NBA

What if the NBA’s best scorers all played like James Harden?

No player in the NBA more ruthlessly pursues the most efficient possible shot on every single possession than James Harden. Harden fully embodies the Houston Rockets’ layups and threes ethos, eschewing almost entirely any shots other than those from the most advantageous areas of the floor. It’s a style of play that has swept through the league on a team level but is not yet quite as common among Harden’s follow star scorers.

The Athletic’s Sam Amick wrote a piece this week wherein he noted that Kevin Durant — unlike Harden and teammate Stephen Curry — does not prioritize taking as many 3-pointers as possible. The numbers to back up Amick’s assertion:

Hit the rewind button to the 2011-12 season in Oklahoma City, and remember that time when Durant actually took more 3s on a nightly basis (5.2 per game) than Harden (4.7). That was before the Beard decided to make the most of this math equation, fully embracing the ways of the innovative coach Mike D’Antoni and the extremist general manager in Daryl Morey and firing away at a rate that we’ve never seen.

Now? He’s at an absurd 12.4 3s attempted per game, ahead of Steph Curry’s league record of 11.2 from the 2015-16 season and on pace to shatter his career high of 10 from his MVP season in 2017-18 in which he averaged a career-high 30.4 points per game. His scoring, in turn, has spiked to a league-leading 33.7 points per this time around. It’s the closest thing the NBA has ever had to a cheat code — only it’s entirely legal — and it’s mostly working.

And then there’s Durant, who has shown zero interest in following Harden, Curry or any of these other top-tier stars who are part of the game’s long-range evolution.

Despite having a better career 3-point percentage than Harden (38.3 to 36.6), Durant has never taken more than 6.7 3s per game (his final season with the Thunder in 2015-16) and is on pace to take the third-fewest of his past nine seasons (5.0 per). Among the 10 players who take at least 19 shots per game, only Russell Westbrook (23.8 percent from 3) and Anthony Davis (31.5) shoot less frequently from beyond the arc.

This piece, naturally, got me thinking about what would happen if Durant did prioritize the 3-ball like Harden and Curry do. What would happen if Durant had Harden’s shot distribution, which is vastly different from his own?

Given Durant’s elite shooting ability from all areas of the floor, the easy assumption is that he would see a boost in scoring efficiency if he suddenly played to the math in the same manner as Harden. Unsurprisingly, that’s indeed the case. Assuming Durant converted shots from each of those floor locations at the same rates he has during the 2018-19 season, but merely redistributed his shots so that he took more dunks, layups, and 3s and fewer floaters, runners, and mid-range jumpers, his effective field goal percentage (which accounts for the added value of a 3-pointer over a 2-pointer) which jump from its current 55.2 percent all the way to 59.0 percent.

A jump of 3.8 percentage points seems, well, pretty huge, so I decided to see how that would compare to other top scorers in the league. What if they all suddenly adopted Harden’s shot profile as well? The results were fascinating.

Among the top 35 scorers in the league, 23 of them saw an effective field goal percentage increase with Harden’s shot profile, while only 12 saw their effective field goal percentage decrease. An incredible 10 players saw a bump of 3 percentage points or more, while only four (including three incredibly obvious suspects) saw a similar drop-off. Another 10 players saw their effective field goal percentage jump of between 1-3 percentage points, while only three saw a similar drop-off. Seven players barely saw their shooting efficiency budge at all, with a differential less than 1 percentage point.

Durant, as you can see in the chart above, is one of the players who would benefit most from adopting Harden’s shot distribution. His 3.8 percentage-point bump ranks sixth among the 34 non-Harden players in the league’s top 35 scorers this season, and is just 0.7 percentage points behind Danilo Gallinari at No. 1. (Durant’s teammate, Klay Thompson, is right behind him. Klay’s spike in mid-range attempts this season continues to not make much sense.) The Clippers, by the way, would fare incredibly well here, with Gallinari and Tobias Harris suddenly spiking their effective field goal percentages from the mid-50s up near 60 percent. That’d be worth an extra few points per game.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the rest of the top 10 is populated by combo forwards and swingmen — the kind of guys who can get into the paint and finish well around the rim while also shooting a respectable percentage from 3. Karl-Anthony Towns is the lone traditional big man not just in the top 10, but in the top 15. The only other bigs who would benefit from adopting Harden’s shot distribution are Joel Embiid, Blake Griffin, and Nikola Vucevic. Players like Anthony Davis, Nikola Jokic, Julius Randle, and LaMarcus Aldridge, on the other hand, would be negatively affected to varying degrees.

Scanning all the way down the list to Aldridge brings us to the group of players who would see the most dramatic effect in either direction, and their names are not surprising: Aldridge himself, DeMar DeRozan, and Giannis Antetokounmpo would all see absurd effective field goal percentage drops of 12.7 percentage points or more, with Antetokounmpo’s dropping off by a completely absurd 17.8 percentage points, dropping him from second among this group of 35 players in effective field goal percentage all the way to 33rd (ahead of only Aldridge and DeRozan, natch). Given the scoring profiles of those three players, who do their damage primarily in the mid-range and floater areas of the floor (Aldridge and DeRozan) or the immediate vicinity of the basket (Antetokounmpo), it is not at all surprising that they would experience outrageously negative effects from being forced to play like Harden.

It’s worth noting that there’s quite a bit of noise here. Players’ conversion rates in certain floor locations would obviously be affected by dramatic shifts in their shot distribution. And players who suddenly took a whole heap more attempts at the rim would also get fouled more often, which would affect their conversion rates, potentially give them a boost in true shooting percentage, but also perhaps affect their health. The interplay between teammates on the list would also presumably affect their conversion rates, as teams that no longer had to worry about Durant shooting a mid-range jumper on a post-up quite as often could hug closer to Thompson on the perimeter, for example. For the purposes of this exercise, though, it’s fascinating to see what would happen if each of these players started suddenly playing like Harden, in a vacuum. Namely, that most of them would be better off.