Why Does James Harden Continue to Struggle in the Playoffs?
James Harden is my favorite athlete.
I used to qualify that statement, adding in some sort of disclaimer like: Harden’s my favorite NBA athlete, or Harden’s my favorite current athlete, or Harden’s my favorite bearded athlete.
I recently removed the qualifications. I have never rooted for an athlete as much as I do for Harden and his herky-jerky basketball wizardry.
Here’s the issue Harden and his loyal following are running into (once again): he’s just not the same in the playoffs. His per game numbers are way down – 36/7/8 in the regular season (point/rebounds/assists) versus 29/6/8 during the playoffs.
His efficiency is even more concerning: 44/37/87 shooting splits during the regular season (field goal %/three point %/Free throw %), and a putrid 36/33/88 in the playoffs so far.
This season was supposed to be different. Before his lackluster start to the playoffs, it looked like Harden was poised to finally flip the narrative on his postseason struggles because of a new weapon he added to his robust offensive arsenal: a floater.
Before the 2018-19 campaign, Harden had two primary scoring options from the field: pull up from three or blow by his defender and get to the basket. This left a gaping hole in his offensive game that savvy defenses would exploit, as they’d often give him open looks from 10ish feet that he would be hesitant to take in Mike D’Antoni’s analytically-driven offense that advocates for three shots: threes, layups, and free throws.
The Rockets finally realized that Harden needed to be able to make defenses pay for giving him room within 10 feet of the basket, and he added in his lethal floater.
Per Cleaning the Glass, Harden made 140 shots from between 4 and 14 feet this year at a solid 46% clip. He only made 143 shots from that distance COMBINED in the two seasons prior, while shooting a well-below-average 36%.
Adding in a floater has somehow elevated Harden’s offensive skillset. It hasn’t just eliminated a weakness that defenses were exploiting, but it also makes his lob passes to Clint Capela – the Rockets’ bouncy center – even more deadly (if that’s possible).
When Harden stopped short of the basket while driving in previous years, it was almost always a lob or a kick out to a teammate on the perimeter – now it’s not so simple, as he has a new weapon to deploy. Add in the fact that his lobs and floaters look almost identical at their release point and he’s basically un-guardable when his new shot is falling.
Thanks in large part to Harden’s own developments, Capela had the best season of his career in 2018-19 – averaging 16.6 points and 12.7 rebounds. Harden averaged 3.3 assists to Capela per game this past regular season, accounting for almost half of his made shots.
During the playoffs, Capela’s scoring has dipped to under 10 a night. This might not seem like it’s related to Harden’s shooting struggles, but it most definitely is, as we’ll see in a second.
Despite Harden’s improvement from the shorter midrange area, that is still the shot defenses are willing to concede. In the playoffs, this calculated gamble has paid off.
Harden shot an efficient 47% from between 3-and-10 feet during the regular season, per basketball reference. During the playoffs, Harden is shooting just 22 percent from that same area. Yikes.
Against the Jazz in the first round – which was much closer than it’s 4-1 result indicates – Rudy Gobert, Utah’s dominant paint protector, took advantage of Harden’s struggles by committing to him later and later on his floaters as the series went on. Utah was quite literally playing BEHIND Harden on the perimeter, taking away his step back three and begging him to drive into the area he had worked so hard to improve:
Harden’s struggles with his floater allowed Gobert to hang back on Capela – who is often positioned on the baseline in what’s known as the “dunker spot” – virtually taking him out of the series. Capela averaged more makes per game during the regular season than he did attempts per game against the Jazz in the opening round.
Capela once again struggled in Game 1 against the Warriors. This wasn’t altogether surprising, though, as Golden State’s defensive approach is basically the antithesis of Utah’s.
The Jazz wanted to send Harden into the paint and force him to either hit his floater or find his teammates. The Warriors play him straight up and switch every screen, allowing him to isolate one-on-one, but try to take away his playmaking – especially to Capela – by limiting the sort of blow-by opportunities he had against Utah.
