Houston Rockets, Nylon Calculus

Nylon Calculus: No one shoots 3-pointers like James Harden

Jame Harden is breaking records and changing our conception of how a primary ball-handler can play. His 3-point shooting tendencies are like no one else in the league.

James Harden is shooting 12.5 3-point attempts per game. That is a ridiculous stat in and of itself. But it is worth paying attention to how James Harden gets to that number of attempts. He is also completely leaving behind what we think of as normal in terms of pulling up from distance.

Steph Curry has been considered the king of the pull-up 3, because of his extraordinary ability to hit them at an unheard of rate. But even Curry at his “pull-up peak” in 2015-16 mixed in a lot of catch and shoot attempts: 6.6 pull-up 3-pointers vs. 5.1 catch-and-shoot 3-pointers per 36 min. James Harden is not doing that. James Harden is shooting his way to a completely different reality:

Most players find themselves on the left side of the graph above, i.e. they shoot more 3-pointers as catch-and-shoot. James Harden is breaking into new territory on the right side of the graph, territory that has never really been explored before. Kemba Walker is the only player even shooting half as many pull-up 3-pointers per 36 minutes as James Harden (Kemba is at 6.1 pull-up 3-point attempts per 36).

Data on dribbles and shot attempts goes back to 2013-14 and in that context what James Harden is doing is also quite extraordinary:

There is really no one near what James Harden is doing right now. James Harden attempts 0.86 catch-and-shoot 3-pointers per 36 minutes played. That is basically the same rate as Robin Lopez (0.84). Even when Russell Westbrook broke the usage record in the 2016-17 season, he still attempted 2.3 catch-and-shoot 3-pointers per 36 minutes. The plot above makes it clear that this year is a continuation of a pattern for Harden. Delving deeper into the dribbles data makes it even clearer:

This season, more than half of Harden’s 3-point attempts comes after seven or more dribbles and as I wrote on Twitter and as Ben Cohen detailed at WSJ, that results in Harden having more than twice as many attempts after seven dribbles as the nearest team.

Below I have ranked players by how many of their 3-point attempts come after 7 or more dribbles:

Another thing to notice in this graph: JJ Redick is very fond of the 1 dribble attempt.

The only one coming close to Harden’s distribution is his own teammate, Chris Paul. Going back up to Fig. 2, it is also clear that Chris Paul in the last two seasons in Houston has changed his game to involve more pull-up 3-pointers.

The similarities in the 3-point shooting of the Rockets duo also extends along other dimensions. Harden and Paul lead the league in 3-pointers per game taken in the last four seconds of the shot clock. This is of course not entirely unrelated to the dribbling, as it takes time to dribble seven times or more. Taken together this partly explains why Houston is third-last in pace, per NBA stats.

Another striking consequence of all this dribbling by the duo in Houston is how little Paul and Harden assist each other. As of Jan. 10, they both still had more assists to Carmelo Anthony(!) this season than to each other, per pbpstats.com.

The most common 3-point attempt in the NBA is a wide-open catch-and-shoot attempt. “Wide open” is to be understood as an attempt with a defender at least 6 feet away. NBA.com/stats divides proximity into four categories: Wide open (6+ ft), Open (4-6 ft), Tight (2-4 ft) and Very tight (0-2 ft). Wide-open catch-and-shoot 3-pointers account for 43.5 percent of all attempts this season. James Harden does not get to shoot that shot. He has attempted 12 of those. Hassan Whiteside has 15 this season. Of course that is also because Whiteside is left open, but still. Below I have shown the distribution of 3-point attempts for the league and a couple of players for reference:

I included Kemba and LeBron as two other high-usage scorers with no other great scorer on their team. They still get a sizeable number of wide-open 3-point attempts. Harden does not.

James Harden is having a legendary season, inspiring us here on Nylon Calculus to dive into his shooting charts and to investigate how other scorers would fare playing as he does. The big question is whether this is sustainable for Harden. He is shooting 38.6 percent on 3-pointers, which is near his career-high, despite this developing pattern, which would seem to be leading to more and more difficult shots.

Next: What if the NBA’s best scorers all played like James Harden?

Diving deeper into the stats, a warning sign is that he has shot 44.5 percent on 227 pull-up 3-point attempts with a defender within 4 to 6 feet, the most common distance for pull-up attempt. From 2013 to 2018, Harden shot 35.1 percent on that same shot. It is not farfetched to imagine that he cools off in the second half of the season. Even so, what he is doing is special and it is a treat to watch a player doing something that no one else is doing.

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