The Rockets star is producing in isolation like few others, but his efficiency has dropped off considerably this season.

James Harden is still the NBA’s most productive isolation scorer. He has been able to score in ways that other players cannot. Read more in detail here: who does james harden play for.

Is James Harden Still the NBA's Most Productive Isolation Scorer?

Few abilities in the NBA are more desired than the ability to break down a defender in a one-on-one scenario, lowering them to their knees and fracturing their ankles before rising and shooting for an isolated bucket that culminates with that beautiful, sweet swishing sound.

It’s why Kyrie Irving and Jamal Crawford, among many others, are held in such high regard by their peers – entirely on the basis of their abilities, in one instance. It’s why, in the hierarchy of SportsCenter highlights, isolation mastery ranks with rim-rattling alley-oop slams and game-winning buzzer-beaters. It’s why, after being kicked out of not one, but two organizations in the previous two seasons, James Harden is still worth it.

For years, the bearded shooting guard has reigned supreme as the NBA’s top isolation wizard (notice the lowercase letters; Bradley Beal is the NBA’s leading isolation Wizard), testing the rules with his shuffle-step and step-back three-pointers. Yes, the same ones he attempted to educate Joel Embiid as soon as he arrived to the Philadelphia 76ers with his follicular forest.

Is it still the case in a turbulent 2021-22 season marked by injuries and relocations?

Methodology for identifying the top solo scorers in the NBA

James Harden practices his jumper

James Harden practices his jumper James Harden warming up on the floor | W. Henderson/Getty Images

Let’s have a look at the stats.

During the 2021-22 season, the NBA as a total averaged 0.894 points per isolation possession (PPP), thus that’s the starting point. We can evaluate how much more or less productive an individual is per possession by comparing his PPP to the league average. We get the important measure for our rankings by multiplying that difference by the number of possessions used: points above average.

Reggie Jackson of the Los Angeles Clippers will serve as our model since he ranks dead bottom among the 206 players who had at least 10 such possessions this season:

  • In isolation, Jackson has a PPP of 0.732.
  • He has 0.162 PPP less than the league average.
  • He’s had 157 possessions in solitary.
  • He has a -25.43 point advantage over the average.

With the same amount of possessions, a league-average isolation scorer would be projected to score 25.43 more points than Jackson has. That’s bad news for both him and the Clippers. He’s in the 25th percentile for per-possession efficiency, but his low score, along with his huge volume, drives him to the bottom of the rankings.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Donovan Mitchell, Karl-Anthony Towns, Jimmy Butler, Darius Garland, Miles Bridges, Ja Morant, Nikola Jokic, Tyrese Haliburton, and De’Aaron Fox, on the other hand, edged out Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Donovan Mitchell, Karl-Anthony Towns, Jimmy Butler, Darius Garland, Miles Bridges, Ja Morant, Nikola

5. Jrue Holiday (Milwaukee Bucks): 24.92 points more than the league average.

128 possessions

1.1 points per possession (88.9 percentile)

The Milwaukee Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo gets the majority of the attention, and properly so. Khris Middleton will join him as an Eastern Conference representative in this year’s All-Star festivities, but it might be argued that Jrue Holiday should have received the honor instead.

Holiday, on the other hand, is the Bucks’ clear-cut isolation star, outscoring both Middleton (6.41 ppg) and Antetokounmpo (9.07 ppg) for the team title.

His style isn’t spectacular, but he makes the most of every touch, combining physicality with ball-handling technique to create the little spaces he can take advantage of.

He’s always been a master at generating opportunities for himself without a screen, often with a spin that only Pascal Siakam can match, and his effect extends beyond his personal scoring figures. On drive-and-kicks, the 6-foot-3 guard can produce a lot of corner threes for his teammates since the help defender has no choice but to compress in into the paint.

4. Golden State Warriors’ Stephen Curry: 29.22 points over average

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96 possessions

1.2 points per possession (95.2 percentile)

Sure, Stephen Curry’s shooting isn’t up to par with his own high expectations. He’s making just 42.7 percent of his field-goal tries and 37.9% of his three-point attempts. With the exception of an injury-shortened 2019-20 season in which he only made five games, this is his first time under 40% as an NBA player.

