Join me on a short journey through some neat NBA stats from the 2016-17 regular season.
James Harden attempted 205 more free throws than Jimmy Butler, who finished with the third-most free-throw attempts. That difference is roughly the same as the difference between Butler and Rudy Gobert, who attempted the 14th-most free throws in the NBA this season. Harden shot a whopping 881 free throws in 81 games, or nearly 11 per game. Harden and Russell Westbrook, who finished with the second-most free throws this season, combined to shoot 1,721 free throws. The Dallas Mavericks, stocked as they are with slow, plodding, less-impressive-younger-brother types, attempted 1,521 free throws as a whole team this regular season.
There’s still reason to be suspicious of Harden’s foul-seeking ways, of course: Harden averaged about 1.02 free throw attempts per drive this season; if Isaiah Thomas had accumulated free-throw trips at that same rate, he would’ve attempted 977 free throws, good for the 6th-highest total in NBA history, a volume only surpassed by Wilt Chamberlain. And Thomas would’ve done it in only 76 games! Miami Heat leading scorer Goran Dragic drove into the paint five more times this season than James Harden, and attempted 504 fewer free throws. Clearly, something that Harden was doing that wasn’t driving into traffic was putting him at the line way more than anyone else.
Of course, not all Harden’s penetrating was about ref-baiting: a good deal of it was about turning the ball over! Harden committed 464 turnovers, 142 more turnovers than Jon Wall, who committed the third-most turnovers. This despite averaging fewer front-court touches per game (78.8) than Wall (79.2), and driving 56 fewer times overall. That difference in total turnovers is roughly the same as the difference between Wall and DeMar DeRozan, who finished with the 25th-most turnovers in the NBA this season. Washington’s starting five, the most used five-man lineup in the NBA this season, committed 366 turnovers in 69 games (nice). Harden and Westbrook, who finished with the second-most turnovers this season, combined for 902 turnovers; the entire Charlotte Hornets team committed 942 total turnovers.
In fairness, turnovers and free-throw attempts are inevitable byproducts of handling the ball and distributing—the more possessions you spend breaking down the defense, the more times you will find yourself in a crowd of defenders. Sometimes that will lead to an open bucket for a teammate; sometimes that will lead to a defender getting a hand on the ball; sometimes that will lead to you randomly and suddenly throwing your hands up into the air and shouting HEY! at the top of your lungs, then staring angrily at a referee while the opposing team takes the ball the other way.
Harden and Westbrook were two of the most ball-dominant players in the NBA—Westbrook, in fact, used possessions like no one else has in NBA history. Westbrook attempted 371 more shots than Andrew Wiggins, who attempted the second most shots in the league this season. This despite playing 246 fewer total minutes than Wiggins, or about seven fewer games at Russ’s 34 minutes per game clip. That difference in total shots is roughly the same as the difference between Wiggins and Dennis Schröder, who attempted the 25th-most shots in the NBA this season. Russ attempted 1,941 shots in the 2016-2017 NBA season. Minnesota’s starting five, the second-most commonly used five-man lineup in the NBA, attempted 1,524 shots. Russ missed more shots in 81 regular season games than Pistons leading scorer Tobias Harris attempted in 82. Only one player since 1993 has attempted more shots than Russ did this season. Yes, of course it was Kobe Bryant, who attempted an astonishing 2,173 shots in the 2005-2006 season, and in just 80 games. Disgusting.
While no match for Westbrook in the realm of pure hoisting, Steph Curry did attempt 789 three-pointers, the second-highest total in NBA history (behind the 886 he attempted last season). His 2017 output is still 128 three-pointers more than Eric Gordon, who finished with the third-most three-point attempts. That difference is only a little bit more than the difference between Gordon and his Houston teammate Ryan Anderson, who attempted the 11th-most three-pointers in the NBA this season. Curry and Harden, who attempted the second-most threes this season, combined to launch 1,545 threes between the two of them. The Minnesota Timberwolves attempted 1,723 threes as a team this season. Honestly, this reflects so much more poorly on the Timberwolves than it does on Harden and Curry. Just what the hell kind of ship is Tom Thibodeau running up there?
Harden’s Rockets attempted a ludicrous 3,306 three-pointers this season, 527 three-pointers more than Cleveland, which attempted the second-most threes. Incidentally, Cleveland’s 2,779 three-point attempts are second-most in history. The difference between the Rockets’ output and the Cavs’ output is about the same as the difference between the Cavaliers and the Clippers, who attempted the 11th-most threes in the NBA this season. At their 2016-2017 rate (21.01 attempts a game), those damn Timberwolves would’ve needed more than 157 games to get up as many threes as the Rockets attempted in 82 games. We’re gonna need Timothy J. Mouse to sneak into Thibs’s bedroom one night.
Surprisingly, Curry’s Warriors finished just fifth in three-point attempts, behind even the Brooklyn Nets. But no team in recent NBA history can touch them for assists: the 2016-2017 Warriors accrued 2,491 assists, the highest regular season total since 1985. The Dubs rang up 404 more total assists than Denver, which finished with the second-most assists—that’s not far off from the difference between the Nuggets and Utah, which finished with the 28th-most assists in the NBA. If the passing-averse Toronto Raptors added all the assists accrued by NBA assists leader James Harden to their meager total, they’d still be 67 shy of Golden State’s total. With all these assists, and the outrageous league-wide increase in pace and three-point shooting, it’s more than a little wild that Golden State’s 9,503 total points this season are good for just the 66th-highest single-season total in NBA history. Next time some crank complains that NBA teams don’t play defense like they used to, remind them that every single one of the 65 highest-scoring teams in NBA history played before 1992, and that those one-hand-dribbling, set-shot-launching, no-dunking, two-pointers-only scrubs would get painted onto the floor of a modern NBA game.