James Harden Doesn’t Need To Play Fast To Play Efficiently

With his Philadelphia 76ers tied 109-109 with the Chicago Bulls on Oct. 29, James Harden caught the ball on the left wing with just over 20 seconds remaining. He had just crossed half court. He held the ball for a moment and waited for a screen from Joel Embiid. He jab stepped, took a slow step or two and tossed it right back to Embiid for an open triple and the ensuing win.

The Sixers scored more points on that possession than Harden took dribbles. He never came close to the interior of the 3-point arc and didn’t threaten the defense with his own scoring; however, he created a wide-open, game-winning three for his teammate.

Harden’s approach at that moment was not out of the ordinary for him. He plays slow, measured basketball — and not just in crunch time, when many teams slow down. In his first game back from a foot injury on Dec. 5, a double overtime loss to the Houston Rockets, Harden spent more than 80 percent of his time on the court going slowly, defined as moving less than 8 feet per second. Only 13 games so far this season have featured a player spending at least 80 percent of his time moving slowly, and three of them belong to Harden.

Harden’s style exists in stark contrast to modern basketball, where playing uptempo is akin to gospel. Playing in transition, with open space and fewer defenders, is more efficient than playing in the crowded half court. The more time ticks away on the shot clock, the less lucrative a possession becomes, whether in transition or the half court. You get a bigger payoff from getting the ball inside than moving it anywhere else on the court. Playing quickly, shooting early and reaching the paint are the foundations of efficient offense. And yet, one of the most efficient players in basketball history doesn’t fit that mold.

Perhaps “conservation of motion” is a more apt way of describing Harden’s MO Per Second Spectrum, Harden spends the second-largest percentage of time leaguewide moving slowly on the court. He’s also sixth in the league in average touch length, recording 5,684 seconds with the ball every time he catches it. In other words, he frequently holds that ball without doing anything obvious with it. But importantly for both Harden and the Sixers, this approach mostly works.

Harden has maintained a high usage rate and efficiency despite rejecting the tenets of contemporary basketball: Per Second Spectrum, among the 82 players averaging at least 100 touches per 100 team possessions (with at least 100 total touches on the season), possessions in which Harden touches the ball are the 10th- most efficient, scoring 1,075 points per chance. That efficiency isn’t dependent on attacking the rim, either — a Harden touch is just as efficient on possessions with zero drives as on possessions with one or more. And we found little to no correlation between Harden’s fastest-movement or highest-load games as a Sixer (according to Second Spectrum’s fitness tracking) and his best games (as measured by Basketball Reference’s Box Score Plus/Minus). Nor was there a correlation between Harden’s fastest-movement or highest-load games and the Sixers’ win-loss record in those contests.

So Harden doesn’t need to play quickly or reach the paint to create advantages for his team. He’s currently attempting just 21 percent of his shots at the rim, good for the 22nd percentile mark for his position and the lowest rate of his career. However, the Sixers do generate 1,075 points per chance on possessions in which Harden touches the ball, tying the second-highest mark of any team during Harden’s career since 2013-14, when SportsVU cameras began consistently tracking such data. And within that mark, the Sixers are more efficient when Harden touches the ball outside the arc than inside of it.

How is this possible? Harden uses the threat of his jumper, combined with fearless tight-window passing, to create open lanes for teammates — rather than himself — with little movement required. He’s like a quarterback in the pocket, looking for receivers downfield. And if he needs to get them a little more open, he can always lull off-ball defenders to sleep with his dribble.

There are some downsides to this style. Harden’s real estate is much less of an advantage on the defensive end, where the Sixers are better with Harden on the bench than the court. And when Harden is playing off the ball on offense, he does little to create advantages. He ranks 158th in cutting frequency off screens. Neither does he set many screens, as Second Spectrum has recorded only 14 off-ball screens set by Harden this season. While fellow stars can terrorize defenses without the ball, Harden often prefers to stand still far behind the 3-point line. When he can draw defenders out there to guard him without the ball, it’s not a loss. But that can’t always be counted on.

Even when he does cut, Harden remains unhurried. Sometimes he’ll jog through a cut with no intention of creating an advantage with his movement, catch the ball and then wait out the entire shot clock before making a move. Even when those possessions end up successful, they look different than the conventional NBA attack.

Harden will even do the same in transition, catching the ball above the arc with the defense in disarray and then stopping dead for almost 10 seconds. He can wait for the entire play to develop around him, an orbital body in stasis around which the nine other players rush, before finding an opening and shooting.

It is possible that many players who shoulder significant portions of their teams’ responsibilities need to offer less physical effort on any given individual possession. Perhaps they know how and when to save energy, or perhaps they need to move a shorter distance or with less force to create advantages. That might explain why the players who rarely move fast tend to be stars.

The slower the player, the bigger the star?

NBA players who spend the most and least time moving “quickly,” among those with at least 10 minutes played per game, 2022-23 season

player name % of time moving quickly player name % of time moving quickly
Joel Embid 2.08% James Wiseman 12.66%
James Harden 2.33 Max Christie 10.98
Luka Doncic 2.72 Jeremiah Robinson-Earl 10.79
ChrisPaul 2.84 Caleb Houston 10.71
Eric Gordon 2.89 AJ Griffin 10.68
Kristaps Porziņģis 3.22 Venyen Gabriel 10.55
Anthony Davis 3.52 Keegan Murray 10.52
Kevin Durant 3.53 TerryTaylor 10.50
Kyle Lowry 3.57 Chris Duarte 10.48
Nikola Jokic 3.69 Ish Wainright 10.38

“Moving quickly” is defined as traveling more than 14 feet per second at any given moment, according to tracking data.

Source: SecondSpectrum

For most players, holding the ball and dribbling for long periods of time does not lead to points. Across the league this season, a half-court touch with eight or more dribbles results in 0.972 points per chance, compared with the league average of 1.001 across all chances. But Harden averages 1,023 points per chance within such restrictions. He is fourth in the league in his frequency of possessions that use at least a third of the shot clock while featuring zero passes, averaging more than 13 such touches per 100 possessions. He is scoring an outrageous 1,556 points per chance when simply holding the ball in that way (on an admittedly minuscule sample size).

Comparing Harden to past versions of himself reveals just how much his offensive approach has changed. He’s driven less often in only two seasons since 2013-14, and his blow-by percentage on drives has never been lower. However, he’s generating more points per chance on possessions featuring a drive than he typically has. Since at least 2013-14, he has never spent as low a percentage of his time going fast, and he’s never moved so slowly. He’s isolating less, taking fewer layups and running more pick-and-rolls.

Harden is 33 years old, and in a certain sense, he’s following a normal aging curve — moving slower and bursting past defenders with less frequency. In the NBA, that process rarely allows players to remain stars, but it hasn’t seemed to limit Harden’s success. His production has simply come via different routes. Players who drive into their 30s are usually lauded for their longevity. Harden is undergoing his own version of that evolution; as his body has changed, so too has his process for maximizing time on the court. And he’s remained dominant through it all. His newest trick is just to bend NBA defenses with the power of stillness.

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