There is a strong case on the argument that James Harden deserved to win an MVP trophy already (probably more than once). This season, Harden is consistently having performances that make him worthy of a spot in anybody’s current top five players list and as a top-three MVP candidate. But not only is he unique and innovative amongst current-day NBA stars; he is also showing he is up there with the all-time greats with his high efficiency and unselfish, yet dominant game.
This season, James Harden is leading the NBA in usage rate, also called usage percentage. If you do not know much about this stat, it is a percentage metric that tells how many of a team’s possessions a player uses. This stat understands “uses” as taking a shot, drawing a foul, or committing a turnover. Now, let us look at how this season Harden is doing something few superstars have ever done before (and we are not even through the first half of the season yet) in relation to his usage rate, as well as what this means come Playoffs time.
James Harden’s usage rate this season ranks 16th all-time as of today. Of course this metric changes constantly throughout the season, but I will use 35.3% as our Harden usage rate today for this article’s purposes. So, this means 35.3% of all Houston Rockets possessions have ended with Harden taking a shot, drawing a foul, or committing a turnover. This also is James Harden’s career-high usage rate, which sounds like something very surprising given Chris Paul’s addition to the Rockets squad this season.
Harden became a full-time Point Guard last year thanks, in part, to Mike D’Antoni encouraging him to do so. The obvious question entering the season was: will Harden and Paul be able to coexist as two ball-dominant point guards? So far the answer is yes, and the duo seems to get along pretty well, as Harden is getting the ball at a career-high rate. It is important to mention that Chris Paul has missed about one half of the Rockets’ games due to injuries, which might have led to Harden having a slightly higher rate than if Paul played the whole season, but I consider our game sample size big enough to draw objective conclusions by now.
Harden being this high in the all-time usage rate rank is worth looking closely, as we can find positives and negatives on it. Notable players with seasons above Harden in the all-time usage rate list include Allen Iverson (four times), Russell Westbrook (twice), Kobe Bryant (twice), and Michael Jordan (twice). These are all ball-dominant guards with a big offensive reputation. As I looked closer at each of the top 15 seasons of players in all-time usage rate, there is a not-so-good pattern that stands out: teams with all-time high usage rate superstars do not do well come playoffs time; that is if they even got into the Playoffs, of course. You would be surprised at how bad some of these players’ teams have performed with that player using so many of the team’s possessions.
On a side note, I noticed how all of these high usage seasons have come this century, except for Michael Jordan’s 1986-87 season, his 3rd in the NBA. This season Jordan averaged a career-high 37.1 points per game and an insane 38.3% usage rate. Also, it is interesting how 11 out of the top 15 highest usage rate seasons ever came from guards; the other four were Forward Carmelo Anthony and Centers Jermaine O’Neal and DeMarcus Cousins twice. Here is a chart with useful information about all the players above Harden in the all-time usage rate list:
Only 26.6% of the players in the top 15 all-time usage rate leaders made it past the 1st round, something concerning for today’s teams that want to win it all while having a high usage superstar. Something even more astonishing, only once has a player with an usage rate this high made it to the NBA Finals. It was Allen Iverson in the 2001 NBA Finals against the Los Angeles Lakers. Iverson scored like crazy in this 5-game series; he dropped a 48-point performance in the 76ers’ only win, a 37-point outing and two 35-point games, but it was not enough as the Lakers took Games 2 through 5 to win it all.
As I said before, there are both positive and negative takeaways from Harden being this high in the list today. Most people expect Harden’s Houston Rockets to meet the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference Finals. Given the Rockets insane efficiency in both ends of the floor this season, it is fair to assume Harden will get at least to the West Finals. This by itself just shows how unique his talents are, as not even Kobe, or Jordan, or “Mr. Triple-Double” Russell Westbrook got past the 2nd round of the playoffs when using so many of their team’s possessions.
Another thing that makes Harden stand out from this group is his very balanced skill set. Not to say the other players above him were ball hogs or lacked playmaking abilities; but most of them, not to say all of them, were scoring-first players who struggled sharing the ball consistently.
Harden has a ridiculously huge offensive arsenal to score on opposing defenses: he can drive to the basket, catch and shoot, hit pull-up shots, step backs, beat his defender off the dribble, you name it. He can create space at will. Besides this, Harden is a natural playmaker. I like to make emphasis in natural because he does not chase assists to be the box score highlight every game, but instead plays his game normally and takes advantage of other teams giving him too much attention and finds open teammates for usually easy scoring opportunities. Perhaps Harden, alongside LeBron James, is the player that best utilizes his abilities to make those around him better.
This leads me to another positive from Harden and the Rockets, which is his how he involves his supporting cast. Besides Harden, there are five other Houston Rockets that average double digits in scoring, a compliment for both Harden and them. This just goes on to show that this is a true team that makes things work beautifully starting with their leader. Harden shows in no way pride or desire on being the outstanding alpha while playing alongside a future Hall of Famer in Chris Paul, but instead lets him work with the ball too.
It might sound insane that before they traded for him, the Rockets were actively pursuing Paul’s talents even when they already had a top playmaker in Harden. Luckily for them, they now have CP3 on a one-year rental after Paul accepted his player option. And even if he opted out to hit free agency, the Rockets were ready to throw a pitch. In fact, Rockets.com recently published the video they planned on showing Paul as a free agency pitch; the video mainly highlights the Rockets’ fast-paced offense lead by James Harden. There was eventually no need to show him the video, and after some games this season I am convinced the CP3-Harden duo knows exactly how to work together to get the best out of each. Paul is averaging exactly nine assists (same number as Harden) and over 17 points a game. This is just another proof of how immensely talented Harden is and why he is defying standards for high usage superstars.
It is worth mentioning that Harden does have a roster that fits his needs and Head Coach Mike D’Antoni’s system in the Rockets. Harden has been surrounded by great three-point shooters and strong defensive contributors that allow his game to flourish even more.
But just as there are many positives, Harden also faces challenges that come with having this high of a usage rate. First, we already saw what history says about team success when they have a high-usage player; sure, we already talked about what makes Harden unique and special, but throughout the years we have learned that history plays an important role in current day outcomes and ignoring it completely is a mistake. Harden is coughing up the ball at league-high clips; 4.4 turnovers per game, good for third worst in the league above DeMarcus Cousins and Russell Westbrook.
High turnover numbers is not a luxury you can live with when facing the Golden State Warriors. The Warriors average 17.5 points off turnovers and do not mind pulling up at the three-point line during fast breaks, a category in which they excel, with a league leading (by a mile) 21.4 fast break points per game. The Rockets relying too much on Harden when facing a healthy Golden State Warriors team could eventually hurt them in the West Finals if the Warriors find ways to force Harden into tough shots, cause turnovers and play a trap defense that smothers Harden and his shooting teammates.
As you can see, the positives do override the negatives. More than negatives, they are just small details that Harden and the Rockets need to address before facing the best competition in the Playoffs. And while Harden works on cutting his turnovers down and keeping up a decent effort in the defensive end, the Rockets still have more than half a season to figure out how to beat the Golden State Warriors (and to a lesser extent have a game plan against the San Antonio Spurs and the Oklahoma City Thunder). Harden is just a mesmerizing talent with a combination of skills rarely ever seen. Mike D’Antoni deserves as much credit as Harden for unleashing that potential; and the scariest part is he is only 28 years old.