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James Harden is slicing up defenses with his passing

Nov 12, 2017; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) passes the ball while Indiana Pacers players defend in the first half of the game at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Mandatory Credit: Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports
Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

Houston Rockets guard James Harden is playing like a Samurai warrior the way he’s slicing up opponents. While he’s known for his scoring, beard, “flopping” and lack of defense, the one thing that might not get the attention it deserves is his ability to carve a defense up with his passing.

It’s weird to say about a guy who led the league in assists last year and is leading again this year, but Harden doesn’t get nearly enough credit for his passing. He slices and dices defenses as well as anyone in the NBA right now, and that’s saying something when you consider who’s out there. Some guys, such as Russell Westbrook, can put up close to the same volume of assists. Others, such as LeBron James, don’t quite have the volume but have such spectacular vision that the volume doesn’t matter so much.

With Harden, you don’t have to choose between quantity and quality. He’s slicing up defenses, and his sword is his passes. In Sunday’s game against the Indiana Pacers, his work was on full display when he had nine assists in the first quarter alone. Every one of those was for 3 or at the rim.

Harden got things going with this alley-oop to Clint Capela:

 

Pay attention to Harden’s manipulation of the defense on this play. Capela faked like he was going to set the screen for Ryan Anderson, who called for the ball. But while that was happening, Eric Gordon was setting a screen that sprung Capela for the oop. What sold the whole play, though, was Harden never breaking eye contact with Anderson before delivering the pass on the money for his cutting big man.

Another thing that Harden does brilliantly is the pocket pass, which invariably works so smoothly into his dribble that sometimes you don’t even notice that he has passed the ball. That split second it takes the defense to recognize he delivered the ball is often all it takes for the recipient to get to the rim with an uncontested bucket:

 

Needless to say, uncontested shots at the rim like the one Black had here are high-efficiency shots.

How about another, just for fun:

 

Harden also gets to the rim, breaks down defenses and then delivers passes to the corners with regularity. I don’t even know what you call this pass. A jump-bounce pass? Either way it’s impressive:

 

He throws lob passes, pocket passes, kick-outs, outlet passes and skip passes. He nutmegs defenders with regularity and smokes defense with no-look passes and behind-the-back passes ordinary men could never dream of, but he makes them look ordinary. Sure, he’s third in the league in scoring, but he also leads the league in assists. Not only that, he leads the league in 3-point assists with 57.

His total points created off assists is 343, which leads the league by a country mile. Westbrook (303) is the only other player over 300. And while he has one fewer game, Harden’s passes are generating 1.3 more points per game than Westbrook’s, in spite of the fact that Westbrook is averaging 0.4 more potential assists per game, per NBA.com.

When you do the math on it, Harden’s teammates are shooting an incredible 62.6 effective field goal percentage on his passes. And the team’s effective field goal percentage drops from 56.7 percent with him on the court all the way to 50.7 with him on the bench, while the assist percentage drops from 58.2 with him on to 52.9 percent with him off. That combines to suggest that the passes Harden is making aren’t “system” passes as some might want to attribute it to since he’s playing in a system Mike D’Antoni designed.

Harden’s ability to carve up defenses is arguably the biggest reason Houston currently owns the second-best offensive rating in the league and the second-best net rating. Sure, it helps that he has the weapons around him, but his greatest weapon remains that defense-dicing sword that is his passing game.

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