Since he joined the Houston Rockets, James Harden has emerged as one of the premier scorers in the NBA. The former Sixth Man of the Year with Oklahoma City is now the go-to guy in Houston and a top-five player in the league, according to ESPN rankings.
We all knew James Harden was good, but we didn't realize how good, especially Thunder GM Sam Presti, until the blockbuster trade that took place just before the beginning of last season.
Harden announced himself to the world in his first game with the Rockets, scoring 37 points and adding 12 assists, six rebounds and four steals.
To prove it wasn't a fluke, he dropped a then career-high 45 points in his second game with Houston. Harden finished the year fifth in scoring with 25.9 points per game.
When given the opportunity to be the first scoring option, Harden discovered his true potential of becoming a nightmare for opposing defenses. His accuracy from long range and his unmatched ability to attack the rim has defenders picking their poison.
The Houston Rockets' offensive system has evolved, and Harden has evolved with it. Now, the Rockets focus on taking only efficient shots. That means three pointers and shots in the paint, and not much else.
Houston attempted the least amount of mid-range jumpers in the league by a significant margin.
As you can see in the shot chart above, Harden took the vast majority of his shots last season from deep or right at the basket, effectively raising his shot efficiency through the roof. His efficiency is a major reason why he has become a top scorer around the league.
It all starts with the three-pointer. Harden can snipe from deep as well as anyone in the league, finishing last season with the sixth-most threes made at a formidable 36.8 percent. Defenders have to respect his shot from long distance, especially when considering the Rockets launched the most threes per game in the NBA.
Harden's ability to make threes allows him to drive around opponents and attack the rim at full speed. He is deceptively quick and can go right around some of the best defenders as he knifes his way through the lane to the hoop. He has perfected the Eurostep and can easily shed shot blockers waiting for him under the rim.
According to Grantland's Zach Lowe last February, Harden drives as much as anybody and, as a result, it is one of the most efficient plays in all of basketball.
Harden is a talented finisher at the rim, and he also has a knack for drawing defenders and finding the open man cutting to the basket for the easy lay-in.
However, the most significant result of Harden's drives is the free throws.
Over eight of Harden's 25.9 points per game came from the charity stripe last season. Harden's 10.2 free throw attempts per game were the league's most last season, even ahead of 49.2 percent free-throw shooter and new teammate Dwight Howard (expect to see a lot of free throws this year Rockets fans).
Harden holds the ball out in front of him with his big, strong hands and lures defenders into committing the foul. He has the strength to draw the foul and still get off a decent shot attempt before making his way to the line.
The Rockets run several pick-and-roll plays but oftentimes end up in a Harden isolation situation with the shot clock winding down. Harden's ability to easily create contact and draw the foul has saved hundreds of Rockets' empty possessions.
Even if the Rockets are struggling to find a rhythm offensively, they will still put points on the board because of Harden's ease with repeatedly getting to the line.
At the age of just 24, it's scary to think that Harden is only getting better. Especially now with Dwight Howard in the mix, Harden has all of the resources to win a scoring title, an MVP and most importantly, a championship.
Who will win the scoring title this season?
Houston's championship window is wide open with this young, talented core, but the Rockets will only go as far as Harden will carry them. With an elite scorer like Harden, this team will contend for years to come.