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James Harden’s Rockets Changed The NBA Forever

When James Harden arrived in Houston on Oct. 27, 2012 — via one of the most second-guessed trades in NBA history — he instantly transformed the Rockets into a perennial contender and changed how basketball was played. Several times in the Harden era, which saw Houston make the playoffs in each of his eight full seasons with the club, the Rockets appeared poised to convert their paradigm-breaking style into championship greatness. But each time, they managed to fall short. Now that Harden is a member of the Brooklyn Nets, it’s worth taking stock of his Houston days: Did this team make the most of its potential? If not, why not? And in the end, what will the legacy of the Harden-era Rockets be?

There’s no doubt that, under the direction of general manager Daryl Morey (and coaches Kevin McHale, J.B. Bickerstaff and Mike D’Antoni), Harden’s Rockets had a profound effect on the NBA — one that we probably don’t yet fully understand. Harden didn’t invent the 3-point shot, nor the concept of drawing fouls as a core offensive philosophy. Houston was already taking nearly a quarter of its shots from beyond the arc before it traded for Harden, ranking in the top half of the league in 2011-12. But the addition of a player who had been arguably the foremost practitioner of “threes and frees” (even as a member of the Oklahoma City Thunder) led to an explosive evolution in Houston’s offense.

Before the Harden-era Rockets, no team had ever attempted threes on more than 35 percent of its shots. (The 2009-10 Orlando Magic finished the regular season with exactly that share.) Houston came within 0.1 percentage points of Orlando’s record in Harden’s first season as a Rocket, broke it two years later, surged across the 45 percent threshold in 2016-17, and finally climbed above 50 percent — a ratio that had been completely unthinkable just a decade earlier — in 2017-18, 2018-19 and 2019-20. Harden himself trended in the same direction, inching toward 50 percent in 2016-17 and 2017-18 before breaking the barrier in the 2018-19 and 2019-20 seasons. (During this evolution, he also routinely drew more fouls on threes than many entire teams, to the point that the league changed the rules about how to interpret contact in the act of shooting.) Over his final two full seasons in Houston, Harden scored 35.3 points per game while taking around 55 percent of his shots from downtown1 — a combination posted only three times over a season: once by Steph Curry and twice by Harden.

To gaze upon the Harden-era Rockets’ shot chart was to see the apotheosis of analytics-based offensive strategy. The team almost never attempted a shot that wasn’t either a 3-pointer or in the immediate vicinity of the basket. From 2013 through 2020, Houston took:

  • 43 percent of its shots from beyond the 3-point line, according to data from Basketball-Reference.com, which easily led the league. (The next-closest team — the Dallas Mavericks — was more than 8 percentage points behind.)
  • 31 percent of its shots from within 3 feet of the rim. (Only two teams — the Milwaukee Bucks and Denver Nuggets — had a higher share.)
  • And only 26 percent of its shots from midrange — outside 3 feet but inside the 3-point line — which was easily last in the league. (The next-lowest team — the Atlanta Hawks — shot from that distance at a rate nearly 10 percentage points higher than Houston’s.)

Aside from letting Chris Paul — one of the best midrange shooters ever — try from that distance during the two seasons he spent in Houston, Harden’s Rockets basically built their entire scheme around never taking those shots. The team’s shot selection combined Morey’s algorithms with the star who embodied them more than any other NBA player ever has — an approach that came to be often imitated but never perfected like the Rockets at their peak.

Immediately after Harden landed in Houston, the Rockets’ offensive efficiency got a boost of 4.2 points per 100 possessions, improving from 12th in the league in 2011-12 to sixth in 2012-13. It got better by another 1.3 points in 2013-14, landing Houston at No. 4 in the league. After brief dips in 2014-15 and 2015-16, the 2016-17 Rockets — with Trevor Ariza, Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson hoisting threes on roughly two-thirds of their shots alongside Harden — were second only to the dynasty Golden State Warriors. And the following season, even Kevin Durant, Steph Curry and company couldn’t top Houston’s offensive greatness. With an average offensive rating 5.7 points better than the league average in the 2016-17 through 2018-19 seasons, Houston was on one of the best three-year offensive runs of any team in NBA history:

Houston had one of the best NBA offenses ever

Best three-year stretches of offensive efficiency (relative to the NBA average) for NBA teams, 1953-2020

