The Houston Rockets deserve a massive amount of credit for uncovering and implementing the most analytically correct strategies in professional basketball. Whether it’s their shot selection or offensive design, the team has aligned its on-court behaviors with the game’s most efficient actions. However, as Houston continues to chase the efficiency dragon farther down the trail, it’s worth asking: Is this endless quest for efficiency good for basketball?
From an analytical perspective, the trio of GM Daryl Morey, head coach Mike D’Antoni and superstar James Harden have coalesced to form the shrewdest offense in the NBA. Their strategies reformed conventional wisdom and revealed important truths about offensive efficiency — most famously that the pathway to optimizing effective field percentage is marked by a few simple ideas: midrange shots are dumb, and layups, dunks and free throws are brilliant.
This trio also knows something else: The most efficient scoring play in basketball isn’t the corner 3 or even the slam dunk. It’s drawing a 3-point shooting foul. And it’s that knowledge that lies at the heart of the embarrassing “landing area” debacle that hijacked NBA discourse earlier this week.
Consider this: A wide-open Stephen Curry 3-point shot is worth 1.6 points on average, per Second Spectrum tracking. An uncontested Giannis Antetokounmpo slam dunk is worth nearly 2.0 points. An average Harden 3-point shooting foul yields more than 2.6 points. The 3-point shooting foul isn’t just Harden’s most valuable play. In the aggregate, it’s the most efficient scoring play in the contemporary NBA by a considerable degree.
Even as Curry (332 wide-open 3s over the past three seasons) and Giannis (281 uncontested dunks) pursue these signature plays, they won’t be able to catch Harden’s margins. At age 29, Harden is already the all-time leader in 3-point shooting fouls drawn. Of all the strange places he has landed this week, the top of this leaderboard shouldn’t be surprising:
To put that into further context: Over the past three seasons, the Charlotte Hornets rank second in the NBA with 185 3-point shooting fouls drawn. Harden has drawn 288 by himself.
Now, you might say that since the dude shoots so many 3s, it’s only natural to see him atop the fouls leaderboard. Fair point. But overall, NBA shooters get fouled on 1.66 percent of their 3-point tries. For Harden that number is 11.5 percent. That gap can’t be explained solely through Harden’s unprecedented prowess on unassisted 3s and how much it frightens defenders. It’s about antics, man.
When we look at the league’s most voluminous 3-point shooters over the past three seasons, we see Harden’s foul rate is more than twice as high as any of the league’s other top marksmen.
The Rockets are the most innovative group in the league, but as their playbook continues to try and hack offensive efficiency in new ways, it’s also demonstrating that efficiency and beauty aren’t always harmonious. In many cases, they’re in wild disagreement.
And that disharmony isn’t all on Houston. Harden’s antics are a check engine light on the dashboard of the league office. He is merely exploiting the market inefficiencies hidden in plain sight, and doing so better than any player in the world. Isn’t that the wisdom of Moneyball?
Harden drew a league-leading 120 3-point shooting fouls in 2016-17, then that number dipped to 69 in 2017-18 after the league honed in on his continuation techniques as a point of its officiating emphasis. Harden adjusted by mastering the step-back 3 this season, drawing 93 3-point fouls in the process.
More than any other player in the league, Harden operates like the refs are marks. And the rulebase — particularly the wildly punitive 3-point shooting foul — is inspiring Harden to chase these calls because the plays are considered so valuable. If you don’t think the result is fun, then your beef is with the underlying legislation that created these cartoonish efficiency margins in the first place.
The NBA is a business. It’s also a regulatory agency. The bottom line is paramount, but the product is what drives the business in the first place. As we watched Game 1 of this highly anticipated series between the Rockets and Golden State Warriors, we saw an NBA dream come true: a court filled with prime superstars on great teams. The stage was perfectly set. But we also saw three people with gray shirts and black trousers suddenly become the stars of the show.
As the greatest (and most efficient) teams in the league continue to race to find the smartest pathways to score, the officials will increasingly be stratagems. Unless the league proactively addresses its rules and these whistle-chasing tactics, free throws stand to become the next version of corner 3s, with the league’s smartest teams and players racing to find new ways to get them.
Harden is just the first one to fully realize that the sour science of flopping and chasing whistles is highly effective. He’s the only MVP this century to have more made career free throws than made field goals at the time of his award. To date, he has made 5,604 regular season free throws vs. 5,499 field goals. In the playoffs, he has posted 761 free throws vs. 745 field goals.
In theory, if a ref does a perfect job, nobody notices he or she was even there. They’re neutral by design. They’re bystanders. Nobody goes to the arena to see the officials, but if Game 1 of this series was any indication, the refs and their powerful whistles are being pushed to the front lines.
The onus falls on the league office, which has an opportunity to update its rulebook and tweak its incentives to inspire the sport it wants to see. And Harden? He’ll land on his feet.