Can James Harden Finally Exorcise His Playoff Demons?

James Harden just submitted one of the most impressive offensive campaigns in NBA history. He won his second straight scoring title (36.1 PPG), eight points higher than the second leading scoring scorer Paul George (28.0 PPG). He also became the sixth player ever (Michael Jordan, Wilt Chamberlain, Kobe Bryant, Elgin Baylor, Rick Barry) to average 35 points per game or higher for a single season.

He put together a streak of scoring at least 30 points in 32 consecutive games, second all-time only to Chamberlain’s 65-game run in 1961-62. He tallied nine 50-point games this season. The stat that is quite an eye-opener is that for the second year in a row he’s averaged at least 10 free throw attempts (10.1 in 2018 to 11.0 in 2019) and three-point attempts per game (10.0 in 2018 to 13.2 in 2019). No player in history – not even Stephen Curry – has pulled that off.

If you wanna get an idea of how valuable Harden’s on-court presence is to the Houston Rockets, his advanced stats certainly pass the test.

His usage rate, which is looked at as somewhat of a positive and negative stat, led the league at 40.5 and was the highest in history. He finished first in VORP (Value Over Replacement Player) at 9.9, box plus-minus (11.7), real plus-minus (7.58), win shares (15.2), offensive box plus-minus (10.6), offensive win shares (11.5) and second in PER (Player Efficiency Rating) at 30.6. He’ll likely finished in the top two in the MVP voting alongside Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Yet, the feeling surrounding Harden is that there still something left to be desired with his game.

In the last three seasons just off performance and numbers alone, one could make a reasonable case that he has played like the best player in basketball. That’s not utterly crazy to say, given that he finished as the MVP runner-up in 2017, was the MVP in 2018 and no question will be in the top two of the voting this year.

That skepticism that hangs over his head is because of his shortcomings in the postseason.

With some star players in any team sport, people wonder that one can perform at a high level in the regular season, why can’t that success translate that into playing well in the playoffs? Well, that question rings loudly for No. 13.

This conversation has been broached before in the last decade with greats in other sports like Clayton Kershaw and Aaron Rodgers. They are athletes who are looked at as all-time greats in their respective sports, but have underachieved too often in the playoffs, given their unreal gifts and the quality supporting casts they’ve had around them.

Harden's playoff struggles are well-documented:

  • 2012 NBA Finals vs. Miami Heat: As the sixth man with the Thunder, Harden struggled with his shot averaging 12.4 PPG, while shooting 37.5% from the field and 31.8% on threes.
  • Game 5 of the 2015 Western Finals vs. Golden State: Trailing 3-1 in the series, Harden was awful, scoring 14 points on 2-of-11 shooting, 0-3 on three-pointers and committed a playoff-record 13 turnovers.
  • Game 6 of the 2017 Western Semis vs. San Antonio: Down 3-2 in the series, the MVP runner-up scored a season-low 10 points on 2-of-11 shooting and turned the ball over seven times.
  • Games 6 & 7 of  last year's Western Finals vs. Golden State: Leading the series 3-2 with home-court advantage, the Rockets had two opportunities to win the series. Despite averaging 32 points per game in the last two games, he shot a combined 22-of-53 from the field and 6-of-25 from three, including an abysmal 2-13 from three in Game 7 at home.

Save for 2012 with OKC, all those games occurred during a critical point of a series where Houston needed the superstar to come through the way he has in the regular season, and he was simply a no-show. Out of all the star players that have the most pressure on them to deliver and carry their teams deep this postseason, no player in my view is carrying more burden into these next two months than The Beard.

Look, we are currently in the era of revolutionary offensive basketball in the NBA. Numbers on the offensive side are booming and moving forward, there doesn’t seem to be any kind of slippage for individual players and teams when it comes to producing numbers at a historic rate.

Players like Curry, Westbrook and LeBron James have spearheaded the pace-and-space, three-point era, but there probably hasn’t been any player that has figured out how to take advantage of the current no-hand check rules more than Harden.

Harden is the master of the step-back three-point shot and iso-ball that defenders have not yet figured out how to contain.

He’s got the greenest light a star player has ever had as head coach Mike D’Antoni gives his star player to orchestrate the offense, albeit to levels of over-reliance. There lies the main reason why I think Harden has struggled with his form towards the end of playoff series.

The guy simply gets exhausted because of the constant ball-handling duties, non-stop dribbling in one place when going one-on-one, and the excess volume of shots he takes throughout the demanding 82-game season.

The thing is D’Antoni doesn’t mind Harden playing this way, hoping that spacing on the court gets him to penetrate and kick out to shooters and utilize the pick-and-roll game. Yet, it would serve both Harden and the team better if he played more off the ball. D'Antoni should run him off screens, implement more off-ball action and find a way to get him the ball in areas closer to basket. If Harden moves inside five feet of the three-point line, near the block and around the foul line area, he wouldn’t have to work so hard to score, and could perhaps keep his legs fresher deeper into a playoff run.

All of those long-range shots take a ton of strength, placing plenty of duress on an individual’s legs game after game. Dominating the ball on a night-in and night-out basis will and can tire many out.

By the time the playoffs roll around, Harden’s legs are fatigued and his body is drained. That’s one of the reasons why his shot seems to fall a little bit short in late-game situations and why his shooting percentages drop towards the end of playoff series.

Harden must fix that problem if this year is going to be different. He’s got to find a way to get easier shots for himself and preserve his energy or he could suffer another failed postseason hit to his growing basketball legacy. Otherwise, he'll be streaming the NBA Finals at the house like the rest of us, even if he is the most unstoppable offensive force in the league.

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