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James Harden's Freakishness Calls To Mind Some Guys

Photo: Kevin Kolczynski (AP)

James Harden right now is like no one else in basketball history in at least this one way: he is taking more combined free throws and three pointers than anyone ever. But don’t take my word for it—here are some cool graphs:

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I am drawing your attention to these graphs not—or not only—because the pattern of Harden headshots scattered across the second one, like breadcrumbs on the forest floor, is oddly enjoyable. The charts are also good because all those little grey dots are guys, and some of them are even Guys, and frankly seeing a little dot representing someone who once took 4.5 three-pointers per game and exactly zero free throws is an invitation to remember some of them. It turns out that particular dot belongs to Mirza Teletović, and believe it or not he pulled off that strange feat last season, when he played the final 10 games of his career for the Milwaukee Bucks.

It’s such an unlikely statistical quirk, a guy getting up that volume of threes without ever attempting a free throw, and Teletović almost certainly wouldn’t have pulled it off if he’d played much more than the 10 game minimum arbitrarily selected as the cutoff for the graph above. Others have been in the neighborhood, but without ever really approaching the ballpark: There have been 44 player seasons when a guy played at least 10 regular season games and averaged at least 4.5 three-point attempts per game, while also averaging less than one free-throw attempt per game. 16 of those guys are still active, including Danny Green, who has done it a whopping five times in his career. Nowadays you can be a solid rotation player and do it—Lonzo Ball is achingly close to pulling it off this season, at 4.8 three-point attempts per game against just 1.1 free-throw attempt per game, while playing more than 30 minutes a night.

Used to be, though, you had to be a true specialist to pull it off. The first guy to average at least 4.5 attempts from deep against less than one from the stripe was the immortal and perfectly ground-bound Terry Mills, in 1997. The very short list of guys who did it before 2010 is a veritable who’s who of guys who were true Guys or who’d been reduced to Guy status by age or injury-related decline. Check it out:

Remember these guys?
Photo: Kevin Kolczynski (AP)
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Back to Harden, real quick. He’s averaging 12.8 three-point attempts per game, and also 11.3 free-throw attempts per game. Only one other player in NBA history—Steph Curry, natch—has ever averaged more than 11 three-point attempts per game, and in the two seasons in which Steph hit that mark (including this one, so far) he’s averaged less than six free-throw attempts per game. Meanwhile, there have been 118 player seasons when a guy averaged at least 10 free-throw attempts per game, and though it may feel like all 118 of those were split up between Harden and, I dunno, Wilt Chamberlain, Harden makes up just five of those seasons, and only Harden has ever also put up more than 7.2 three-point attempts per game in one of them.

So, yes, this is handy and elegant statistical evidence that the season Harden is having right now is like nothing that anyone has ever seen before. Still kind of feel like Teletović’s mark is the more impressive one! At any rate, who are some guys that you remember?

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