Houston Rockets: The curious case of James Harden

NBA Houston Rockets James Harden (Photo by Takashi Aoyama/Getty Images) (Photo by Takashi Aoyama/Getty Images)
NBA Houston Rockets James Harden (Photo by Takashi Aoyama/Getty Images) (Photo by Takashi Aoyama/Getty Images) /

Exploring James Harden’s slow start in terms of efficiency and whether it should be a cause for concern for the Houston Rockets

When he is in form, he is arguably the best player in the competition. When he is not, the Rockets simply struggle to win games.

As is the case with any superstar on any team, James Harden is the barometer of the Houston Rockets team. His ability to put up extraordinary stat-lines on a nightly basis carries the team on his back, already averaging in excess of 37 points per game and eight assists over the first 11 games of the 2019-20 season.

However, many argue that Harden’s stats are inflated by the number of shots he puts up per game, not actually focusing on how effective he is when he shoots at low percentages. These are the nights the Rockets have struggled in the past to win games against even the bottom-feeders of the NBA.

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In the 2019-20 season, Harden has some more help after the Rockets acquired Russell Westbrook from Oklahoma City to take some of the weight off the shooting guards’ shoulders.

But despite the extra assistance, Harden still is the clear best player on the Rockets team and his shooting numbers can decide games one way or another.

So, what can we learn Harden’s first 11 games of the 2019-20 season?

Houston is off to an 8-3 start after an impressive win over the LA Clippers, moving them inside the top 3 teams in the West Conference.

Harden’s form has been varied and his statistics agree with this.

Harden has never averaged under 40 percent shooting across any of his previous 10 seasons in the NBA. So far this year he is shooting around 41 percent from the field.

Harden is also averaging a career-high 14 3-point attempts per game, only connecting on 32 percent of these through the first 10 games: another career low. Through his first five games, Harden had only made 14 out of his whopping 70 attempts from beyond the arc, a terrible 20 percent from the 3-point line. Only hitting 32 percent of his attempts means many empty possessions for the Rockets, hurting their offensive production.

Harden is also currently averaging a career-high 5.8 turnovers per game against his 8.2 assists per game, again limiting his effectiveness of the offensive end.

However, Harden has become very good at driving into the paint and drawing contact to get to the free-throw line. His handle on the basketball and fancy footwork helps him to create space and get the leverage on opposition defenders, allowing him to drive down the lane more often.

Because of this, Harden is averaging another career-high of 15.3 free throw attempts per game. For Harden, an 85.8 percent career average from the free-throw line means automatic and easy points. This is a big reason for his 37 points-per-game average to start the season, his ability to get to the charity stripe.

So, here are some key early takeaway’s on James Harden for the 2019-20 season:

  • His shooting efficiency is at an all-time low and needs improvement
  • He needs to take better care of the ball and open better opportunities on offense
  • His ability to get to the free-throw line is as good as it has ever been
  • Despite his poor shooting, Harden still can amass huge stat-lines
  • Harden has decent support having superstar Westbrook at point guard

The tough schedule to end November for the Rockets is Harden’s chance to make a statement. After living in the shadows of the Golden State dynasty, now is the time for Harden to lead the Rockets to top of the West and takedown the dynamic duos in Los Angeles.

With another clash against Kawhi’s Clippers, road-trips to Minnesota and Denver, plus tough match-ups against sharp improvers Miami and Dallas, the rest of November is the time for Harden to get the hot hand and show everyone that the Rockets have the team to go all the way this year.

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James Harden’s start to the year can be described as below average by his lofty standards despite the Rockets’ 8-3 start. His supporting cast in Westbrook, Clint Capela, and Eric Gordon are strong enough to cover him on off nights, but for the Rockets to seriously contend for an NBA Championship, they need their number one man to provide better offense efficiency than he has shown through the first 11 games.