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Monday, February 11, 2019

James Harden's Travels Through the NBA Record Book

Back in the day, when someone traveled in one of my rec league games and the referees missed it, a friend of mine used to yell, "Ref, he took a bus!"--as in, the offender did not just slightly travel, but he took an extended journey so far beyond the confines of the traveling rule that Stevie Wonder could have made the call.

There is a backlash against the backlash against James Harden and it goes something like this: "Why is everyone hating James Harden's greatness? He makes stepback threes that no one else can make, he has a knack for drawing fouls and he has a combination of strength/quickness that enables him to get to the hoop and finish in traffic. No one else can score as prolifically as Harden, nor can anyone else score in the variety of ways that he scores."

I will stipulate that the court of basketball truth may take judicial notice of the following facts: Harden is capable of making difficult shots, Harden is both strong and quick, and Harden has a knack for finishing in traffic/drawing fouls.

All of that being stipulated for the record, I cannot speak for all of the so-called "haters" but I can state clearly and simply why I am not impressed by what Harden is doing this season: James Harden travels on a regular basis, and this is a major reason accounting for his ongoing travels up the charts in the NBA record books. There are other reasons to be skeptical of Harden's supposed greatness, but that is the biggest single one--at least for me. I would estimate that Harden is scoring an extra 8-10 ppg purely based on being permitted to blatantly and repeatedly travel. Those extra points are the difference between being the 28-30 ppg scorer that he has been in recent years, and the 35-40 ppg scoring machine that he has been in recent weeks.

Harden's traveling is not a subject for debate; just watch the tape, with the understanding that the traveling rule remains the same as it has always been: after a player stops dribbling, he must pass or shoot without taking more than a "1, 2" step. In other words, if you pick up your dribble in midstride then you can put one foot down and then put down the other foot (or come to a two-footed jump stop immediately after picking up your dribble) but before you take a third step the ball must be out of your hands via shot or pass.

P.J. Carlesimo recently did a segment for ESPN that lasted about 90 seconds and that showed several different examples of Harden taking three or more steps before draining a shot. Carlesimo commented that if he were coaching against Harden then he would be yelling at the officials all the time to enforce the traveling rule because there is no way to guard Harden if he is going to be allowed to blatantly and repeatedly violate the traveling rule.

There is no doubt that Harden is a talented scorer. There is no doubt that he makes some shots that are very difficult.

There is also no doubt that any above average NBA player is going to score a lot more points than usual if he is permitted to take extra steps.

The issue is compounded by the fact that Harden often pushes off first before he takes his three steps backward. In other words, he commits an offensive foul, then he travels, and then he scores. He often looks with disdain at his discarded defender before making the wide open shot. Forgive me for not being entertained by this nonsense.

I don't know how to guard Harden under the current set of circumstances but a couple thoughts come to mind, beyond the obvious "high hands" strategy that San Antonio Coach Gregg Popovich has advocated for a while:

(1) No soft fouls. If Harden pushes you and then travels, live with the outcome, because lunging at him and committing a soft foul just results in a potential four point play.

(2) Many hard fouls. Old-timers may recall that Dave Cowens was once whistled for what he deemed to be a questionable call, whereupon on an ensuing play he basically laid out an opposing player, turned to the ref and declared, "Now that's a (bleeping) foul!" That kind of blatant hard foul would almost certainly be considered a flagrant foul today but one possible answer to Harden's shenanigans is to put a non-essential player on him for a stretch of a few minutes and instruct that player that every time Harden does the foul/travel combo whack Harden's shooting hand as hard as you can. I don't believe that fouling a shooter's shooting hand would be deemed a flagrant foul, particularly if you look like you are going for the ball, and it would be interesting to see if Harden retained an appetite for violating the rules after receiving a steady diet of such fouls.

