Stat: Oklahoma City’s James Harden leads all guards in free throw rate, averaging .59 attempts at the line per shot taken from the field.
Take: That Harden draws shooting fouls at a more prolific rate than guys like Derrick Rose, Dwyane Wade, and teammate Russell Westbrook will no doubt surprise some, though those that have really followed the third-year guard’s career growth surely knew this was a possibility. Since he became comfortable in his role as OKC’s ace sixth man scorer and playmaker mid-way through last season, Harden has shown off a knack to get in the paint and wreak havoc off pick and rolls few in the world approach. He uses supreme understanding of pace and angles to complement his awesome handle and underrated first step to blow by primary and help defenders before aggressively attacking in the paint. It’s truly a trip to watch, the type of nuanced, smart, sneakily athletic dribble-to-drive game not seen since Manu Ginobili and Brandon Roy were in their primes.
So why does this matter? Isn’t this just stating the obvious? Well, yes, but a recent roster development in OKC makes driving this fact home and watching it closely all the more important – the Thunder’s acquisition of Derrick Fisher.
Fisher’s best days as a player are far behind him, as both the naked and analytical eyes plainly suggest. He’s shooting poorly from the field and behind the arc, has no semblance of an off-the-dribble game, and strength and experience are now his best assets as a defender. But despite all that, a GM like Sam Presti and an organization like OKC wouldn’t have acquired a presence like Fisher if they didn’t plan to play him. Which is where Harden comes in.
Since Eric Maynor’s season-ending injury and with Westbrook out of the game, the lion’s share of ballhandling duties were given to rookie PG Reggie Jackson, and he performed admirably as the second unit’s lead man. Fisher’s arrival, though, not only forces Jackson out of the rotation, but also Harden to play more minutes on the ball as a de-facto point guard to ease the offensive – talk about a pun – duties of Fisher. Finally see where this is going?
Either Harden will play the role of a pass-first, pick-your-spots point guard like Maynor the ten or so minutes he and Fisher make up OKC’s backcourt, or he’ll be a ball-dominating, playmaking aggressor. And if his guard-leading free throw rate is any indication, the latter scenario is a fantastic and exciting one for the Thunder.
This may seem inconsequential now – Westbrook already plays a ton of minutes, will play more come the postseason, and demands the ball – but the eight to twelve minutes a game Harden may play the point in the playoffs are the type that can change the complexion of a game. And as we all know first-hand after Dallas’ 0-2 comeback against Miami last year in the NBA Finals, a single game can change the complexion of a series.