Of all the questions entering 2021, there's one that stood out from the pack.
Will the Houston Rockets trade James Harden?
Here's what we do know: Harden wants to "be on a contender elsewhere," according to reports, with the Brooklyn Nets, Philadelphia 76ers, Milwaukee Bucks and Miami Heat being among his preferred destinations. In return, the Rockets are said to be looking for a package that includes a "young franchise cornerstone," "a bundle of first-round picks" and/or "talented players on rookie contracts."
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That's obviously a lot to give up for one player, but Harden isn't any ordinary player. He's a perennial MVP candidate in his early 30s who has proven to be durable and is under team control for at least two more seasons. It doesn't appear as though the Rockets are being inundated with offers for Harden right now, but it's hard to believe they won't get a massive return if he is traded.
Even though the Rockets are reportedly in no rush to trade Harden, let's imagine he is traded somewhere soon, whether it is Brooklyn, Philadelphia, Milwaukee or Miami. What would his addition mean for a team's offence?
Let's take a closer look at the player he's developed into, both the good and the bad, as well as the unknown.
MORE: Trade destinations for Harden | Harden, Irving, Durant would be unstoppable ... right?
The most prolific isolation scorer ... ever?
There's no other place to start.
The NBA's play type data only goes back to 2015-16, but it's safe to assume that few players - if any - have ever reached the levels Harden has as a one-on-one scorer.
Last season, Harden averaged 15.8 points per game in isolation, representing close to half (45.0 percent) of his offence. That led the league by a massive margin. The player closest to Harden was Russell Westbrook, only he averaged 6.4 points per game in isolation.
Put it this way: Harden scored a total of 1,075 points in isolation last season. That was more than every other team in the league.
The craziest part of it all? Harden combined that volume with incredible efficiency.
According to NBA.com, Harden ranked in the 92nd percentile with an average of 1.12 points per isolation possession. The only notable player ahead of him in the efficiency department was DeMar DeRozan, who scored a fifth of the amount of points (221) as Harden did in isolation.
So not only does Harden score more in isolation than every player in the league, he's basically the most efficient.
The secret to Harden's success, of course, is his step back. It's one of the greatest weapons in league history. Not only is he comfortable shooting from deep, he has the size (6-foot-5) and length (6-foot-11 wingspan) to shoot over most defenders.
If teams press up on him to take away his step back 3, Harden is perfectly capable of finishing around the basket.
According to Cleaning The Glass, he made 68.3 percent of his shot attempts at the rim last season, ranking him in the 78th percentile for his position.
Harden has also added a floater to his game in recent years. He made 40.5 percent of his shot attempts from floater range last season, ranking him in the 58th percentile for his position.
The only thing Harden doesn't have is a midrange game - he attempted a total of 20 shots from midrange last season - but that's more by choice than ability. There's a case to be made that Harden would benefit from being a more willing midrange shooter because it would make him a less predictable isolation scorer in the playoffs, so it'll be interesting to see if that's a part of his game that a new coach tries to unlock, whether it's in Houston under Stephen Silas or somewhere else.
Being such a dominant isolation scorer, Harden is basically an offence unto himself. He can create his shot against anyone and draws so much attention that it makes the lives of his teammates rather simple. If teams don't provide help, he's going to create a good look for himself. If they do, he's going to kick it out to someone for a high percentage shot, whether it's from the perimeter or around the basket.
For all of the attention Harden gets for his scoring ability, he's developed into one of the league's best facilitators. According to PBP Stats, only LeBron James (329), Trae Young (322) and Ricky Rubio (299) assisted on more field goals at the rim than Harden (271) last season. Additionally, only Luka Doncic (244), LeBron James (234), Ben Simmons (226), Russell Westbrook (212), DeMar DeRozan (212) and Damian Lillard (206) assisted on more 3-pointers than Harden (202) last season.
Surround Harden with three shooters and a lob threat and you have the makings of an elite offence.
So he's incredible in isolation. This doesn't seem complicated.
It isn't and it is.