Anyone who has played basketball at any level knows that there are ways to get someone to stop being foolish and to simply play the game without doing anything that is flagrant or dangerous. I think that it was Charles Barkley who once said that every time he played against Dennis Rodman he would elbow Rodman in the ribs the first time Rodman yanked his shorts or did some other offense that went undetected; the message was, "Do you want to play ball or do you want to do something else?" Rodman was much more successful against players like Alonzo Mourning who fell for the proverbial banana in the tailpipe then he was against players who neither tolerated shenanigans nor let shenanigans distract them. If I were coaching against Harden I would not complain to the referees and I would fine any of my players who got technical fouls for doing so; if this nonsense is going to be legislated out of existence then it is going to take place league-wide and not by lobbying individual officials. However, as a coach or player I would make sure that my team takes countermeasures against Harden, as described above.

As a competitor, one thing that I would not do is just accept that a player on the other team is allowed to get away with violating the rules.

If Harden can score 35-plus ppg within the confines of the rules, more power to him and I have never believed that it is appropriate to hard foul a guy just if he is beating you within the confines of the rules--but let's be honest and admit that is not what is happening with Harden. Harden has had some legitimately great moments and great games but the bulk of what he is doing would not be possible without the traveling violations.

As for the large number of free throws that Harden shoots, after watching him play a lot I have reached two conclusions: (1) He is awarded a lot of questionable calls and (2) he does have a knack for baiting unfocused defenders into fouling him. These are not mutually exclusive concepts; it is possible--and, in fact, true--to say both that Harden benefits from a favorable whistle and that Harden is very good at drawing fouls.

Saturday night's Oklahoma City-Houston game was a microcosm of the good, the bad and the ugly regarding Harden. The Rockets built a 68-42 first half lead as Harden scored on a variety of shots/moves, some of which were incredible but legal and others of which involved the push off/travel duo. Predictably, once the Rockets stopped making three pointers the Thunder came roaring back to win, 117-112. Most of the in game commentary focused on Harden--who scored 42 points on 11-28 field goal shooting--and Paul George, who scored 45 points on 12-22 field goal shooting. Meanwhile, Russell Westbrook "merely" amassed his ninth straight triple double (21 points, game-high tying 12 rebounds, game-high 11 assists), tying the all-time triple double streak set by Wilt Chamberlain. Westbrook struggled with his shot and he had several sloppy turnovers but, as George noted after the game, Westbrook had his fingerprints on just about everything positive that the Thunder did as well.

Harden's poor shooting is justified by some because he shoots so many three pointers and free throws but the reality is that regardless of Harden's points per shot or true shooing percentage 17 Houston possessions ended in missed shots by Harden; that is a ton of empty possessions and that is a recipe for blowing a lead. Harden had a -9 plus/minus number, which means that the Rockets had the advantage when he sat and lost the lead while he played. George had a +16 plus/minus number, while Westbrook's plus/minus was +2. Westbrook's miscues played a role in Oklahoma City falling behind, but his rebounding, passing and defense--plus a few timely shots-- also played a role in the comeback.

The ebbs and flows of that game strongly suggest that no matter how much the league tilts calls in Harden's favor it will still be difficult for Houston to consistently beat good teams, which means that their 2019 postseason run will most likely end in a meltdown similar to the ones that punctuated each of Harden's previous Houston postseasons. Basketball purists who are not entertained by the Rockets and by Harden's shenanigans cannot wait for the madness to end.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:04 AM

16 comments

16 Comments:

At Monday, February 11, 2019 3:32:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

While the durability and skill that Harden has displayed during his scoring run is impressive it is clear that he is officiated with a different set of rules than any other player. There is reason to believe that star players in general are officiated differently than most but it's usually within some kind of reason and the way Harden is officiated makes an absolute mockery of this premise. I'm sure the madness will end come playoff time but that won't erase the regular season records he is setting and who knows how many more years he will be allowed to tap dance his way into scoring titles.