When he’s in an isolated situation, though, the defender has no chance.

Curry dances with the ball in his hands, as do several other players.

He performs the most of his damage when playing for the Golden State Warriors, where he runs a relocation-based strategy that is nearly tough to duplicate. When he gets an opportunity to show off his dribbling prowess in an end-of-shot-clock situation, anticipate a highlight reel with him sprinting back down the court before the ball has even touched the twine.

3. Brooklyn Nets’ Kevin Durant: 30.62 points over average

175 possessions

1.07 points per possession (84.6 percentile)

Surprised? Don’t be that way.

Kevin Durant has long been regarded as one of the NBA’s most lethal scorers, capable of amassing massive point totals without breaking a sweat. On the offensive end, he excels in every area, making catch-and-shoot attempts, scoring on cuts, and putting on isolation shows when head coach Steve Nash hasn’t come up with anything else.

Durant can shoot over the extended hands of any defender quick enough to keep up with him, thanks to his underexaggerated 6-foot-10 physique and Pterodactylian arms. It’s game over when Brooklyn flips a switch that leaves a weak, outmatched big in the blender.

Durant will be a matchup nightmare until he hangs up his shoes, leaving practically every opponent somnambulating around the floor after another futile defensive attempt.

2. Philadelphia 76ers’ James Harden: 54.75 points over average

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336 possessions

1.06 points per possession (83.2 percentile)

While Harden is classified as a member of the Philadelphia 76ers, all of this accomplishment happened before a hamstring injury — the authenticity of which is still being debated — terminated his short but memorable career with the Brooklyn Nets, albeit not always for the right reasons.

While much of the headlines in New York were negative, as Harden struggled to acclimate to the NBA’s foul-call alterations at the start of the season and never seemed entirely locked-in, he still thrived in his favorite sport.

In a one-on-one situation, few scorers have ever been better. You may criticize his game’s aesthetics all you want. Make fun of his whistle-drawing antics. He nevertheless followed the Association’s rules, bending them to his benefit and transforming himself into an invincible isolated force.

That was true last season, when he averaged 1.09 points per possession in certain situations, and it will be true again this season.

1. Chicago Bulls’ DeMar DeRozan: 57.65 points over average

241 possessions

1.13 points per possession (91.3 percentile)

DeMar DeRozan is on a rampage that has him rubbing elbows with none other than Michael Jordan, and his string of 35-plus-point games has been a magnifying of what he’s done all season for a Chicago Bulls team vying for first place in the Eastern Conference.

DeRozan has fought the NBA’s near-universal move away from mid-range shots for years. He’s been getting to his elbow places, pausing on a dime and shooting with a high release from what should be a low-efficiency zone.

Except for him, it’s far from inefficient.

DeRozan lands 54.7 percent of his shoots from a distance of 10 to 16 feet. His accuracy on even longer two-pointers is still impressive at 46.8%. And when you’re depending on such a high frequency of isolated play, that’s not so much a plus as it is a must.

Last season, the USC product averaged 3.0 isolated possessions per game and had a PPP of 1.2. This year, he’s been marginally less effective, but his dip to 1.13 PPP has been more than offset by an increase to 4.4 such possessions per match.

He was able to unravel the crown from Harden’s beard and secure it to his own head because to that incomprehensible mix of volume and effectiveness.

Unless otherwise stated, all stats are courtesy of NBA.com and Basketball Reference and are current as of February 17.

RELATED: Giannis Antetokounmpo Just Gave Joel Embiid and Nikola Jokic a Reality Check

Frequently Asked Questions

Who leads the NBA in isolation points?

Is Harden a better scorer than Durant?

A: Yes.

Who benefits from Harden trade?

A: Houston Rockets benefited from this trade. They get Chris Paul, who can play point guard or shooting guard, and PJ Tucker to help with the defense while James Harden is on the bench.

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