Three Lessons Coaches Can Learn from James Harden

Teams are flocking to the three point arch and ditching the mid-range. As you know by now, the Houston Rockets and James Harden are leading the charge. Kirk Goldsberry dedicated a whole section to Harden in Sprawlball, but nothing better summarized Harden’s game than these three sentences. “In 1987-1988, Larry Bird, the greatest shooter of his era, made 98 threes. It was his career high for a season. Thirty years later, Harden drew 116 three-point shooting fouls.”

Most basketball purists are outspoken in their disdain for James Harden. He dribbles the entire possession and takes shots that 99% of players we coach are not qualified to shoot. And then to compound the problem, youth players go out in the driveway and try to emulate Harden. Instead of working on skills that are better for their role and development, they take off balance step backs from NBA range.

I get it. Harden is hard to watch on television and offers misleading interpretations of a pivot foot. At the same time though, you have to acknowledge what the Rockets and Harden have done. They are experimenting, and while it is not championship level production, no team came closer to beating Golden State at their peak. They were second in offensive efficiency for three straight seasons before falling to seventh this year. As difficult as it is to say, Harden’s offensive style is extremely effective.

Points Created Via Assist

My team uses HUDL. It is a popular choice for many high school teams and compared to what we used five years ago, HUDL offers tremendous value. When I look at the numbers that we get after games are tagged, I can quickly find assists. The problem with assists though is that not all of them are created equal. There are assists that lead the team to two points and assists that lead the team to three points. Not to mention the fact that sometimes good passes lead the team to free throws.

If coaches are pushing players to shoot more threes, by extension they need to also promote perimeter passing. In the NBA roughly 80% of all three pointers are of the catch and shoot variety. Given how important the pass is to the success of a shot, inflating assists on three’s to 1.5 assists is an effective way to measure what you want on passes. Goldsberry mentions that instead of assists, James Harden’s effectiveness is easier to measure as points created via assists.

When it comes to free throws, in a box score the only player that receives credit is the player that got fouled. Often times fouls are born out of helping defenders being out of position and late to recover.

Three Point Creators

Kirk Goldsberry asks an important question. “What’s harder: draining a catch-and-shoot three or creating a good catch-and-shoot three for another player?” One of the things that makes James Harden so great is that he creates so many of these opportunities for his teammates. Ditto for LeBron. When these stars collapse the defense, they do two things for their teammates. First, they provide a short window of time to shoot an uncontested shot. Second, three point creators that throw passes from the paint also help their teammates with footwork. Catching a pass from close to the same direction as the basket helps players release the shot quicker.

Most coaches know that dribble penetration to create a shot is good basketball. What they often fail to do is communicate that to their players. Hearing the applause of a crowd is enough feedback for the shooter, but the passer does not receive this same feedback. In high school, the official book only keeps track of points. A player might wind up with seven assists, but in the immediate after math of the game local reporters will only hear about the points because it is the most convenient metric for everyone involved. That is why it is essential that coaches take the time to show film, praise the play in the moment, and if feasible track the effectiveness of three point creators.

Harden is not measured solely by his three point percentage and threes attempted. The numbers he has as a shooter are also added with the numbers he generates as a passer. At the end of the day, a spot up shooter is only as good as the number of clean looks he or she receives.

Getting to the Rim

As an added bonus of three point creators that draw help defenders, there are also many opportunities where help never comes. The most efficient shot in basketball is still the shot at the rim. Everyone is enamored with players that can shoot a high percentage from the three point line and rightly so. Let’s not leave out the Rondo’s of the world either. These players can still have a role on the basketball court by making optimal decisions. Even our friend James Harden is really just an average three point shooter by NBA standards. His chief value is the ability to create for teammates and get to the line when secondary defenders fail to react.

Fouls Created

My favorite stat on Harden is that he draws about 7 fouls per game. Some of these lead to free throws and some are only inbounds, but the effect on the opponent is arguably greater. The amount of subsequent free throws that are taken as a result of being in the bonus for Harden’s teammates are much greater. It also leads to the opponent adjusting lineups and even disqualifications as the fouls accumulate.

I never considered keeping track of how many fouls per game a player generates until Goldsberry offered that stat on James Harden. From a coaching perspective it says a lot about your players. The kids that are getting fouled more often are typically more aggressive. When they go to the rim, they probably are not fading away. Goldsberry also attributes the fouls drawn to Harden’s eurostep. Sometimes he doesn’t travel and when he doesn’t, it looks really good. And regardless of the level, foul shots are the most efficient means of scoring in basketball. Conversely, players that are not getting fouled could be shying away from contact. They are missing an opportunity to contribute more and this is a skill that coaches can build in small sided games.

From a player’s perspective, knowing and celebrating that they generated multiple fouls from opponents will reinforce good aggressive habits. It will teach players to want contact – a skill that can be difficult if players are used to games without referees in which contact is not rewarded.

The James Harden Caveat

Harden averages 8.2 threes per unassisted three point attempt according to Goldsberry. There is a 95% chance that I will never endorse this type of offense with high school or youth players. That said, I grew up in a world where we never take transition three pointers. Circumstances change. And Harden is perhaps the greatest symbol of the change. You can still despise his game. I am actually coming around. Here are two Hardenisms that I am unlikely to ever endorse.

  1. Step back three’s. More than 90% of three’s that my team attempted last year were catch-and-shoot.
  2. Dribbling will be done for two reasons. First, to create a shot or pass. Second, to avoid a five second call. The 8.2 dribbles (or more) are not going to be permitted.

James Harden’s game is not necessarily fun to watch. And if you are one of his four teammates on the floor it might even be less fun. Ultimately though the results of what Harden does speaks for itself. Moving forward, I am going to do more to measure the value of three point assists, creating open three’s for teammates, and evaluate who on the team draws fouls. James Harden happens to dominate all three.

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