we had seen Harden, serving in a similar role to carry the Rockets all regular season, flame out in the playoffs as he looked clearly exhausted by the time April and May rolled around.
Chris Herring of FiveThirtyEight took a deep dive into exactly how much Harden is doing and found some stunning stats to show just how much effort he’s having to put into this regular season to keep the Rockets afloat. The whole piece is a fascinating look at the individual exploits of Harden, along with some damning stats about players with his usage in the postseason, but the thing that stands out most is this nugget about how Harden has run more isolation plays than any other NBA team as a whole.
But Harden’s craziest offensive number, and perhaps the one that’s most concerning, is his 691 direct isolation plays (a 1-on-1 play that ends with a shot, turnover or foul).2 That’s more than any other NBA team has had so far this season. Once more for emphasis: According to stat-tracking database Second Spectrum, Harden all by himself has gone 1-on-1 more than any team’s full roster, combined, has.
Now, in the pace and space era of NBA basketball, ball movement is the name of the game and teams tend to avoid isolation ball, but for one player to have more isolation sets than any other team is still eye-popping. The Rockets ran more isolation than anyone a year ago, taking advantage of having Harden and Paul, two of the best iso players in the league, but this year without CP3, Harden has had to take that to an even greater level.
The question for the Rockets as they reach the stretch run is whether they will have been able to build up enough of a lead in the playoff race to give Harden some much needed rest towards the end of the season. Right now, that’s not the case as they’re only two games up on the ninth place team, despite being in fourth. The West is a stacked race and figures to be that way all season, but Houston’s going to need to find ways to get Harden breaks.
They’ll hope that when Paul is able to return he can take on a bigger load and help Harden play fewer minutes while still picking up wins, and once Capela returns next month they might be able to buy Harden a game or two of rest. Still, he’s going to have put in a ton of work to get the Rockets to the playoffs and if he’s able to push them deep in the postseason it will be one of the most incredible individual efforts in league history — and something few have been able to do when given his regular season workload.