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Wednesday, January 08, 2020

Rockets Overcome 33 Empty James Harden Possessions to Beat Woeful Hawks, 122-115

Most headlines about Houston's 122-155 win versus Atlanta tonight will be some variation of "Harden Posts 40 Point Triple Double as Houston Wins Without Westbrook." Such a headline is factually accurate--Harden finished with 41 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists while his backcourt mate Russell Westbrook did not play--but it does not convey the full truth about the game.

Harden shot 9-34 from the field--including 4-20 from three point range--and he committed a game-high eight turnovers. Do the math: Harden accounted for 33 empty possessions (and I am giving him a deserved pass for his four missed free throws, because he shot 19-23 from the free throw line overall).

From an analytics standpoint, Harden had an "efficient" shooting performance: 41 points on 34 field goal attempts. However, this is not efficient from any rational evaluation of basketball as a team sport. Atlanta is a lousy team that is very poor defensively. Houston is not going to win many playoff games during which Harden's bricklaying and reckless ballhandling squander more than a fourth of the team's possessions; good teams will make him work harder to get open shots, and good teams will not waste so many of the extra possessions that Harden coughs up.

Plus/minus numbers can be noisy, and this is particularly true in small sample sizes, but it is interesting that in a game that Harden's squad won by seven against a poor team he posted a -3 plus/minus number, third-worst among the eight Rockets who played versus the Hawks.

Of course, the popular narrative--which is now receiving more fuel from Oklahoma City's temporary, relative success with former Rocket Chris Paul (let's see Paul make it through a full healthy season before he is again anointed as the "point god")--is that Westbrook allegedly does not contribute much to winning, while Harden supposedly rivals Michael Jordan and Wilt Chamberlain among the league's greatest scorers of all-time. Therefore, the headlines and game stories must conform to the narrative.

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posted by David Friedman @ 11:35 PM