I have also wondered why teams aren't way more physical with him and why he hasn't received more hard frustration fouls. It's probably an indirect statement on how soft the game has gotten and maybe it is simple mental fatigue. If it were the playoffs teams would implement the anti-Harden game plan but in a regular season game, especially a back-to-back, other teams simply don't have the patience to deal with his shenanigans and as a result let him run wild, especially the specific players who are assigned to guard him as they saw what happened with Brandon Ingram. I can't even imagine how irritating it must be to attempt actual defense on Harden without being called for a foul.

 
At Monday, February 11, 2019 12:10:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

Harden is unquestionably a durable player who possesses a multi-faceted skill set, but it is also unquestionable that he is often permitted to get away with fouls and violations; this is a major, albeit not well reported, story because these fouls and violations significantly impact his statistics and even the record book/history of the sport.

It would be very entertaining to put Harden in a time machine and watch him try to pull off these shenanigans in front of 1980s referees while playing against the Detroit Pistons. I would buy a ticket to watch that!

 
At Monday, February 11, 2019 10:18:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

(a different anonymous)

A major question about this whole situation is why it is that Harden is given a special treatment. Are the refs under explicit instructions to do that? One is almost forced to think that, because it is not as if they have forgotten the rules. I remember Steph Curry trying the Harden double step back (aka 4-step travel) in a game a couple months ago, he was promptly whistled for a travel, and he hasn't tried it again since then. So clearly the refs know it is a travel, but they do not call it on Harden specifically. Then the question is who and why gave them such instructions. The league can be just as popular and successful without this nonsense, it is not as if there is a shortage of exciting talent out there, and while a lot can be said about real defense having been almost outlawed by changes in the rules, I don't see much benefit in making a mockery of the game in this particular way by giving one particular player preferential treatment.

Decades the travels will have been forgotten and what people will be judging the era by what they see on whatever equivalent of basketball-reference exists then. And they will see that James Harden averaged 36 PPG, something that only the two greatest players in the history of the game had done before...

 
At Tuesday, February 12, 2019 4:49:00 AM, Blogger Jordan Ikeda said...

@a different anonymous,

I agree Harden's Rules make a mockery of the game. It will be a double tragedy if he wins a second MVP and maintains his scoring average. Between this narrative and all the narratives surrounding the man-who-I-once-knew-as-Magic-Johnson-my-childhood hero, I'm strongly considering taking a 4-season hiatus from the NBA...

But, regarding this topic specifically, I want to know why just like you. This is what I've surmised about Harden's fouls and travel no-calls as objectively as I can (full disclosure, I despise James Harden's game).

As David pointed out, Harden is excellent at drawing fouls. He has fantastic anticipation and he knows how to move his body in ways that dramatize actions that are real and/or created. He's also left-handed. Refs have a slightly different view of him and players defend him at slightly different angles -- angles he masterfully leverages.

Leverage. From the Beard brand to his left hand, Harden is a master and a maestro.

He leverages the fact that there are only 3 refs. He knows all of their spots on the floor and leverages how he positions himself and which parts of his body are covered by blind spots at any given time. He's made Ginobili's flail a religion. He leverages the knowledge that the refs need to watch for arm/hand contact, body contact, illegal screens, and...oh wait, did Harden just pitter-patter behind the 3 point line? He personifies "deceptively quick."

He shrewdly leverages when refs blow the whistle on contact he creates. While he dominates the ball and refs watch him a lot, there are 9 other men out on the floor. A good chunk of the time, many of their whistles are purely reactive to split second action they believe they saw. And of course, Harden leverages this as well.

The general fan formulates his/her opinions of referee competence based upon a compilation loop from 3 different angles of a play slowed down to 30 seconds, viewed in ultra 4k, that made up 1 second of a 2,880 second game.

I believe the speed of the game and the athleticism of the average NBA player has improved a great deal. As has video replay. These are world class athletes taking action against a literal ticking clock. Harden isn't quite the creme de la creme of NBA athletes, but he's a very good one. Where he truly shines is wholly committing to the power of leverage. I honestly think this is what we should be viewing as Morey's analytics. Definitely outside the box.

