A Look at James Harden's Playoff Problems

It's becoming increasingly difficult to fear the beard in the playoffs. But why?

When James Harden was brought over to the Houston Rockets in a trade with the Oklahoma City Thunder, he was to become the heavily-bearded face of the franchise. He has carried that title now through two regular seasons in Houston, but there are two things in particular keeping him from breaking into the true superstar stratosphere occupied by the likes of Kevin Durant and LeBron James. The first thing is his comically porous defense and the other is his rapidly growing history of inefficient playoff performances.

He famously disappeared in the 2012 Finals against the Miami Heat as a member of the Thunder, putting up a mere 12.4 points per game as OKC’s third option on an inefficient .375 shooting from the floor (down from 16.8 points on .491 shooting on the season). The move to the Rockets quickly showed that he was a star in the making as he upped his regular season averages to 25.9 points, 4.9 rebounds, and 5.8 assists per game in a starting role. He shouldered the offensive load and dragged an under-talented and generally unproven roster into the West’s eighth seed in the 2013 NBA Playoffs.

The Rockets impressed a lot of people in pushing the first-place Thunder to 6 games (even if they were playing without Russell Westbrook), which might have led to some overlooking Harden’s generally underwhelming performance.

In those six games versus his former team, Harden averaged 26.3 points, 6.7 rebounds, 4.5 assists, and 2.0 steals per game. On the surface, that looks like a pretty stellar line, but not so much when you consider that he shot .391 from the field on 19.2 shots per game and turned the ball over 4.5 times per contest. His rate of .100 win shares per 48 minutes was a far cry from his .206 regular season mark and it started to seem like he would have to wait another year before he’d be able to shake the label of playoff under-performer that started to rear its ugly head after the 2012 NBA Finals.

Unfortunately, this year’s performance in the first round against the Blazers has done nothing to dispel that title and his struggles are starting to look like an annual tradition.

In four games against Portland this year, Harden is up to his old trickery, averaging 27.5 points, 5.3 rebounds, 5.5 assists, and 1.3 steals per game. Once again, as far as counting stats go, you’ll have a hard time finding anyone with a more impressive line. The problem, as has been the case with Harden for a few years, is that he’s getting those numbers very inefficiently.

Yes, he’s scored 110 points in four games, but he’s done it on 103 shots. He’s shooting a lowly .350 from the field while taking a ridiculously high volume of attempts. His 25.8 shots from the field per game trail only LaMarcus Aldridge (26.0) for the lead among this year’s playoff performers (LMA is averaging 35.3 points per game on .529 shooting and deserves every shot he has taken, for what it’s worth). Harden’s also chucking threes like he’s J.R. Smith, averaging 10.3 attempts per game while only hitting at a subpar clip of .258. Gross.

In fact, if you look at Harden’s playoff appearances over the last three years (dating back to the 2012 NBA Finals run with the Thunder), some troubling trends emerge.


Each year, he’s taken more attempts from the field and long range and each year he’s connected at a worse percentage in both areas. In line with the fact that he’s chucking more threes, he’s getting to the line less, as seen in his declining free-throw rate (free throw attempts per field goal attempt). His offensive and defensive ratings have both gotten progressively worse each year, culminating in a disgusting -16 net rating this year (as compared to a -4 last year and a +11 the year before). His rate of win shares per 48 minutes has plummeted to an unsightly .023 (fourth worst among 2014 Playoff performers that have played a minimum of 50 minutes). For context, he was at .221 on the season, finishing sixth in the entire NBA.

Tonight, the Rockets look to stave off elimination at home as they face the Blazers. Portland is up 3-1 in the series, including a perfect 2-0 in Houston. If the Rockets hope to have any chance to survive past tonight, they’ll need Harden to start playing more efficiently. Much of the talk this series has been about stopping Aldridge’s historic dominance or Dwight Howard trying to assert his, but improved guard play will likely be the key to Houston’s chances of reviving an all-around fantastic season.

Both Patrick Beverley and Jeremy Lin have been their own kind of awful during this series, but the best chance at a turnaround will be if their All-Star and face of the franchise is leading the charge and starts playing as well in the Playoffs as he’s shown he can time and time again during the regular season.