Harden should be feasting on the isolations he’s getting against Golden State’s defense. But through one game, he’s not, as he shot just 9-for-28, despite finishing with 35 points.
The Rockets want to isolate Harden on the Warriors’ weakest defender – Stephen Curry. According to Kirk Goldsberry at ESPN, Steph was switched onto Harden 83 times during last year’s West Finals. That is 57 more than the next closest player.
Despite his shortcomings as an on-ball stopper, Curry did a great job of showing hard when his man screened for Harden this past Sunday – “showing” basically means just lunging at the ball for a second – and then recovering quickly to his original assignment. Houston would send Harden through multiple picks within the same possession in order to get their desired matchup, but often times, even if they did get the mismatch with Steph, it was too little too late and Harden was forced into a tough, late-clock chuck. The Rockets had a couple shot clock violations, and seemed to be in a perpetual scramble to get any sort of shot off on multiple possessions.
Houston needs to get into its offense quicker. But this is not even close to the biggest headline that emerged from Game 1.
It is now time to address the giant zebra-colored elephant in the room: the officiating.
It doesn’t take a hell of a lot of digging to see that Harden doesn’t get the same calls in the postseason. The skilled contact-initiator (this is a nice way of saying “flopper”) is averaging 2.5 less free throws per game during the playoffs than he was in the regular season.
The Rockets’ analytically-minded General Manager, Daryl Morey, has taken his analysis a couple steps further.
Morey has built his roster around the Freedom of Movement rules that has caused scoring to increase across the board as players have greater room to operate and an easier time getting to the line. No one has benefited more from these rule adjustments than Harden – except in the postseason.
Morey has been adamant about what he views as Golden State being on the receiving end of far too many favorable calls. The Rockets studied the referees closely in their Western Conference Finals matchup with the Warriors last season, and Houston determined that they were harmed to the tune of 93 points over seven games, per Sam Amick at The Athletic.
Earlier today, even more buzz was created after a Rockets report from their Game 7 loss to the Warriors last year revealed what they determined to be 81 missed calls and non-calls going against them.
A lot of these contentious calls revolve around the ambiguous “landing space” rules the NBA has for its shooters, which became more prevalent after Kawhi Leonard rolled his ankle on a dangerously placed Zaza Pachulia foot. You can see that play below:
In Game 1 between Houston and Golden State this past Sunday the same rule was once again brought to the forefront. Chris Paul and Harden felt they were on the wrong end of numerous missed calls where their landing space was infiltrated.
Here’s a compilation of a few Klay Thompson closeouts on Harden from Sunday. All of them look like fouls, with the final contest being especially egregious:
One of the more compelling rivalries the NBA has today is quickly becoming defined by officiating, which is too bad. But judging by the evidence, even if you put aside the Rockets’ obviously biased research, their legitimate gripes cannot be ignored.
If Houston – and Harden more specifically – was officiated Sunday the way they were all regular season they walk out of Oakland with a double-digit victory as opposed to a four-point loss. In his post-game presser Harden implored the refs to “call the game the way it’s supposed to be called.” You know, the way they’ve been calling it since October.
Harden struggling with his shiniest new toy – his floater – is probably the biggest reason why his postseason-choker narrative is persisting through the first game of the second round. But the poor officiating is no doubt playing a role in his struggles as well.
The Rockets and their MVP are a historically difficult team to officiate. Their offensive possessions often devolve into flailing limbs and glares at the officials. Daryl Morey’s complaining isn’t helping either. So-called basketball “purists” already despise his innovative approach to team building, and his embarrassingly biased referee reports aren’t helping his cause. (Despite my mentioning his studies above, they are pretty ridiculous. Basketball is not, and never will be, officiated by robots, which Morey seems to want.)
I understand that the optics of their play isn’t always thrilling. A lot of the pushback they’re getting stems from their aesthetically indifferent style.
Refs swallow their whistles around the basket in the playoffs, and that’s fine. But every Klay Thompson contest above – in addition to a couple others that aren’t shown – are fouls. This series is too important – and too compelling – to be decided by the officials. Right now, they’re playing far too big a role in the outcome.