Analyzing James Harden's Turnover Problem

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James Harden is the front-runner for the MVP award. He currently leads the league in assists and is second in scoring. The Rockets are currently 34-14, good for the third seed in the West. The Rockets seem to be poised for a nice playoff run. Unfortunately, he also leads the league in turnovers and the Rockets have lost six of their last nine games and have looked discombobulated in the process.

Some of the blame can be placed on the schedule. Coach Mike D’Antoni recently lamented on the brutal stretch the Rockets are in: "We play tomorrow night in Memphis. That's eight games in 12 nights. That's ridiculous. I could send everyone home, probably should, but I don't believe that, and hopefully they'll fix it."

But, Harden actually plays BETTER on less rest from a turnover perspective. On 0 days rest, Harden has an assist to turnover ratio of 2.5. On 1 day of rest, that number is 1.88. On 2 days rest, that number dips down to 1.53.

Also of note, Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson have both missed games recently due to injury or illness, and Clint Capela has returned to the lineup.

But one thing has remained a constant this season: James Harden’s turnover numbers. Harden is currently averaging 5.9 turnovers per game, the worst in the league. In fact, through 48 games, Harden is only 92 turnovers away from his NBA-Record 374 turnovers from last season. He would need to average less than 2 turnovers per game for the rest of the season to not break the record again.

Harden has been particularly bad in January, which is a large part of why the Rockets have struggled. He is currently averaging season-lows in AST% (47.4), AST/TO ratio (1.63 as opposed to 1.96), and Net Rating (0.9). Harden is also averaging 6.5 turnovers per game, higher than his season average of 5.9.

As a precursor to writing this, I watched every single James Harden turnover from this season. You can pretty much categorize Harden’s turnovers into 3 categories:

- Court-Length Passes
- Lazy/Lackadaisical slip passes
- Lost ball trying to draw a foul

The first category is a tricky one. In theory, attempting to push the pace on offense is a net positive, and you live with some turnovers. The problem is the frequency. Per, James Harden averages 2.85 bad pass turnovers per game. That accounts for 49% of his total turnover count. By my rough count, about 15% of the bad pass turnovers that Harden commits are these length-of-the-court passes. Here are a few examples:

Here, Harden gets the defensive rebound and immediately looks for the outlet.

The problem is, Eric Gordon is completely covered. Crowder is behind him, and Olynyk is in front of him, with Jaylen Brown covering the middle of the court. There isn’t a possible good outcome.

In this example, Harden passes into a 3-on-4 situation with a very small margin of error between Capela and the baseline.

In this example, Harden just makes a bad pass. Again, Dekker is against the baseline and there is a small margin for error and there are 2 defenders right behind him.

The problem is, Harden isn’t being smart enough when he’s trying to make these passes. Sure, the intent is good. Get the ball up the court, force the defense to make a play. The problem is the execution. Look at this freeze-frame.

Notice anything similar? In each of these examples, there are at least 3 Rockets in the backcourt, which means a numbers advantage for the defense.

Defenses have started to keen in on these types of passes, but Harden seems to continue to pass his players into bad fastbreaks. Recipients of these passes are either in 1-on-2 or 2-on-3 situations and more often than not, these are turnovers.

In January, 18 of James Harden’s 84 turnovers are from halfcourt or further while trying to make these types of passes into the frontcourt.

Next, and probably just as infuriating, are lazy slip passes, particularly out of pick-and-roll and pick-and-pop situations. Harden will often be off the mark or will make the pass too light, causing teammates to not be able to catch it or allowing defenses to steal it.

Here, Harden tries to drop a no-look slip pass to a WIDE open Montrezl Harrell. The problem is, Harrell is so open that a normal bounce pass would have led to an easy bucket. Instead:

Some of this is on Ryan Anderson for not popping more, but this pass was never going to make it to him. This pass is entirely too careless and Roberson and Westbrook are too fast not to be able to make a play.

In this example, Andre Drummond reads the situation the whole way. Instead of accepting the switch, Harden makes an uninspired pass to Capela. Harden could have been put 1-on-1 with Drummond, which would leave a mismatch for Capela and Harris.

Given that Houston runs such a high percentage of its plays out of the pick-and-roll, one would hope that being as efficient as possible at it would be the goal. Unfortunately, plays like these are common in the Rockets’ offense.

The next category of turnovers are a bit tricky. Often, it actually does appear as though Harden might be fouled, but the referees may or may not call them. That’s part of the gamble that James Harden takes when making these types of plays.

Harden currently leads the league in free throw attempts and free throws made, so this isn’t a bad strategy. The problem is consistency. On any given night, teams may be smart enough not to reach in enough to get the foul called, but enough to disrupt Harden’s motion and cause turnovers.

A prime example is in this clip against the Warriors. Harden drives in looking for contact and when Andre Iguodala doesn’t foul him, he has no idea what he’s doing with the ball:

In the Milwaukee game on January 23rd, Harden had three separate occasions where he was trying to draw contact, didn’t get the call, and not only turned the ball over, but didn’t get back afterwards.

This play is a necessary evil. Generally, Harden will get this call. But it’s worth nothing that in 1-on-1 coverage, Harden shouldn’t be trying to draw a foul on the smaller Brogdon, instead he should be trying to score first.

Here, Harden is driving into the paint hoping for contact. When he doesn’t get any contact, he looks lost and just throws the ball away. He could have just gone up for a layup or gathered and made an actual pass.

In this play, Harden is driving again, hoping to draw contact. The bigger issue here is that he has three Bucks players on guarding him. Ariza is wide open next to him (which should be an easy pass for Harden) and Gordon on the opposite wing. Either of those plays would have been better than driving into the Bucks long defenders in the paint.

Listen, Harden is still the frontrunner for the MVP award and is having an incredible season. The Rockets are ahead of schedule. Their upcoming schedule is much easier than they’ve faced recently. The sky is not falling.

James Harden has the potential to be the curator of one of the most prolific offenses in NBA history. If he can cut back on these mistakes and be a little bit more careful with the ball, the Rockets are capable of beating anyone in the league.

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