Friday, January 25, 2019


Houston Rockets guard James Harden has set the sports world ablaze as a one-man scoring machine. Wednesday night in New York, Harden scored 61 points, extending his streak of scoring at least 30 points to 21 consecutive contests (game-by-game log). It is the fourth longest such streak in NBA history, with only Wilt Chamberlain recording longer streaks of scoring 30+ points (65, 31, and 25 games). The Rockets host Toronto tonight, as Harden seeks to keep lighting up the scoreboard.

Despite all the attention Harden has been getting, one can question the value of his streak for at least three reasons. First, prodigious scoring averages don't necessarily equate to championships. In fact, Wilt didn't start winning titles (in 1966-67 with the Sixers and 1971-72 with the Lakers) until his points per game came down and his shooting percentage went up (perhaps suggesting that he and his coaches became more selective in the shots he would take). Also, do you remember big scorer Carmelo Anthony leading the Nuggets or Knicks to the NBA title? Neither do I. Houston is 15-6 over the 21 games of Harden's 30+ streak (although only 5-5 over its last 10), so it would be hard to argue that the streak was hurting the team.

Second, has Harden really elevated his performance -- as the concept of a momentum-based hot hand would require -- or are his high-scoring nights more the product of shot volume than efficiency? With injuries to teammates Chris Paul and Clint Capela, Harden has been launching shots at an unprecedented rate for him. So far this season, Harden has attempted 23.9 shots per game from the floor. Previously, his highest single-season shots-per-game average was 20.1 (in 2017-18).

Looking at Harden's three-point attempts and success rate over the past 10 games (from most to least recent), one finds the following: 5-20 (.250), 6-13 (.462), 8-19 (.421), 5-19 (.263), 6-15 (.400), 1-17 (.059), 8-16 (.500), 6-16 (.375), 6-15 (.400), and 5-17 (.294). The statistics are mixed, but I would say volume is playing a large role in Harden's scoring.

Further pertaining to Harden's large role in the Rockets' offense, an 5-on-5 discussion asks "Can James Harden possibly keep this up?" This article discusses Harden's high rate of unassisted shots and high usage rate.

Third, will it hurt Houston over the long term to have Harden playing as great a number of minutes as he currently is? A FiveThirtyEight article asks "Will James Harden’s Hot Streak Burn Him Out?" This article documents, among other things, that Harden is tied for the lead league in minutes per game at 37; his effective field-goal percentage has declined in the fourth quarter of games over the past three seasons; and teams with one player carrying a heavy usage load tend not to do well in the playoffs.

The most recent Sports Illustrated magazine features a lengthy article on Harden and the Rockets. Houston coach Mike D'Antoni is quoted to the effect that he has no choice on playing Harden such heavy minutes. Given the Rockets' slow start to the season, "We gotta win games... We can't... come in eighth [in the Western Conference] and get knocked out in the first round."

Of course, Harden's scoring streak may just be an oddity, brought about by the absence of some of the Rockets' leading players. It will be interesting to see what happens when they come back!