A Closer Look: Harden’s Scoring Streak

01/19/2019 at 01:01pm

By Brian Martin

Note: This story was published prior to Houston's game against the Los Angeles Lakers on Saturday, Jan. 19. In that game, James Harden finished with 48 points to extend his streak with at least 30 points to 19 games. He has a chance to reach 20 games, matching one of Wilt Chamberlain's top four streaks (20, 25, 31 and 65 games), on Monday night against Philadelphia (8:00 ET, TNT).

On Dec. 13 in Houston, James Harden scored 50 points to lead the Rockets to a 126-121 win over the L.A. Lakers. At the time, the Rockets sat in 14th place in the Western Conference standings, while the Lakers were fourth.

That game was not only the beginning of James Harden's scoring streak, which has seen him score at least 30 points in 18 straight games, it also was a turning point for the Rockets season. After getting off to a slow start and seeing All-Star guard Chris Paul go down with a hamstring injury, the team that was one quarter away from a trip to the NBA Finals last season was second-to-last in the deep Western Conference.

Over the past 18 games, Harden has averaged 42.2 points per game upping his league-leading scoring average from 30.0 entering that Dec. 13 game versus the Lakers to 35.4 entering Saturday's game with the Lakers in the nightcap of the season-debut of ABC Saturday Primetime.

Harden has been must-see TV over the past month as he's having one of the greatest offensive explosions the league has ever seen. His streak of 30-point games not only passed Kobe Bryant's streak from 2003 for the longest since the NBA-ABA merger, it equaled the streak of another former Laker great - Elgin Baylor - who had 18 straight 30-point games spanning the 1961-62 and 1962-63 seasons.

30-Point Streaks, Game-By-Game – Harden vs. Bryant vs. Baylor

Another 30-point game on Saturday and Harden officially enters Wilt territory as only the legendary Wilt Chamberlain has put together a longer streak of 30-point games. Wilt has the four longest streaks in league history: 20 games, 25 games, 31 games and the record 65 games from his magical 1961-62 season when he averaged 50.4 points per game.

While Harden is not going to challenge that record scoring average, his 35.4 points per game is the highest single-season scoring average since Kobe averaged 35.4 during the 2005-06 season. If he maintains this pace, it would be the ninth-highest single-season scoring average in league history. Here's the list of players to average at least 35 points per game for a full season: Wilt Chamberlain (5x), Michael Jordan, Rick Barry and Kobe Bryant.

Harden's scoring average was helped significantly from his last two outings as he scored 57 and 58 points in back-to-back games. The only other player in NBA history to score 55 or more points in consecutive games? That's right, Wilt Chamberlain. Unlike Wilt, who was fed the ball by teammates for many of his baskets, Harden has been a one-man wrecking crew, creating his own shots in isolation at a historic rate.

While he has scored a total of 115 points in his last two games, none of those points were assisted by his teammates. For the season, 87.4 percent of Harden's buckets are unassisted and during the streak that percentage has actually increased to 88.7 percent. While we don't have data to compare the assisted basket rate for Wilt or Baylor, it is available for Kobe's streak back in 2003. During his 16-game run of 30-point games, 61.4 percent of Kobe's baskets were unassisted, which is one of many significant differences between his and Harden's streaks.

Scoring Distribution: Harden vs. Bryant

Harden is the perfect example of the how the game has shifted thanks in large part to analytics identifying the most efficient shots on the floor. When it comes to shot distribution, every defender in the league knows what Harden is going to do: shot threes (many using his nearly indefensible signature step-back), drive the lane for layups or fouls so he can get to the free throw line. But it’s one thing to know what someone is going to do; it’s a whole other to find a way to stop it.

Shot Distribution: Harden vs. Bryant

By contrast, Kobe utilized much more of the court in finding his points, with a healthy dose of mid-range attempts to go with his points at the rim, from beyond the arc and from the free throw line. When comparing the shot attempts from their respective streaks, we see that Harden has made more 3-pointers (5.8 per game) than Kobe attempted (5.3). The same goes for free throws with Harden making 12.9 per game compared to Kobe's 12.1 attempts.

During his streak, Harden is averaging 1.8 more points per game than Kobe did during his streak, but Kobe averaged 2.1 more field goals made per game. In fact, while Harden has played two more games and scored 113 more points during his streak, Kobe made 11 more field goals (223-212) than Harden.

While Kobe shot higher percentages from the field (47.5% compared to 43.4%) and from beyond the arc (42.9% compared to 37.7%), Harden still holds a significant edge in both effective field goal percentage (54% compared to 51.4%) and true shooting percentage (63.0% compared to 58.4%) thanks to his high volume of 3-pointers and free throws.

Streak Per Game Averages – Harden vs. Bryant

Both players had usage rates north of 40 percent (40.5% for Kobe, 41.8% for Harden), but it is Harden that has had the more well-rounded game. During his 18-game streak, Harden has 11 double-doubles and five triple-doubles, while Kobe did not have a single double-double during his 16-game streak. In addition to leading the league in scoring by more than 10 points per game since Dec. 13, Harden ranks third in the league in assists (9.1 per game) during that stretch; more evidence that the entire Rockets' offense flows through Harden's ability to either score for himself or create for others.

While Kobe's generation did not utilize the 3-point shot as much as the current generation, it wasn't even an option for Baylor and Wilt. During Baylor's 18-game streak, he averaged 14.6 field goals made (0.7 more than Kobe, 2.8 more than Harden) and 10.1 free throws made (just 0.2 less than Kobe, but 2.8 less than Harden).

No matter which path was traveled, the achievement of such a long scoring streak is a testament to the talent and consistency of these players. On Saturday, Harden has the chance to pass Baylor and enter the rarefied air of the Wilt zone. Of course the main question that lingers is how long can Harden keep this up, and how long will he need to in order for the Rockets to keep winning? While Paul is getting close to returning, Houston just lost Clint Capela for the next 4-6 weeks after undergoing surgery to repair a torn ligament in his thumb, which only increases the load that Harden must carry as he tries to get the Rockets back to the precipice of the Finals.