The Evolution of James Harden

The NBA is a volatile business. Loyal players can be traded for the right price, teams can go from contenders to rebuilders in the span of an offseason (and vice versa), and players who are better able to change and adapt to the ways of the league tend to have longer careers. We see the value of adaptation when looking at how the big man of today’s league works to add a jump shot to their arsenal to extend the longevity of their career. We see it with the increased inclusion of advanced analytics—which has led to an alteration in the amount and types of shots a team takes throughout a game. We even see it with the stars of the NBA evolving their game to fit the needs of their teams from year-to-year. In terms of adaptation, Charles Darwin would be pleased with James Harden’s willingness to adjust and meet the needs of the Brooklyn Nets on the quest for their first NBA title. 30 games removed from an eight-year stint in Houston, we are seeing a different James Harden than the heavy isolation, do-it-myself player that became one of the most polarizing figures in the league.

One of the most pressing questions when Harden was traded to the Nets on January 14 was what version of James Harden would Brooklyn be getting. Would they have to adjust to Harden’s iso-heavy style of play that showcased his ability to be one of the league’s most prolific scorers while also being the subject of criticism from the likes of Kobe Bryant? Or would they get the version of James Harden that helped Oklahoma City reach the Finals in 2012 alongside Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook where he was not the focal point every time down the floor?

Throughout his time in Houston, Harden shared the court with some of the NBA’s best stars, including Chris Paul and Russell Westbrook, but those teams hardly compared to the prospect of teaming up with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving on the Nets. With this in mind, it was a fair question to ask if Harden would be able to play in a system that requires more structure and sharing the spotlight—after all, he spent nearly a decade as the go-to guy in Houston.

The chameleon-like nature of Harden’s transition into the Nets organization has come by way of weaving his two styles of play into one hyper-efficient engine that has been leading the Nets to victory. James Harden isn’t the player or personality that he was during his first few years in the league in Oklahoma City, and it was impossible to see him returning to a complementary role like that. However, for a team with three mega-stars like the Nets to function properly and win games, Harden’s iso-dominant style of play likely needed to give way to something a bit more team-friendly. What we’ve seen so far during Harden’s brief stint in Brooklyn is that he’s capable of mixing styles of offense in order to be a ball-dominant playmaker that provides great scoring opportunities for him as well as his teammates. Harden has primarily done this by playing the ball handler role in the pick-and-roll game more than he did during his time in Houston. In his last season with the Rockets, Harden was running a league-high of isolation plays at 45% of his possessions, per NBA Advanced Stats. His next main form of offense was the pick-and-roll, which he was running only around 18% of the time. This season, while Harden still leads the league in possessions spent in isolation at 34%, he is actually using the pick-and-roll the most out of any offensive set at 34.5% of possessions.

This adjustment in Harden’s playing style has led to greater success for his teammates and his individual numbers on the court. Not only do the Nets boast the second-best record in the NBA behind the Utah Jazz, but they should feel comfortable with Harden at the helm—even without the rest of their big three. Kevin Durant has only played one game since February 6 as a result of a hamstring injury that will keep him sidelined for at least another week or two, and Kyrie Irving is currently away from the team as he tends to family matters. Even so, the Nets are 21-6 in games that Harden has played since the trade—including a 5-2 record in games without Kyrie, and a 16-5 record in games without Durant. Harden deserves a large portion of the credit for this sustained success despite the lack of continuity in the starting lineup—especially when you consider the lack of depth this team has as a result of acquiring such a top-heavy roster salary cap-wise. Nonetheless, Harden continues to post impressive numbers that have showcased his ability to integrate seamlessly with his new team. Since his Nets debut, Harden is leading the league in assists with 11.5 per game, taking his total on the season to 11.2 per game (accounting for the eight games he played with Houston). This 11.2 mark ties his career-high on assists for a given season, and with how he has been playing thus far, I imagine we’ll see him set a new career-high when this season is all said and done.

The deeper you dive into his numbers on the season, the more you see Harden’s game has changed in order to become a more effective playmaker in a different way than he had been in Houston. When looking at his touches per game and what he does with them, the evidence of his change in styles is even stronger. Last season, Harden averaged 84.6 touches per game, which he primarily spent dribbling and finding a way to get himself buckets. On those touches, Harden averaged 6.07 seconds per touch and 5.77 dribbles. This season, Harden is touching the ball 10 more times per game at 94.6 touches, but his time per touch has decreased to 5.57 seconds and his average dribbles per touch is down to 4.96. While isolation is still a big part of Harden’s game, these numbers indicate that even though he is the primary ball-handler in Brooklyn, he’s spending less time with the ball and more of his touches result in quicker decisions and less isolation. The main beneficiaries of the benevolent Harden have been Deandre Jordan, Bruce Brown, Jeff Green, and the emerging Nick Claxton, who has benefited tremendously from Harden’s playmaking—specifically against the Portland Trailblazers when Durant and Kyrie were both out. In that game, Claxton matched a season-high with 16 points that primarily came as a result of Harden’s ability to break down the defense and find the open man.

This isn’t all to say that isolation shouldn’t remain a key part of Harden’s game. While he’s cut back on the amount of time in iso, Harden is still incredibly effective when he calls his own number. On plays in which the point guard operates through isolation, he’s averaging 1.08 points per possession, with 9.1 points per game and is posting a 53.6 EFG% in those situations. He’s just become more effective on when to take it to the lane for himself versus when to look to pass the ball and let his teammates add to his assist totals. When looking at Harden’s passing numbers from last year to this year, we see an increase in passes per game, assists, potential assists, and points created off of his passes. This is in addition to the fact that he is averaging more drives per game than last season, meaning the foundational aspects of his game haven’t changed; he’s just beating defenses through his team rather than doing it all by himself.

James Harden has been an offensive juggernaut for years with the Houston Rockets, but we’ve never seen him play at this level. His scoring numbers are down from what we’re accustomed to, but it’s not a result of his decline. In fact, he’s posting better shooting numbers than when he averaged over 36 points per game in 2019. Instead, Harden has shown that the move to acquire him was fully worth it, as he has become the most important player to the title hopes of the Brooklyn Nets. With recent injuries to LeBron James and Joel Embiid, Harden is also putting himself right in the mix for winning the Most Valuable Player award, and it’s largely in part to his ability to set his teammates up for good looks with his altered approach to the offensive end of the floor. It remains to be seen how the Nets will fare in the playoffs, but with this evolved form of James Harden, I like Brooklyn’s odds in the survival of the fittest.