Take a very good athlete with a wickedly sharp and creative mind, and arm him with a different kind of analytics...

As David wrote in another post, Harden has no business being an MVP favorite. Though, I will say he is without question, the MVP of Leverage.

(Lebron cost himself the crown he's worn since 2007 with his latest scheme deflating the real and percieved value of...well, the entire Lakers organization).

 
At Tuesday, February 12, 2019 10:20:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'd like to know evidence of this Harden conspiracy theory. I'd like to know what player doesn't travel without being called for it. Also, what motive does the NBA have with allowing Harden more freedom with 'traveling' compared to anyone else? The NBA has already changed rules in recent years primarily because of Harden with swing throughs on shooting fouls. They've already tried to limit his scoring, so I don't understand why they'd then conspire among themselves to let him get away with traveling while others don't. And do you really think the officials want to look bad with him showing them up on non-traveling calls?

Bottom line, Harden changed his game for the discontinued to swing-through fouls to score even more proficiently. If they started calling these supposed special travels, he'd figure out how to overcome them. The other thing is this is all moot since these 'travels' are mostly allowed.

Jordan, why would it be a tragedy with Harden winning another MVP? He was clearly the best regular season performer overall in the league and his team had the best record last season. He's now greatly improved this season since last averaging insane numbers: 36.5, 6.7, 7.8 on very efficent shooting, while basically single handedly keeping his depleted team in the playoff race in the super-competitive West. I can't remember a better MVP season in recent years.

 
At Tuesday, February 12, 2019 1:46:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Different Anonymous:

I don't know why Harden is given special treatment, but it is beyond dispute that he is given special treatment--and, thus, as you note, the record book is being tainted as real records are being erased by shenanigans, much like baseball's record book is tainted by the Steroids Era (though PED usage actually broke the law, while Harden is merely breaking league rules that are being selectively enforced).

 
At Tuesday, February 12, 2019 1:51:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Jordan:

You may be on to something but many of Harden's pushes and travels are so blatant that leverage has nothing to do with the missed calls. It has always been a rule that if an offensive player extends his arm and displaces the defender this is a foul--but Harden does this repeatedly without being called for it; sometimes, the hapless defender is charged with fouling Harden!

Throughout basketball history, rules have been passed to limit the effectiveness of great scorers: the lane was widened because of Mikan and then widened again because of Chamberlain, offensive goal-tending was disallowed because of Chamberlain, the dunk was banned in college basketball because of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (then known as Lew Alcindor), but Harden is perhaps the first player for whom rules are being changed specifically for his benefit (the restrictions on hand checking benefited all perimeter players, not just one or two).

 
At Tuesday, February 12, 2019 1:54:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

I am not asserting a "conspiracy theory." I have no idea who or what is behind what is happening. I am just reporting facts, supported by video: Harden regularly pushes off and travels, but he is rarely called for the pushing fouls or the traveling violations. I have never seen an NBA player who travels as frequently and blatantly as Harden does now. His so-called signature move--the "stepback three" is rarely completed without him committing a violation (and sometimes a foul as well).

 
At Tuesday, February 12, 2019 4:24:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

David, why is it beyond dispute that Harden is given special treatment that no other player is given? And for the record, every star player probably benefits a little more than in nba history than role players do. The stuff Jordan got away with was absurd. And it's a bit ridiculous to compare Harden to PED usage just because you don't like his style of play.

Whatever rule changes you're asserting to help Harden help every player then. Great players in any sport have always found a way to 'bend' the rules or find loopholes in the rules. The NBA changing the swing-through rule, which Harden figured out how to utilize the best to his advantage(which is actually a foul on the defender) actually helps the defense now.

