Houston Rockets, Nylon Calculus

Nylon Calculus: James Harden has opened a 3-point loophole

It’s a play that has become, for some people, regrettably familiar. James Harden handles the ball behind the arc, calmly dribbling back-and-forth as his defender anxiously shuffles and twitches in front of him. Harden steps back, launches a 3 and as your eyes follow the arc of the ball you hear a whistle and then look back to see Harden on the ground with the defender walking away in frustration.

Over the last three seasons, Harden has played in 228 games and drawn 291 foul calls while attempting a 3-pointer. The next closest player over the same stretch is Damian Lillard with 97 in 228 games. Harden has drawn more fouls on 3-point attempts than the next three players below him on the list, combined.

The numbers are simply staggering — he’s averaged about 1.3 three-shot trips to the free-throw line per game over that stretch and single-handedly been responsible for 8.1 percent of the league’s total fouls drawn on 3-pointers. He’s been fouled on more than 10 percent of his 3-point attempts over the last three seasons. Only a handful of other players are even over five percent.

Of course, all of this matters as much more than an annoyance to basketball purists. Harden has made 86.1 percent of his free throws over the three seasons. Using that value gives a trip to the foul line for three shots an expected value of 2.58 points per possession. That’s more than twice the expected value of his actual 3-point attempts over the past three seasons. For comparison, LeBron James had an expected value of 1.91 last season on dunk attempts.

For most reliable free throw shooters, there is no higher-value offensive outcome than a three-shot foul. And Harden has figured out how to take a play that was primarily a random accident and turn it into a fully exploitable scoring tool.

As to how, exactly, he’s done accomplished this, there are a few explanations.

Such a steep increase in his fouls drawn on 3-point attempts is a clear indicator of intentionality, and a lot of it then gets tied in with Harden’s reputation as an actor. He certainly knows how to sell a call but watching a great many of these fouls it’s hard to argue that he’s somehow regularly shooting in an unnatural motion to initiate contact or that he’s not actually getting fouled on the majority of these plays and is simply getting the benefit of the doubt because of his reputation.

To be fair, there are certainly plays where Harden recognizes a defender reaching in and launches an awkward attempt he wouldn’t normally take, or changes the angle of his body on his follow-through to draw contact from a close-out that otherwise would have cleared him. But foul-drawing is often lauded as a meaningful skill in the paint and Harden has simply figured out how to extend the range on that ability. He is a good 3-point shooter, so teams have to guard him closely. He is a devastating ball-handler so defenders have to be ready to react to any change of direction. The result is limited space and an off-balance defensive player. For years, ball-handlers have exploited that advantage by driving to the basket. Harden has figured out the math on staying put.

And just like the Rockets’ 3-point heavy shot selection has become a trendsetter for the league, don’t be surprised if Harden’s focus on drawing fouls behind the line becomes more common.

League-wide, there were 506 fouls called on 3-pointers during the 2012-13 season. This season, there were 1,223. Put another way, during the 2012-13 season one occurred about every five games. This year it was every other game. Those numbers are somewhat inflated by the fact that teams are taking far more 3-pointers than they were seven years ago but the percent of 3-point attempts on which a shooting foul was called still rose from 1.02 percent in 2012-13 to a peak of 1.80 percent in 2016-17 before settling to 1.53 percent this year.

There is almost certainly a ceiling on this strategy. It’s not really something for role-players — to be implemented at any meaningful volume you have to have the ball in your hands and be a threat both as a shooter and driver. However, while the leaguewide increase may seem relatively small Harden is not the only player who is using this strategy more often.

The five players below Harden on the list of most three-shots fouls over the past three seasons — Damian Lillard, Lou Williams, Kemba Walker, J.J. Redick and Stephen Curry — have shown slow growth over this most recent stretch where Harden’s numbers have exploded. However, all five are well ahead of where they were seven years ago.

Collectively, that quintet was fouled on 4.2 percent of their 3-point attempts last year — nearly three times the league average of 1.53 percent, which is essentially what this group’s collective average was during the 2012-13 season.

Harden is still an enormous outlier but the players who are most equipped to leverage this advantage are absolutely doing it more often than they were just a few years ago. Given the enormous statistical advantage of this outcome, it’s almost certain to be exploited more and more.

This may not be great news for the aesthetics of basketball (although I’d argue that a fouled 3-pointer is not any uglier than a fouled layup attempt) but I’m not sure there is any way the advantage could realistically be legislated away. Again, the increase is not just because of flopping and unnatural shooting motions, it’s because Harden and many of the league’s other elite ball-handling/shooting threats have figured out a way to leverage an off-balance defender into a greater return.

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