James Harden’s style of offense isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. Some fans feel like his trademark stepback move is a travel the vast majority of the time he does it. Some knock his tendency to draw fouls, sometimes fooling referees into giving him free throws when he barrels toward the rim.
But whatever you feel about the reigning league MVP, he’s putting together a solid case this season to win the award for a second time. Harden has compiled video-game numbers lately, averaging 42 points, 8.4 rebounds and 9.7 assists since the calendar flipped to 2019. And his Houston club — which struggled badly out of the gate and has watched just about every one of Harden’s teammates fall victim to the injury bug — is now 14-4 over its last 18 games.
But Harden’s incredible play raises an important question: Can the 29-year-old realistically keep up what has been a near-historic one-man show without burning out during the NBA playoffs?
That dilemma is a ways off, though. For the time being, the Rockets have to be thrilled with the production they’ve gotten from Harden, who scored 57 points in Monday’s win over Memphis. He has notched 30 points or more in 17 straight games, the longest streak since the merger in 1976.
The Rockets star has long been a statistical outlier, but this season has brought some eye-popping metrics, even when judged against Harden’s lofty standards. He leads the league in points per game and is scoring 5 more on average than the No. 2 scorer, Steph Curry. And he drives to the basket an NBA-high 20 times per game. The Beard averages a league-high 37 minutes per night1 and has launched 512 3-pointers, almost 13 per game — the most in the NBA.
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.
Maybe it shouldn’t be surprising that Mike D’Antoni and the Rockets have resorted to having Harden isolate more, with both Chris Paul and Eric Gordon out of the lineup, but all that 1-on-1 play can be super draining. And that could be one reason that Harden’s shooting percentages have been falling considerably during games. (In particular, in fourth quarters, he’s shooting just 47.4 percent3 from the restricted area — perhaps a sign that he’s fatigued and not getting enough lift to finish shots over taller players.)
During the 2016-17 campaign, Harden dominated much like he has this season before ultimately burning out and having one of the most lifeless series-ending showings ever for a star player. In fact, the lefty has seen quarter-by-quarter declines in his efficiency numbers each of the past three seasons.
Although it might seem too early to start talking about burnout, it’s worth noting that Harden’s degree of single-handed dominance is approaching 2016-17 Russell Westbrook levels. Harden has a current usage rate of 39.9 percent, down slightly from the NBA-record 41.7 percent mark that Westbrook posted after Kevin Durant left Oklahoma City to join the Warriors.
The problem is that players who log usage rates that high in the regular season generally don’t enjoy much playoff success. In fact, no player who had a regular-season usage rate of 35 percent or higher has ever won an NBA championship in that season. And of the players with the seven highest single-season usage rates, none made it out of the first round of the postseason in those years.4
Even if the Rockets did want to limit Harden’s usage before the playoffs, Houston is running out of other players to use — at least at the moment. The team lost yet another weapon on Sunday, when Clint Capela damaged his right thumb ligament. He’ll now miss 4 to 6 weeks.
Capela’s absence, on top of Paul’s, is a huge blow. The Harden-Paul-Capela trio was essentially unbeatable last season, and the Rockets went 42-3 in the regular season when that lineup took the court. Without those two or Gordon, Harden has no choice but to go out with guns blazing. In the three games this season in which Harden scored fewer than 20 points, the Rockets lost by a whopping 18, 19 and 27 points.
D’Antoni’s teams have long been top-heavy, and that flaw has reared its ugly head come playoff time. But now, the thin nature of the Rockets’ roster is showing itself in January, and it’s putting even more strain on an MVP who’s already carrying a historic amount of weight on his back.
Check out our latest NBA predictions.