Houston Rockets, Nylon Calculus

Nylon Calculus: James Harden and True Shooting Charts

After earning the Most Valuable Player award last year, James Harden has pieced together an equally stellar 2018-19 campaign thus far. ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus estimates his league-leading offensive impact at eight points per 100 possessions, roughly three points ahead of the next closest player. On nearly 40 percent usage, his true shooting percentage stands at 62. While these lofty numbers are likely to come down, his 35-game performance seems to have few precedents and continues a dominating run that stretches back to the 2016-17 season.

Harden’s offensive brilliance is multifaceted, but it has a distinct connection to 3-point shooting. With a career-high 55 percent of his field goal attempts coming from downtown, he joins Stephen Curry as the only high-volume player who takes more 3s than 2s. Although his Warriors rival has a higher 3-point percentage (45 percent versus 39 percent), Harden arguably has a higher degree of difficulty. More than nine out of ten of his 3-pointers are pull-up jumpers, with a majority of them coming after seven dribbles (or, put differently, after being in possession of the ball for at least six seconds). An NBA-high 86 percent of his made 3s are unassisted. Besides facilitating high-value shots for teammates in Mike D’Antoni’s system, Harden prodigiously creates 3-point scoring opportunities for himself. Once such team contexts, which impose different sets of responsibilities upon their stars, are taken into account, one can make a reasonable case that he presently occupies the same elevated tier that Curry does.

Yet even these statistics only partially capture Harden’s excellence. After all, a significant part of his game involves the ability to draw fouls — something that’s largely overlooked by standard tools for evaluating shooting performance. When free throws are incorporated into the equation, his 3-point scoring efficiency stands out even further.

To illustrate this point, let’s start with a basic shot chart:

Of Harden’s 787 total field goal attempts, 432 have been 3-pointers, including 402 above the break, of which he’s converted 39 percent — about 4 percentage points above league average. Using common shot-zone boundaries similar to those on NBA.com, we can see that he’s been a percentage point below average from the right slot, 5 percentage points above average from the center and 10 percentage points above average from the left slot.

Yet FGAs comprise just 84 percent of Harden’s total “true shot attempts” and, in particular, 91 percent of his true shot attempts from downtown. Excluding free-throw opportunities from technicals, which seldom relate directly to shooting activities, he’s made 150 discrete trips to the line, with 42 of them resulting from fouls in 3-point territory. This latter number has led to 103 points that the plot above ignores. If we add the seven made free throws from 4-point plays (whose field goals appear in the chart, though the extra points are unaccounted for), then we have 110 points behind the arc that have gone unnoticed.

True shot attempts include trips to the line that stem from the penalty situation. If we focus solely on shooting fouls drawn, then Harden has enjoyed 33 discrete opportunities to make 3 free throws. He’s generated 88 points in these cases. That’s a slightly higher clip than his season-average free throw percentage, but even if we conservatively use this rate, we’re still talking about 84 points that are linked to 3-point shooting. Unsurprisingly, he leads the league in free throw points from fouls behind the arc, more than doubling the raw total that second-ranked Damian Lillard has scored (40).

Overall, a range of 88 to 103 points represents seven to nine percent of Harden’s season total. It’s sizable enough to move the needle in certain noticeable respects, as can be observed when we factor in all of his trips to the line and transform his basic shot chart into a “true shooting chart”:

Above the break, Harden’s true shooting percentage stands at 65, which tops league average in that zone by 11 percentage points. The right slot, in particular, gets an efficiency boost. Whereas his 3-point percentage there is mediocre, free throws help his true shooting exceed league average by eight percentage points. Similar results emerge even if the emphasis is strictly on field goal attempts and shooting fouls drawn.

Given the potential insights that can be gleaned from such analyses, I’ve launched a new dashboard at positiveresidual.com/shiny/ true-shooting-charts:

True shooting charts and other variations are available for every player and team this season, with options to dissect the data, which update daily, in many different ways. The app may take some time to load, and while the site is somewhat responsive, it is optimized for a 1920 x 1080 display. Nonetheless, I believe it’s important to consider the roughly 40,000 points that come from free throws in a typical season and develop a more comprehensive sense of shooting performance.

Next: The contagious passing of Nikola Jokic has the Nuggets atop the West

From both substantive and aesthetic perspectives, Harden’s frequent foul-drawing is understandably polarizing. But, setting these potential grievances aside, it’s clear that he possesses a valuable skill, and he’s been leveraging it this season to bolster his 3-point shooting.

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