Fridays With Fenrich is a weekly feature here at Hickory-High, the aggregation of an extended, week-long email conversation on a single basketball theme, between myself and Kris Fenrich of Dancing With Noah. This week’s is more of a brief fireside chat.
Ian: I’ve been wanting to talk about James Harden for weeks but haven’t found what felt like an authentic entry point. Last week I read this wonderful post about Harden’s defense, by Michael Pina of Red94. What caught me was not Pina’s breakdown of Harden’s defensive breakdowns, but this summary of the participatory contributions Harden makes on a nightly basis:
This is James Harden’s first season playing major minutes as the focal point of an NBA offense. And not just any NBA offense. Backed by Harden’s ability to turn himself into a one man fast break three or four times a quarter, the Rockets play with turbo boosters at all times. Every 48 minutes he participates in 99.42 possessions, per NBA.com/Stats, which, by a wide margin, leads all players averaging at least 20 minutes per game. Speaking of minutes, he’s played 1798 of them, more than anybody in the entire league.
What I find most intriguing about Harden is that, despite shouldering a gargantuan offensive load he has sacrificed almost nothing in efficiency. Last season Harden used an average of 22.9 possessions per 48 minutes. This season he’s averaging 32.1. With all that extra responsibility he has increased his TO% by exactly 0.1%. His TS% is the lowest since his rookie season but is still higher than any other player who uses at least 25.0% of his team’s possessions, save LeBron and Durant. Essentially, going from hyper-efficient role player to ultra-alpha seems to have changed almost nothing in the way he evaluates risk and makes decisions on the basketball court. Am I crazy or is the season he’s putting together utterly revolutionary?
Kris: We’re always comfortable making comparisons between Harden’s game and Manu Ginobili’s. The comparisons are convenient and it’s almost like a bunch of us arrived at this comparison around the same time and were all pleased about it. Whether or not Ginobili and Harden exist on the same infinite basketball plane or have similar DNA sequences or if you think Ginobili’s the Argentine Harden or Harden’s American Ginobili, whatever you think, we’ll never know how Ginobili would’ve thrived in a situation as the go-to player because his, and every other Spurs’, role has always existed within the framework, the massively intelligent framework, of Gregg Popovich.
I apologize for completely derailing this topic, but my imagination can’t look at Harden’s uniqueness without wondering who or what Manu could’ve been in a different place or with a different system.
All my distracting meanderings aside, Harden statistically measures as something, someone we haven’t seen in this league. A player who’s been capable of going from 6th man to superstar the way no other pro player ever has. And the way Manu’s role can’t ever be re-written, we can never know whether Harden’s unique circumstance (an elite offensive talented drafted to a team radiating under the bright lights of two already elite, well-established stars) was actually a miscasting that could have failed to tap into his “revolutionary” abilities which are on such fine display in Houston.
Ian: Ginobili is a great comparison, and a good reminder for me that although it exists in a different time and space, Harden’s style and efficiency are not a creature previously unseen. My curious mind can’t help but wander to the famous piece Michael Lewis wrote about Shane Battier a few years ago, with the revelation that Battier discussed and understood defense in the same nuanced and rational way that the basketball analytics community did. I’m dying to know if the same is true of Harden. Does he speak the same language I do? Does he know how his decision to forsake the mid-range jumper affects his true shooting percentage? Does he think in possessions, percentage points and efficiency ratios? His production says yes. His all-white yacht parties say no.
Kris: When I was just out of college, I got a job as a copy writer for a company that performed SEO (search engine optimization) services for clients. Basically, I would write copy and plant targeted keywords throughout the text, but in a way that was supposed to appear to be naturally occuring, or organic. The goal was to get search engines to crawl our clients’ pages and rank them higher in search results because of their relevance. I hadn’t been trained on this and was just told to fill the text with the targeted keywords. We had a tech-savvy guy join the team and he ran my copy through some program that would identify if we had enough keywords and if the copy read in a natural way so as not to seem spammy. All of my copy scored extremely high. It was both readable and SEO friendly. I could explain what and why I was doing it, but I approached this work with more of a natural feel than an analytical one and as is the case with many of artists or athletes, I’m assuming that some of them have more analytical minds and take a nuanced, deliberate approach to their work. Some rebounders understand angles and how the ball ricochets perfectly, Shane Battier puts into practice the advanced analytics theories, Billy Beane devised Moneyball, etc. Others just understand the goal: score more points than the other team, make this painting more lifelike or abstract, prevent the other team from reaching base, etc. I don’t have the slightest clue in the world where James Harden falls on this spectrum, but I’m going to venutre out onto a limb and say it’s more likely that he, much like me in my early SEO copy writing days, has worked extremely hard on improving and shaping his game into something that is damn near indfensible and that the ridiculous efficiency is closer to a secondary or tertiary element to the equation.
But to your point, I do believe that players today have a higher level of awareness about what shots and which spots are more efficient and which plays/actions are more likely to lead to free throw attempts or drawn fouls. Whether this is a function of teams/coaches indoctrinating or educating players or players picking it up on their own, I’m not certain.