Sure sounds like you believe in a conspiracy theory, given how you're writing an article specifically about Harden and traveling(don't mention anyone else in the NBA traveling), and how he gets special treatment. If you believe he gets special treatment unlike any other current player, then by definition, that's a conspiracy theory, and all the officials in the league are allowing him to do these things more than other players. 2 guys you write about a lot(Westbrook/James) travel all the time, too, and get away with a lot. How about just sit back and enjoy what Harden is doing, instead of finding excuses everywhere to try to denigrate him as much as possible for a change? His level of play this year is off the charts. He plays by the same rules as Durant, Curry, James, etc.

 
At Tuesday, February 12, 2019 4:48:00 PM, Blogger Jordan Ikeda said...

Hi David,

You are correct. I didn't bring up his blatant offensive fouls. He initiates contact every single time. Which is fine, if the refs either called offensive fouls on him, or just let the contact go (which happens a lot more in the playoffs...). His go to move when driving to the hoop is he gets into his opponent's chest, craftily hooks arms with his defender, and then flails. Whistle 50% of the time.

But, perhaps referees have been instructed to call the game differently. NBA referees called this play by Bradley Beal...legal.

https://www.yahoo.com/sports/bradley-beal-shrugs-off-egregious-uncalled-travel-blake-griffins-face-priceless-151434062.html

@anonymous,

I understand you appreciate Harden's game. I can appreciate his expert level of leveraging NBA rules, spacing, etc. in his favor. However, what he is doing feels plastic because of how reliant he is on human judgment to be "valuable." Defenders play off him or with hands down because of how he leverages spacing and takes advantage of how the refs call contact he initiates.

Lebront dominates with a combination of power and skill. Kobe was arguably the NBA's greatest tactician. Curry leverages his god-like ability to shoot from anywhere. Yes, Curry travels and palms the ball at times. Yes, Kobe didn't always keep his pivot foot rooted in the same place. Lebron often takes extra steps, as did Shaq.

But none of them do/did any of those things as the foundation for their game. Harden bases his entire game around leveraging the manufacturing of fouls. Whether he goes to the line 25 times or 8, the threat of his foul-drawing warps entire defenses. No question his strategy is savvy and obviously effective, but it doesn't translate in the playoffs, and when comparing skillsets across eras, he comes up wanting in many areas despite the gaudy numbers.

 
At Tuesday, February 12, 2019 5:11:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

It is beyond dispute because I know of no other player whose game is based almost entirely around pushing off, traveling, and then shooting uncontested shots. I watch Harden play often and even when I miss a game I see the "highlights," which consist of numerous violations and/or fouls. If the rules have been changed, then the NBA should announce this but as of now it is a foul if the ballhandler extends his off arm and changes the path of the defensive player. It is a travel if the ballhandler picks up his dribble and takes more than a 1,2 step before shooting or passing. It is well documented that Harden dribbles more and plays more isolation ball than anyone else in the league, so he benefits the most from such fouls and violations not being called. It is possible that other players are benefiting, though I have yet to notice that to a great extent; Harden benefits multiple times per game nearly every single game.

A player who once in a while gets away with taking an extra step on a drive is not deriving nearly the same advantage as Harden, whose scoring average has increased 8-10 ppg based almost entirely on committing these violations and fouls.

 
At Tuesday, February 12, 2019 5:14:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Jordan:

I have seen occasional odd plays like the Beal one, but Harden is the only player who systematically benefits to such a great extent. I have seen numerous Houston games during which opposing players are called for the very nonsense that he just got away with doing.

I don't think that Harden could score more than 25 ppg if he were officiated according to the rules (he benefited to some extent in previous seasons but this season it has become ridiculous).

