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James Harden could benefit from rediscovering his floater

The last couple games have shown that the All-Star guard would be better off with his midrange weapon back in the mix.

NBA: Chicago Bulls at Philadelphia 76ers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

During the 2018-19 season, James Harden incorporated a floater full-time to his bag of tricks. Prior to that, he’d either scarcely taken them or struggled to convert them with any sort of consistency. But in the second season of his brief partnership alongside Chris Paul, the star guard embraced a midrange weapon amid years of MoreyBall in Houston.

According to Synergy, in 2018-19, nearly 12 percent of Harden’s shots in the half-court were classified as a runner and his 0.985 points per possession placed him in the 77th percentile The following season, almost 11 percent of his shots were runners and he finished in the 85th percentile.

When he bolted from Houston to Brooklyn last season, the floater assumed an increased role as he trimmed down his three-point volume and didn’t play with a lob threat as commonly — the latter of which is also the case in Philadelphia. Over 23 percent of his attempts were runners and he generated 1.024 PPP, good for the 78th percentile.

Despite the fact he only suited up for 36 regular-season games, just 12 players attempted more floaters than him in 2020-21. It was a far cry from the guy who registered 12 total floaters back in 2014-15.

With the Nets, he continued to lean on it this season — 16 percent of his shots, specifically — but the mojo dissipated. He tumbled to 0.781 PPP and the 36th percentile. In Philadelphia, his frequency is down to 11.7 percent. He’s converted 3 of his 9 runners as a Sixer.

The last two games, when Harden scored just 27 points on 8-of-32 shooting, have emphasized the need for him to rediscover his blend of elite volume and efficiency as a floater maestro. If he’s going to be the caliber of secondary scorer and lead playmaker helping guide the Sixers to unprecedented heights during Joel Embiid’s tenure, it’s absolutely critical.

Paint touches are vital to Harden’s success offensively, but they’re merely one component. The paint touches have to actually be fruitful. They haven’t been lately — most notably, in Thursday’s blowout loss against the Nets. A tweak to his approach, paired with rekindled production, would help change that.

For one reason or another, Harden’s finishing has declined significantly this season, perhaps largely tied to the persistent hamstring injury he endured last year. After shooting no worse than 59 percent at the rim or ranking below the 59th percentile (per Cleaning The Glass) between 2015-16 and 2020-21, he shot 54 percent in 44 games with Brooklyn (25th percentile). Add his 18-of-27 mark with Philadelphia and he’s up to 55 percent, still well off his previous low across a six-year sample.

The biggest issue is a lack of vertical explosion, as well as downhill acceleration to generate separation before shooting. Off of his drives, he really struggles to extend upward and that poses significant hurdles when teams crowd the lane, which is exactly what Brooklyn did Thursday and Chicago did at times Monday. His first step has slowed and when he doesn’t find space to plan his finish, he’ll wander into trouble.

To counter that, he often resorts to hunting contact and seeking out fouls as his primary motive instead of actually scoring. It works at times, but certainly hasn’t this week. In his first four games with Philadelphia, he shot 14 of 18 at the rim. Against the Nets and Bulls, he was 4 of 9 and the inability to explode for buckets was glaringly evident.

Harden is seemingly aware of his shortcomings, illuminated by the intention to often elicit foul calls as a driver rather than solely (or primarily) pursue a shot. He even passed out of a couple drives Thursday when a lane to shoot looked available, though a rim protector loomed close. The results weren’t particularly inspiring. Despite Harden’s deficiencies around the rim, you’ll probably live with a shot over these alternatives:

The regression as a driver this week is plainly apparent in a few stats, courtesy of the sharp folks at NBA.com:

Some of this is natural variance. Nobody shoots 82.4 percent (14 of 17) over a lengthy sample. Luka Doncic and Ja Morant are two of the NBA’s premier slashers and they’re shooting 54.5 and 51.1 percent this season, respectively.

But the numbers that pop out from that tweet are the free-throw totals. Harden amassed 22 foul shots on 52 drives to open his Sixers career. Since then, he’s taken four foul shots on 31 drives. Oof. The whistles aren’t coming and his prosperity is waning. Opting for the floater more often rather than trying to power through contact to score or relying on the officials to make a call could be beneficial.

Floaters are not a particularly efficient shot, even among the league’s foremost practitioners. Harden is tallying 1.10 PPP around the rim this season. Last year, when he immersed himself in the float game, he tallied 1.02 PPP. Shying away from it, given his recent struggles with it, is also understandable.

The aim is simply a little more variance and fewer futile drives into traffic, not for him to overindulge on the midrange. Keep defenses guessing. Don’t let collapsing on his drives near the hoop become some easy solution to quell him offensively.

Another (less pressing) problem from Thursday was Harden made a habit of missing kickout passes when Brooklyn flooded him as a driver. He’s obviously a magnificent passer, yet on various forays Thursday, his decision-making struck me as myopic. The goal was to draw a foul and Plan B didn’t exist. Considering a floater or spraying a pass to a shooter — not even necessarily doing either one — might’ve helped.

These occurrences aren’t really new. They’ve transpired in many of Harden’s poor outings over the years, especially so with Brooklyn. His worst offensive games this season are typically plagued by the pursuit of free throws falling on silent whistles. But the aversion to floaters since he joined Philadelphia has left some meat on the bone. Remedying that as the games soon mean more will be important.

Even though he’ll rarely play as poorly as he did Thursday, the inklings of some flawed processing have existed beyond that. This didn’t manifest out of thin air.

Season by season, Harden’s adapted parts of his skill-set to better set himself up for any circumstance. Cozying up to the floater again might be another chance to exhibit that penchant for adaptation, rendering him and the Sixers less susceptible to nights like Thursday.