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How can James Harden return to form inside the arc?

Trying to find some solutions for Harden’s scoring regression.

Miami Heat v Philadelphia 76ers - Game Four Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

Last season, for the first time since 2015-16, James Harden shot below 50 percent inside the arc. League average was 53.3 percent. With both the Brooklyn Nets and Philadelphia 76ers, Harden shot 47.6 percent. The only time in his career he’d been further below league was as a rookie in 2009-10 (42.4 percent vs. 49.2 percent).

Related: his relative true shooting percentage with the Sixers (how far above or below league average it is) was its lowest since his rookie year at plus-3.5. A decline from deep surely contributed (32.6 percent after 36.3 percent in his career beforehand). Yet his dip on the interior furthered his efficiency gripes and felt like the most pronounced, discernible component of his regression from borderline MVP candidate to All-Star reserve.

A fully healthy offseason has him, members of the organization and Sixers fan optimistic he’ll regain the explosiveness, which helped fuel his nearly decade-long escapade as a historically great offensive engine, and spur an on-court revival. For his sake, hopefully that rings true and he returns to such a level.

If it doesn’t, however, and he remains an All-Star, top-20ish player rather than a top-8ish guy, establishing avenues to adapt amid an athletic transformation is paramount for his individual ceiling and the lengths he can pilot Philadelphia toward alongside Joel Embiid. Even if he persists at the athletic caliber of 2021-22, lanes to improvement exist, where he can gravitate back to north of 50 percent inside the arc. Although, the 54 percent clip he produced between 2016-17 and 2020-21 is unlikely to re-emerge without the aid of a physical renaissance.

Among the various ways he and his teammates may aim to invigorate his scoring production is the embrace of an old friend: the midrange. Harden’s leap from All-NBA guard to perennial MVP finalist, which began in 2016-17 and continued through 2019-20, was influenced by a reorientation of his shot profile.

From 2012-13 (his first year with the Houston Rockets) through 2015-16, roughly 15 percent of his shots came deeper than the free-throw line but inside the arc, according to Cleaning The Glass. Over the next four seasons, it never eclipsed 8 percent. Since his departure from Houston, it’s been at 4 percent. Across 33 games with the Sixers last year (regular season and playoffs), he took 14 “long midrange” jumpers.

A reintroduction to this area could behoove him, given the decreased effectiveness in his off-the-bounce 3 and half-court finishing. For specifics, he drilled 36 percent of his pull-up long balls from 2016-17 to 2019-20 and just 33.2 percent of them last season, according to NBA.com. Meanwhile, per Synergy, he shot 55 percent or better around the basket over the span and fell to 51.4 percent with the Sixers.

The pop and fluidity necessary to manufacture the requisite room on those patented step-back triples didn’t seem there consistently for him, likely stemming from the hamstring issues plaguing him since mid-2021 that sapped some of his explosiveness. Similarly, the burst to reliably create space and elevate as a finisher in half-court settings wasn’t there. He often drove into a crowded paint, at a slower pace, only to flip something up at a wonky angle, see his shot swatted or aim to draw a whistle.

Busting out midrange pull-ups, both when defenses sit on his drives or collapse to contain Embiid’s rolls to the rim, could emerge as a nifty counter. Embiid benefits immensely from Harden’s playmaking and the attention defenses extend him as a pick-and-roll operator. It’s time Harden amplify the symbiotic nature of their partnership and parlay the big fella’s gravity into easier looks for himself.

For most high-usage scorers, the midrange should be a wrinkle in the arsenal, not the foundation of any short chart. That’s exactly how it should be for Harden. He can leverage his strength and 6-foot-5, 220-pound frame for real estate. Step-backs in this area could prove less physically taxing on his hamstrings too, promptly transitioning between backward and forward momentum with less distance to reach the rim than from deep.*

*As a note: This is part of why I think Harden wasn’t as effective on threes last year. The force required of your lower body to propel yourself backward, then immediately snap up and forward is enormous. Hamstrings often play a crucial role in that capability and it’s harder to strike the proper balance if the hamstring is compromised, as Harden’s was/were.*

Speaking of, file this clip of Harden from a recent pickup run into the “things to monitor” file. Maybe, it means something. Maybe, it means nothing. At the very least, it’s relevant to the topic at hand!

Harden’s floater not ghosting him again next season would be a welcomed development for him as well. Six games into his Philadelphia tenure, after he’d netted three and attempted nine runners during that time, I wrote about him rediscovering the aptitude and utility of them to combat his foibles as a finisher.

In the ensuing 15 regular-season games, he attempted 33, upping his volume a good deal, though he hit only 14 (42.4 percent). In totality, he buried 17 of his 42 runners (40.5 percent) with the Sixers — well off the 48.7 percent clip of the previous three years. Progressing much closer to that mark, if feasible, instead of last year’s would be a boon for his scoring. It’s worth noting that his hamstring injury may have altered his rhythm and contributed to this reduced output; if the hamstring is a problem next year, he may encounter trouble once more.

Harden is not the lone person who can facilitate his ascension. His co-star in Embiid could steal the tricks of some other savvy big men and master the art of the Gortat Seal Screen to chisel out runways for cleaner finishes near the hoop (Daniel Theis, Steven Adams and Isaiah Stewart are all contemporary practitioners).

The explosiveness of guys like Russell Westbrook, John Wall and Kyrie Irving (the ball-handlers in the lined video) to initially fashion paint touches vastly exceeds Harden’s last season, but there’s still probably room for experimentation here.

Embiid has dabbled with this tactic at times and he’s so adept at sealing off defenders for his own post position that a tweak in the goal of his seals doesn’t feel far-fetched. Afforded a summer and entire season to expand their synergy, incorporating this little trick is one path for Harden and Embiid to win on the margins together.

As I and others have addressed before, the addition of De’Anthony Melton reduces the importance of Matisse Thybulle, formerly the lone high-level guard defender in the rotation (I consider Danny Green a wing and his defense was nonetheless good, albeit flawed). Thybulle is a splendid defender, but his offensive ineptitude makes it challenging to hand him a hefty minutes because of the strain he places on floor-spacing.

If Melton supplants Thybulle in the rotation — and maybe Danuel House steals some minutes as well — Harden will likely enjoy added comfort to maneuver inside the arc. While the Toronto Raptors and Miami Heat in the playoffs exploited Thybulle’s poor jumper to frustrate Harden most commonly, plenty of other teams forged a similar strategy throughout the final three months of the season.

Recognizing how Melton and/or House replacing Thybulle on these sequences eases life for Harden and the collective offense is straightforward; both are threats from deep and are more adroit attacking closeouts than Thybulle. Chris Boucher should not be enabled to help off the strong-side corner so brazenly without consequence (granted, doing so was part of the Raptors’ defensive scheme). Fred VanVleet is awaiting Harden’s drive the entire time, as if his assignment on Thybulle is a suggestion at most. Philadelphia cannot let that be tenable.

The simplest antidote for Harden’s interior ails is a revitalized pair of hamstrings after a healthy offseason free of rehab and full of training. If that transpires, which is a plausible yet unknown if, all these suggestions will be rendered moot. Harden can wield the same style he rode to a dominant decade of hooping and keep cooking again.

If not, these amendments could be worthwhile and help him bridge the gap between who he was at his peak and who he was last year. All three versions are superb players, but the differences are stark and absolutely impact how far this Sixers club can spread its wings with Harden sitting shotgun.