While Harden can elevate a team to new heights on the strength of his isolation scoring alone, the cost is that he's one of the more ball dominant players in the league and that his style of play doesn't exactly encourage much player movement or ball movement.
Over the last couple of seasons, Houston's offence has come to look a lot like this, with Harden getting the matchup he wants and going to work in isolation while his four teammates stand and watch:
That's fine when he's surrounded by complementary players such as Ben McLemore or Clint Capela, but it makes Harden a tricky player for other All-Stars to play with.
Westbrook and Chris Paul are prime examples of why. Both had success playing next to Harden - Westbrook made the All-NBA Second Team last season and the Rockets almost made the NBA Finals with Harden and Paul - but they had to change their games quite a bit to make it work. As I've written before, not only did they have to adjust to playing more without the ball in their hands in Houston, Westbrook and Paul saw their isolation frequency spike while their pick-and-roll frequency plummet.
Time will tell if Harden is willing to adapt, but the fact that he has succeeded in the past playing a different style leaves rooms for optimism. When Mike D'Antoni took over as head coach of the Rockets in 2016-17, his primary focus was crafting a similar offence around Harden as he did around Steve Nash in Phoenix. Harden still led the league in isolation scoring that season, but a much higher portion of his offence (40.5 percent) came as the ball handler in pick-and-rolls.
In fact, there was only one player in the league that season who averaged more points per game than Harden (11.8) as the ball handler in pick-and-rolls. That player? Kemba Walker (12.0). Harden was slightly more efficient than Walker, ranking in the 93rd percentile with 1.01 points per possession.
All of the same things that make Harden such a devastating isolation scorer make him an effective pick-and-roll scorer.
He can knock down 3s off the dribble...
...finish in the paint at a high clip...
...and find his teammates when teams load up on him.
All four teams Harden is reportedly interested in being traded to has someone who would complement Harden well in the pick-and-roll: Brooklyn has lob threats in DeAndre Jordan and Jarrett Allen at centre, plus a pick-and-pop threat in Kevin Durant; Philadelphia has Joel Embiid; Milwaukee has Giannis Antetokounmpo; Miami has Bam Adebayo.
If Harden were to join any one of those teams, it would be in their best interest to put him in more pick-and-rolls. Whether or not he's willing to run more pick-and-rolls if it means he's not getting as many opportunities to isolate remains to be seen. But if he is, it would take a lot of the risk out of trading for him because it would make him much easier to integrate into a new system.
Can Harden play without the ball in his hands?
He can, but it comes with a caveat.
The good? Harden is a proven spot-up threat. According to NBA.com, he made 41.2 percent of his catch-and-shoot 3s last season, 41.4 percent in 2018-19 and 36.7 percent in 2018-19.
Catch-and-shoot 3s haven't been a big part of his game in Houston, but Harden isn't someone teams can help off of, which provides valuable spacing.
The caveat is that Harden isn't the most active player off-ball.
A stat that jumped when I was looking into Westbrook's fit on the Washington Wizards: Harden has been assisted on 316 baskets over the last three seasons combined. For perspective, Bradley Beal was assisted on 267 baskets last season alone.
Harden and Beal are different players - Beal has always been more of a shooter than Harden - but it goes to show how rare it is for someone to set up Harden for a basket.
He's more than capable of being on the receiving end of a handoff of running off of a screen...
...but he's developed a habit of standing still or walking towards the halfcourt line when someone else has the ball in their hands.
Harden has at least shown that he can do enough things off-ball to think that he could play alongside someone like Kyrie Irving, Jimmy Butler or Antetokounmpo. (It's easy to forget that he started his career serving as a third option next to Westbrook and Durant. That version of Harden was a menace off-ball. We just haven't seen him do it enough in recent years to know for sure that he will.
Maybe a new coach will bring that out of him. Maybe a change of scenery will. Maybe new teammates will.
Either way, it'll be fascinating to see how much his game changes if he is traded because it's hard to imagine Harden not having to make some sort of sacrifice, whether it is touches, the way he plays with the ball in his hands or the way he plays without the ball in his hands, if he does join a contender.
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