James Harden: Advanced stats help, but sometimes it’s ‘too much’

James Harden knows the math is in his favor, but that doesn't mean he's always got the numbers on his mind.
Thomas Shea/Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

HOUSTON — The Rockets model their offense around advanced-analytic principles perhaps more than any team in the league, and James Harden is the perfect superstar to have running the system in place.

A cursory glance at his personal shot chart will show that more than 73 percent of Harden’s looks came either in the paint or beyond the arc last season, and he led the league in free-throw attempts per game while making more in total than any other player in the league was even able to attempt.

Harden sat down with FOX Sports at Foot Locker’s "Play My Tweet" event in Houston last week to discuss how much analytics factor into his game, and how in the world he was consistently able to be so effective last season when opposing defenses were able to focus on stopping him almost exclusively. 

The Houston Rockets are the team that’s known for using analytics more than any other. You look at your shot chart personally or even the team’s, it’s all layups, shots in the paint and threes. There’s not a lot of midrange. How much of that data do you guys see as players? Does it filter through the coaching staff where they kind of point stuff out, or do you guys get data and things to look at?

"We try to just get the best shot available. Our coaches emphasize that we want easy layups, easy transition buckets, and then open threes. We penetrate, we attack the basket and we get the quickest for open threes and open layups. We try to eliminate tough twos and taking just contested shots. But for me, I don’t really try to think about that too much throughout the game, I just try to go out there and just get the best available shot for myself or for my teammates, and that’s how I think we’ve been able to be successful."

Do they show you anything super-detailed like ‘hey, when you hold the ball, or when you dribble this many times, your shooting percentage is X?’ 

"No, no."

Or do they stay away from that stuff? 

"That’s too much [laughs]. I don’t need to be thinking about none of that. I just need to go out there and play my game and attack."

You had an amazing season last year, I was one of the people who thought you should have come away with MVP honors. One of the things that I like to point out to people is just how efficient you are in terms of being able to score the ball. You made more free throws, you led the league obviously, and you made more than the next person attempted, and it was by a lot. How are you able to do that? How are you able to draw so many fouls, especially last year when you guys had so many players injured and you were the focal point of the defense. How were you able to continue to be that effective?

"First of all, I’ve been trying to be efficient since I was in college," Harden said. "I think that’s one of the ways you stay on the floor. One of the ways you impact the game is being efficient. The time that you’re out there, you’re doing something positive to help your team win. For me, I just have that mindset of being aggressive at all times, no matter what it is, and getting to the basket.

"The foul thing, I just don’t know [laughs]. I guess it comes with me being aggressive, me being in attack mode, and me not settling. I think if I’m settling for all jump shots, you don’t get foul calls. So for me, getting to the basket and kind of putting the pressure on the defense allows me to get to the foul line."

But you’re such a good outside shooter, too, so how do you sort of strike that balance?

"Once you start being aggressive and are getting to the basket attacking, the defense starts to soften up a little bit and be back, and that’s when those shots come into play.

"Just mixing it up. Keep the defense on their toes, on their heels. And I think once you have that, you pretty much have your offense in effect.”

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