Why Doesn’t James Harden Win Alongside Superstars?

James Harden is one of the greatest scorers in NBA history (if not the greatest). Even though most people are willing to accept that, there is still great debate over the history of James Harden and why he has never been able to win an NBA championship. With all of this in mind, let’s dive into why Harden would be better off without a superstar on his team. 

James Harden plays a lot of isolation basketball

Before play was suspended in the 2019-20 NBA season, James Harden went into isolation in 45.8 percent of the possessions he had the ball in his hands. For those of you wondering at home, that is ridiculous. Something interesting is that the next two players in the NBA with the highest rates of isolation play are Russell Westbrook (25 percent) and Austin Rivers (20 percent) who both happen to play for the Rockets.

To go along with the top three isolation players in the NBA in terms of frequency, the Rockets also have three of the top four players in spot-up shooting frequency in Robert Covington, P.J. Tucker, and Gary Clark. Those two types of play are extremely prevalent in the Rockets’ offense, and Harden has always thrived with extremely efficient spot-up shooters. The season Harden had the most assists was 2016-17, when he averaged 11.2 assists per game. That season, the only other ball-dominant player on the team was Lou Williams, who mostly thrived while Harden was on the bench or in the 50 percent of the time Harden did not isolate. 

Why does the amount of isolation matter? 

The number of isolation possessions matters because Harden succeeds most with the ball in his hand. Although Harden can absolutely thrive in a catch-and-shoot role, his greatest attributes are his shot creation and his ability to get to the free-throw line. Taking the ball out of his hands takes away his chances of utilizing those skills, therefore deeming Harden less effective. 

In 2016-17, when Harden had a career-best in assists, you cannot find another Rockets player in the top-25 for the frequency of isolation possessions. That year, however, the Rockets had three players in the top four in the NBA for spot-up or catch-and-shoot opportunities. Harden led the league in assists because he was surrounded by incredible shooters, the same way teams surround LeBron James or Giannis Antetokounmpo with shooters. Although Harden is less physically dominating, his shot creation causes the same chaos among a defensive unit that a hard drive from Antetokounmpo would. 

Harden and Chris Paul nearly beat the Warriors

(Plus, Paul hogs the ball)

The difference between Chris Paul playing the point or Russell Westbrook playing the point is offensive win shares. Offensive win shares show how valuable a player is on the offensive side of the ball to a team, the same way WAR shows how much better a baseball player is than an “average” player. Offensive win shares take into account every offensive stat that exists on a player and gives them a grade. In the two years Chris Paul was in Houston, he had offensive win shares of 7.5 and 4.4 compared to the measly 2.1 that Russell Westbrook had contributed in 2019. Offensively, the area Harden is analyzed the most in, Chris Paul was a better complement to Harden because he took fewer shots and was a better facilitator in the complex offense Houston runs. 

What do all of these numbers really mean? 

Much like how LeBron James thrives when he has the ball in his hand surrounded by four shooters, Harden thrives in the same situation. When Harden was in Oklahoma City, the ball was not in his hand the majority of the time because of superstar Kevin Durant. Once Harden had the keys to the offense in Houston, he blossomed into a superstar in his own right.

Nobody knows if Harden will ever win an NBA championship, but one thing is clear: if he is surrounded by ball-dominant guards like Russell Westbrook and Austin Rivers, Harden will not even make it to the NBA Final, let alone win one. Harden needs facilitation-first guards like Chris Paul or Lou Williams, and then as many shooters as the Rockets can find. 

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