Offensive rating vs. NBA Avg.
Team Seasons* Year 1 Year 2 Year 3 Average
Dallas Mavericks 2002-04 +7.7 +7.1 +9.2 +8.0
Phoenix Suns 2005-07 +8.5 +5.3 +7.5 +7.1
Golden State Warriors 2015-17 +6.0 +8.1 +6.8 +6.9
Utah Jazz 1996-98 +5.7 +7.0 +7.6 +6.8
Los Angeles Lakers 1985-87 +6.2 +6.1 +7.3 +6.5
Chicago Bulls 1991-93 +6.8 +7.4 +4.9 +6.3
Phoenix Suns 2008-10 +5.8 +5.3 +7.8 +6.3
Chicago Bulls 1996-98 +7.5 +7.7 +2.7 +6.0
Houston Rockets 2017-19 +5.9 +6.1 +5.1 +5.7
Boston Celtics 1986-88 +4.6 +5.2 +7.4 +5.7
Phoenix Suns 1993-95 +5.3 +5.5 +6.2 +5.7
Los Angeles Clippers 2013-15 +4.8 +5.4 +6.8 +5.6
Orlando Magic 1994-96 +4.5 +6.8 +5.2 +5.5
Denver Nuggets 1981-83 +3.9 +7.4 +4.9 +5.4
Oklahoma City Thunder 2011-13 +4.0 +5.2 +6.5 +5.2

*Seasons listed as the year in which the NBA champion was crowned.

Source: Basketball-Reference.com

Beyond how they played, the Rockets were also notable for how they were built.

First, there was the long, winding process of accumulating other teams’ draft picks to flip those assets for a major piece — Harden — and speed up the organization’s timeline. The run-up to that move was meaningful not only because it ultimately led to Houston’s success, but also because Sam Hinkie, a Morey protege, quietly took the laundry list of transactions that set up the Harden trade and pulled it out in his interviews with the Sixers, explaining that it was the blueprint for organizations to build sustainable success. On the strength of his argument — that landing superstar talent mattered more than anything else — Hinkie took the reins of the Sixers and undertook one of the past few decades’ most fascinating experiments in sports. (Interestingly enough, now Morey is running the club.)

In prioritizing flexibility, the Rockets often shuffled the rest of the deck around their star player — starting off with Jeremy Lin and Chandler Parsons, and then slotting in, by turns, Dwight Howard, Paul, Russell Westbrook and John Wall. And while that process isn’t unheard of, it’s very rare to see a contending club take so many swings at the piñata with the same ringless centerpiece running the show. The Rockets used 103 different players during the Harden era, according to ESPN’s Stats & Information Group — a total that puts them in the same company as teams like the Sixers, Cavaliers, Suns and Nets, who blew up their rosters to start from scratch and ended up with hold-your-nose records to show for it. Yet Houston posted a .635 winning percentage over that span, by far the best mark of any team that cycled through 100 players or more.2

But for all of their innovations in playing style and team-building, the legacy of the Harden-era Rockets will hinge on their inability to get over the hump in the playoffs — particularly when it came to their rivalry with the Warriors.

For a season or two, Houston was one of the very few teams that could go toe-to-toe with Golden State. Harden and Paul took turns giving the Warriors fits, while the Rockets’ underrated, switch-everything defense was among the best in the NBA. But the playing style, particularly on offense, seemed to exact a toll on the stars. Harden was often worn down by the end of a series, while Paul’s hamstring injury in the closing moments of Game 5 in the 2018 conference finals turned out to be an enormous blow to Houston. (The Rockets had a 3-2 series lead but couldn’t close the door on the Warriors without him.) Even more disheartening for the team in retrospect: the 27 consecutive misses — an NBA postseason record — from long distance in Game 7 of that matchup, which doomed the club’s best shot at a championship.

The Rockets never had quite enough to reach the NBA’s promised land — especially once more and more teams began emulating their strategies. But given how Harden, Morey and those Houston teams changed the league, they won’t be forgotten anytime soon.

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Footnotes

  1. And shooting more than 11 free throws per game.

  2. The next-closest teams in winning percentage among that group? The Grizzlies, at .517, and the Bucks, at .511.

Neil Paine is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Chris Herring was a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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