Is James Harden The Best Offensive Player… Ever?


By Aaron Hook, Assistant Sports Editor

James Harden can be described by a lot of different words. Polarizing. Deceptive. Sneaky. Flashy. Daunting. Relentless. 


However, the word that best describes James Harden’s talent, and his career as a whole: Historic.


While Harden’s offensive prowess has not reached the magnitude in terms of change in the league such as Stephen Curry’s, which sparked the three-point revolution, or Dirk Nowitzki’s, which inspired tall people everywhere to do more than just dunk and shoot hook shots, he has almost “shifted” or “bent” the norm of how NBA offenses have played for the better part of 60 years. We can all agree that Harden is an elite scorer. With an arsenal of moves and strategies that seems to have no end, it seems as if he’s always a step ahead of his opponent, like he knows what move he’s about to, and he knows that he’ll be successful in either hitting a jumper, getting to the rim for an easy score, or earning a trip to the free-throw line, before he even crosses half court. Harden has led the league in scoring the past 2 seasons, averaging 30.4 and 36.1 points per game respectively over those two campaigns. And he’s doing it again. Through the first 14 games of the NBA season, Harden is once again leading the league in scoring, this time with an absurd 39.2 points per game average, a mark that is the highest ever through a team’s first 14 games, surpassing Michael Jordan’s 1988-89 season where through the Bulls’ first 14 contests he averaged 36.1 points per game. Harden is so unpredictable offensively, and so good in every aspect of it, that it’s literally nearly impossible to hold him to less than 30 points. In fact, another offensive record was challenged by Harden last season, when he tied the record for the most consecutive 30 point games in NBA History with 32 straight contests, the only other player to do that being Wilt Chamberlain. Some other feats that Harden accomplished during this streak were 18 games with 40 or more points, 4 50 point games, and once again matching Chamberlain in being only the second player to score 55 points or more in consecutive contests. Harden’s production is absolutely unreal. But is he the best to ever do it? Let’s break down his game.


Harden’s scoring ability consists of three main deadly components. Harden’s signature move is the step back, which he uses to catch his opponent sleeping on defense and to create a ton of space for him to hit his lethal jumper from three. Harden’s three-point field goal percentage has remained so consistent and for a guy who has the highest usage rate in NBA history, that’s pretty impressive. His 3-point % over the past 5 seasons comes out to about 36%, which once again is a remarkable number as he’s also attempted just over 10 threes a game. The sheer ferocity of Harden’s game is another big contributing factor in his incredible production, as he is like a bulldozer when he goes to the rim. At 6’5/220, Harden’s strength, quickness, and phenomenal footwork in the lane allows him to finish around and over bigger and smaller defenders alike. This season, Harden is shooting the best field goal percentage inside the restricted area in the NBA outside of his teammate Russell Westbrook. He is also averaging the most points in the NBA off drives to the basket with a ridiculous 15.6. This high volume of shots around the basket leads to what is maybe Harden’s best offensive trait, drawing fouls. He has attracted a lot of attention and controversy to his game over the previous few seasons with the astronomical number of free throws he tends to shoot on a nightly basis. Again looking at a sample size of the previous five seasons, Harden leads the NBA in free throws attempted per game with 10.2. In recent years, Harden has attracted a large number of NBA and basketball fans who are against his style of play, claiming that he flops his way to 10+ free throws a game and that he gets almost every call. This is slightly true. There is no hiding that Harden is fantastic at selling fouls to the refs, who 99% of the time give him the benefit of the doubt and a trip to the free-throw line. Harden has changed the mold of officiating in the modern NBA. His ability to get almost every single call and rack up insane free throw attempts has shifted both the players’ and the referees’ mindset every time they take the court. Harden’s scoring ability is truly something unprecedented and is the most polarizing player who is performing at the level he is in recent memory.


Of course, when talking about offensive ability, scoring in really only one-third of the equation. Harden’s passing ability is one of the best in the league as well. Over the previous 5 seasons, Harden has averaged 8.7 assists per game, including leading the league in that category in the 2016-17 season with 11.2 a game. But the statistics don’t even tell the entire story. Harden has the perfect combination of court vision, flashiness, and efficiency when making tough passes. And ever since Clint Capela came into his own as a dominant rim running Center, he and Harden have become one of, if not the most lethal alley-oop duos in the NBA. Harden seems to always find a way to slither into the lane and make a quick, efficient, seemingly impossible pass to an open shooter or a big man down low. One thing that allows him to create space on the perimeter and to get passes off is his tight handle. Harden has incorporated his crossover and plethora of other moves into his game so well and has been handing out ankle breakers at a torrid pace over the past few seasons, and really has been doing it since his OKC days. His most famous crossover is the one he pulled on Wesley Johnson of the Los Angeles Clippers on February 28th, 2018. Johnson was checking Harden on the left wing when Harden, in the midst of working Johnson with a series of crossovers, drove left, drew contact from Johnson just inside the arc, and proceeded to slide back from him with a between the legs move, causing Johnson to fall onto his backside and look away in horror. Harden proceeded to maneuver into his signature step back and drill a three, putting the Rockets up 31-7 with 1:15 to go in the 1st. It was one of the most cold-blooded and downright best ankle breakers in recent memory, and the clip went viral instantly. It was really the moment when the NBA landscape realized just how dangerous Harden was offensively. The final component in Harden’s game that makes him the complete offensive player is his rebounding. Harden has made his presence more than felt on the boards for the better part of his career, and for a 6’5 guard, he’s very prominent when it comes to cleaning the glass. In 2016-17, Harden averaged 8.1 rebounds a night, which lead all guards outside of Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook. His ability to collect rebounds and lead the break makes him dangerous in that facet of the game as well-how fast he can grab a board and go coast to coast. He catches the defense off guard in so many ways. And, if nothing else, the team who wins the battle on the boards is usually the team that comes away victorious, or at the very least puts themselves in a better position to do so, and Harden contributes to that in a big way for being the primary ball-handler.


James Harden’s game may be controversial, and for some, impossible to bear and to watch, but what he’s been doing over his tenure in Houston and specifically for the past 5 years is something we have never seen and something we may never see again. And for that, he may just be the greatest offensive talent the NBA has ever seen.