 
At Tuesday, February 12, 2019 6:22:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

(a different anonymous)

"why is it beyond dispute that Harden is given special treatment that no other player is given? And for the record, every star player probably benefits a little more than in nba history than role players do"

It is beyond dispute because the evidence is in front of our eyes. And it is simply not true that every other star player gets the same treatment. Curry, to use him as an example once again, would be shooting twice as many fouls as he currently does if he was officiated remotely similarly to Harden (in which case he would be scoring 35 PPG too) -- he gets manhandled all the time without fouls being called. And it has made a difference in the past -- the Warriors probably win four in a row if that had been the case given how the 2016 finals went when the Cavs suffocated him with hard physical defense (of the kinds one is not allowed to play against Harden). Note that I am not calling for the Harden treatment to be extended to all star players, as it is the rules have been changed to such an extent that playing any sort of real defense has been nearly outlawed, it's just that they have been apparently changed even more so for Harden.

David's point about Harden not scoring more than 25 PPG with proper refereeing is very accurate. And it's not just that the threes that he scores after traveling and committing offensive fouls or the phantom calls that he gets would disappear. If the rules are to be applied properly starting tomorrow what will happen in the short term is that Harden will be getting very frustrated every game after being called for travels and offensive fouls a couple times in the first half, and you will see a lot of 25% shooting nights as a result. In the long run adjustments will be made and his shot attempts will have to go down as he won't be able to create as many for himself, and his shooting efficiency will still be lower than the current 44%. And he won't be scoring a lot of points for too many additional seasons either (keep in mind that he is neither the biggest of shooting guards nor is he some sort of athletic freak, and he has a well documented tendency of not staying in shape).

 
At Wednesday, February 13, 2019 1:03:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Different Anonymous:

You nailed it. The video evidence is plentiful, and there is more of it every time Houston plays.

You are correct that if Harden were officiated correctly then there would be a trickle down effect: (1) He would be frustrated, (2) defenders would actually be able to get within three feet of him without hearing a whistle (which would reduce Harden's FG%) and (3) Harden would not be able to get off as many shots per game (or free throws per game) as he currently does.

It is not necessary to prove that there is a conspiracy or state who is behind the alleged conspiracy to state the obvious and indisputable fact that Harden is regularly permitted to get away with both offensive fouls and traveling violations.

 
At Wednesday, February 13, 2019 5:02:00 PM, Blogger beep said...

I don't know why you guys beat around the bush.

1. Harden is blatantly, as evidenced, breaking game rules and is getting away with it on consistent basis. Surely stars are allowed more in NBA (James traveling, Wade or Ginobli flopping all around, etc.), but in this case it's getting to ridiculous proportion.

2. Referees couldn't just stop seeing this when Harden plays, so they just swallow the whistle, but why most of them all of sudden? Instruction must be in place, or is there any other possibility?

Conclusion is: league unofficially supports this kind of behaviour here. No other way around it. Which is exactly conspiracy theory anonymous talks about. Too bad this one seems very real, all too blatant.

Why this happens? I don't know.
I suspect it's all for show (and money), because comes playoffs time and officiating gets tightened, hopefully this season too.

 
At Friday, February 15, 2019 10:02:00 AM, Blogger Kyle Falls said...

I've commented on this several times in the past, but nothing points to Harden's abuse of the fouling system more than the fact that he is the ONLY "elite" scorer to ever to have more free throws than field goals made over his entire career. In fact, he accomplished this in 6 of his 9 full seasons and still has a chance to do so this year.

NO OTHER elite wing player has ever had a season like that. This can not be exaggerated. Harden has scored 3% LESS field goals than free throws. Here is a list of every other all-time great wing player and how much more field goals they scored than free throws:

Pippen 138%
Curry 121%
Bird 117%
Havlicek 96%
Erving 89%
Gervin 81%
Drexler 77%
Barry 70%
Jordan 66%
LeBron 65%
Baylor 51%
Wade 47%
Kobe 40%
Westbrook 39%
Durant 35%
Iverson 33%
West 26%
Oscar 24%

Now obviously these percentages vary tremendously based on how much those guys scored over their careers, but the fact remains that none of them ever relied on getting to the line more than getting a bucket in live play. Harden is the biggest phony in the history of basketball and it's not close.

 

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