As an NBA fan you’re probably pretty stoked that the new season has started. If that weren’t enough though, we got a blockbuster trade just days before the first game. One of the league’s top young players, James Harden, was the centerpiece of a deal that sent Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb and draft picks to the Oklahoma City Thunder for James Harden, Cole Aldrich, Daequan Cook, and Lazar Hayward. There are arguments to be made on who got the better end of the deal and how it will affect each team in the short-term and long-term. The general consensus is that the Thunder took a step back for at least the next 2-3 years because they gave up an unbelievable talent in Harden. However, Kevin Martin can provide the same scoring punch offer the bench that Harden offered (though not the same ball-handling and dribble penetration) and Jeremy Lamb and the collection of draft picks have the potential to bolster the Thunder down the road. The Rockets improve their team now and in the future because they finally have a star player to build around.
Regardless of how the trade affects each team, I’d like to explore what the change of scenery does for Harden’s stats. Most sports sites that provide projections had Harden pegged somewhere in the neighborhood of 17-21 points per game for this season. Some sites updated projections after the trade, but even then the thought was that his minutes would go up from 31 to somewhere in the 35-36 range so that should increase his scoring by 2-3 points per game. Here are James Harden’s stats from the 2011-2012 season. I believe he will blow those scoring numbers out of the water now that he’s the main guy in Houston:
The biggest thing holding back Harden in OKC were the shooting volume of Durant and Westbrook. Kobe Bryant led the league in % of his team’s field goal attempts per game at 27.7%. Durant was second at 25.3% and Westbrook 3rd at 24.7%. Where was Harden? Outside of the top 70 at 12.3% in the range of guys like Thaddeus Young, Brandon Bass, and Jeff Teague. I’ve built a spreadsheet that lets you change a few key assumptions based on Harden’s move to Houston that influence his scoring potential.
The biggest assumption I made was that Harden would increase his team shot % from 12.3% to 22%. An average team takes about 82 shots per game so at 22% that means Harden is taking just over 18 shots per game. 22% is among the highest in the league – in the range of Lebron, Brandon Jennings, and David Lee. However, the lack of additional scoring options almost necessitates Harden to take a high percentage of shots. I also think he’ll increase his 3 pt attempts now that he has more free range to create for himself and score. However, the added pressure of carrying a team and increased defensive focus will likely hurt Harden’s FG%. Last year Harden shot an insane 58% on 2pt shots. That number has to come down. For comparison’s sake that was the exact same percentage as Dwight Howard, more than 2% better than Lebron James, and only trailed guys like Tyson Chandler and Deandre Jordan who rarely take a shot outside of 3 feet.
Based on these new assumptions I think it’s entirely realistic that Harden is a 24-25 points per game scorer. It looks like he’s off to a great start with 37 in the opener.