Is James Harden Having the Greatest Offensive Run Ever?

James Harden had one of his “worst” games in a month when the Houston Rockets lost to the Orlando Magic on January 13th. He scored 38 points, dropped a dozen dimes (four of them for 3) and snared nine missed shots.

But he was only 1-of-17 from deep and had a horrid shooting night.

Yes, he generated 66 points for his team “on an off night.”

It was his 16th straight contest creating 50 points combined scoring and passing. Then he followed it up with 57 points and two assists the following night against the Memphis Grizzlies in Space City. Over the past 17 games, he’s averaging 41.2 points and 9.2 assists, with 3.6 of those being from deep. He’s manufacturing 63.4 points per game over that extended period.

How does that compare with other stretches historically?

There isn’t an easy filter that gives you that info, so using pbpstats.com and the Basketball-Reference.com, I looked at game logs from some of the greats to see how Harden compares to the best players and runs in history.

Readers should understand I don’t have access to complete information for all of this. Some of the box scores from the games up until 1981-82 are incomplete, having some data and not others, missing assist totals or field-goal attempts. Also, no play-by-play info is available before 2001-02, so all 3-point assist numbers aren’t available. Some of the numbers, then, might be slightly different if there were more complete data, but this is the best I can do with what I have access to.

I looked at Harden’s streak against the best runs I could find using three different levels: consistency, productivity and efficiency.

Consistency

Corey Brewer, Mo Williams, etc. might be able to erupt for a 50-point night out of nowhere, but those guys aren’t going to put up a run like this. Only players who can consistently put up 30 and 10 or 40 and 5 on a nightly basis will regularly produce 50 points for their teams.

The number of players in NBA history who can do that is understandably very small.

The benchmark might seem arbitrary, but it’s not just because Harden fits (quite easily). The lowest production on his current streak is 54 points, and if I made that the basis, no one would be within breathing distance. It’s a nice round number that very few players have been able to put anything like the word “streak” to, which says a lot about how hard what Harden is doing is to do.

These are the streaks I could find that were at least 10 games:

Player Streak End Date Streak
James Harden Current 17
Russell Westbrook 12/5/16 15
Oscar Robertson 2/19/64 14
Oscar Robertson 3/6/06 13
Wilt Chamberlain 2/1/62 14
Tiny Archibald 2/13/73 10
Michael Jordan 4/14/89 10
Oscar Robertson 12/29/61 10

I also looked at Magic Johnson (8), LeBron James (8), Allen Iverson, (8), Jerry West (6), Kobe Bryant (6), Dwyane Wade (6),  Tracy McGrady (5), Larry Bird (3) and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (3). If there were any other streaks of more than 10 games, I couldn’t find them.

The one caveat to this is Jordan’s streak of 10 games. He had a two-game streak, followed by a 48-point game, followed by a three-game streak, followed by a 45-point game, followed by his 10-game streak. During his 45-point game on March 25, 1989, he had 12 assists while his teammates made eight 3s. If he assisted on five of those, it’s at least mathematically possible that he had a 50-point game there. If he did, it could stretch his streak to 14 games.

Michael Jordan and James Harden now stand alone in at least one regard.

Boston, Massachusetts, U.S – Chicago Bulls Michael Jordan vs Boston Celtics Reggie Lewis 1993

If that is true—and he assisted on two 3s in the 48-point game on March 18—that would extend the run to 17 games. And that was preceded by games of 48 points and 49. So his run could be as long as 19 games, in theory, but a lot of “supposing” goes into that notion, and that 45-point game is a tough hurdle to clear.

I can’t say empirically that Harden’s streak is the longest in history, but there’s a very good chance it is or awfully close. In terms of consistently producing 50 points on a nightly basis, he is at worst, in a company with only Jordan.

At best, he is by himself.

Productivity

Some people might view the above Jordan dilemma as proof that the arbitrary demarcation of 50 points is specious. Was the game less special because it was 48 points instead of 50?

While I think there’s some logic to that, there is still something to be said about playing night in and night out at the same level.

So, I also looked at most total points produced over 15-game sets. This takes the one- or two-point misses of a streak out of the equation. Here are the most points each of these offensive gods generated during a 15-game span.

Player Game 15 Date Points
James Harden 1/11/2019 950
Wilt Chamberlain* 11/3/62 927
Tiny Archibald 12/2/1972 922
Oscar Robertson 1/15/1965 920
Russell Westbrook 3/29/2017 895
LeBron James 2/18/10 883
Dwyane Wade 3/14/2009 863
Micahel Jordan 4/14/1989 839
Magic Johnson 3/22/87 839
Allen Iverson 3/2/2005 813
Tracy McGrady 4/1/2003 801

If we look at the entire 17-game span, Harden’s total swells to 1,073 points, so the 15-game span works against him, rather than for him, lest you think I’m cherry-picking here.

While the same caveats apply, it wouldn’t have any impact on anyone within 200 points of him. Some of the numbers might be a tad different for the players from the late-70s to late-90s, but nothing monumental.

It’s probably safe to say Harden’s current stretch is not only the most consistent of 50-point production, but it’s also the most voluminous of any stretch, regardless of hitting that 50-point barrier every single game.

Efficiency

While scoring is nice, volume scoring can be detrimental as easily as it is helpful.

Here is a look at the true shooting percentage of the players above, where available. (Note that field goal attempts aren’t available for all of Tiny Archibald’s or Oscar Robertson’s streaks, so I can’t provide the true shooting percentage.)

So Harden’s run has not only been the longest and most productive, only Wade and Magic were more efficient. And even then, only marginally.

Does all of that mean that Harden’s stretch has been the greatest of all-time? I’ll leave that up to you to decide.

But it’s hard to ignore the numbers. And you don’t have much wiggle room.

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