20 Second Timeout is the place to find the best analysis and commentary about the NBA.

Wednesday, December 04, 2019

Is James Harden the Greatest NBA Scorer of This Era?

It is fitting that the night after Kirk Goldsberry asserted that James Harden "is the greatest scorer of this NBA era" Harden scored 50 points on 11-38 field goal shooting in Houston's 135-133 double overtime loss to San Antonio. Harden set an NBA regular season single game record for most free throws made without a miss (24), but he missed 16 of his 20 three point field goal attempts, and no matter how you crunch/twist/torture the points per shot/points per possession numbers, this is not efficient basketball, it is not winning basketball, and it is not entertaining basketball. Based on the data available at BasketballReference.com, Harden's .289 field goal percentage is by far the worst ever posted by a player who scored at least 50 points in an NBA game, and--by a smaller margin--it is also the worst ever posted by a player who scored at least 40 points in an NBA game. Harden capped his bricklaying by committing an offensive foul on Houston's last possession of double overtime with the Rockets trailing by two points.

Goldsberry's ESPN.com article declared that Harden is "regularly inventing new fundamentals," that he has brought back "hero ball," and that he is "reforming the conventional wisdom of the modern NBA in real time." Goldsberry praises Harden's record-setting foul drawing, but it is disingenuous to do so without acknowledging the plentiful video evidence that Harden often benefits from calls that are flat out wrong: Harden travels, he initiates contact in an illegal manner but fools the referees into thinking that the defender has fouled him, and Harden has convinced referees to carve out a "landing space" for him that essentially makes it impossible to challenge Harden's shot without being whistled for a foul (which is why some frustrated defenders have resorted to guarding Harden with their hands behind their backs so that there is no way that a foul will be called against them, but of course that also enables Harden to shoot uncontested shots that any competent NBA player can make).

Goldsberry is not the first observer to make outlandish claims about Harden's greatness, and I have expressed skepticism about Harden's impact on winning and incredulity at the notion that Harden is as good of a scorer as Michael Jordan was.

Before examining yet again the flaws in Harden's game that giddy commentators ignore or do not understand, it is worth reviewing why Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant were not only better scorers than Harden but also far superior all-around players. Both Jordan and Bryant had fundamentally sound and complete offensive repertoires: they could score in the post, they could finish at the hoop with either hand, they had impeccable footwork, they could score from midrange, they were excellent free throw shooters, and they could draw fouls without resorting to gimmicks and/or tricking the referees. They were both adequate three point shooters in eras during which the three point shot was not a primary offensive weapon for most teams and most players. They were also both elite defenders, and they both consistently demonstrated the ability to elevate their play--and the play of their teams--against elite competition during the playoffs. Jordan's teams went 6-0 in the NBA Finals, while Bryant's teams went 5-2 in the NBA Finals. Put Jordan or Bryant in any era, under any set of rules and/or playing conditions, and they both would have excelled; put Jordan or Bryant in this era--with no perimeter hand checking, small lineups bereft of rim protection, and an emphasis on offense over defense--and both would easily average 35-40 ppg for several years in a row.

Harden is a good three point shooter, and an excellent free throw shooter. He finishes well at the hoop. The rest of his scoring repertoire is limited. His footwork is not fundamentally sound, he is unwilling or unable to post up, and he does not have much of a midrange game. As a result of these deficiencies, Harden has to--as Charles Barkley puts it--"dribble, dribble, dribble" in order to score. While Harden is dribbling, his teammates are frozen out and the shot clock is winding down. A truly great perimeter scorer can generate a good shot by taking one or two dribbles and then either elevating directly into his shot, or else using footwork and shot fakes to get open. Harden is praised for his ability to create space, and his ability to draw fouls, but--as noted above--it is not correct to state or imply that Harden is better at drawing legitimate fouls than legends such as Jerry West, Adrian Dantley, Nate Archibald and other players who attempted a large number of free throws: Harden creates space by traveling, and a large percentage of the fouls he draws involve him pushing off, or hooking the defender's arm and then acting like the defender hooked him, or using an exaggerated follow through on his three point shots to make it appear that the defender has violated his landing space (one great meme that I saw a while back depicted Harden's landing space as being the same size as the area used by an Olympic long jumper, because Harden will jump forward, backward or sideways depending on the situation--no one can seriously argue that Harden's follow through is a legitimate or normal basketball move, or that the landing space that referees protect for him makes sense within the letter or spirit of the rule).

From a statistical and analytical/strategic standpoint, what Harden is doing is eliminating virtually any shot from his repertoire other than point blank field goal attempts (layups/dunks), free throw attempts, and three point attempts. By playing this way, Harden's numbers are "efficient" even when he shoots a horrible field goal percentage, because his points per possession average will always be boosted by his free throws and three pointers. The downsides of Harden's "efficiency" are not so easy to quantify or prove, but they include (1) shutting his teammates out of the offense for extended stretches (rendering the team easier to guard, and those players less ready to produce when called upon to do so), (2) generating a lot of empty possessions when Harden misses from the field or turns the ball over, and (3) overly relying on one player to the extent that if he slumps or gets hurt the team may be unable to adapt. Those downsides have not caused too many problems during the past few regular seasons, but they have been major issues during the playoffs. It is fair to question whether this supposedly revolutionary style of play is ever likely to result in Houston winning a championship. Championship teams are usually very good defensively, and they usually feature a player who can be relied upon not only to carry a heavy scoring load but also to score crucial points down the stretch in the playoffs against elite defenses.

When Harden forced his way out of Oklahoma City because he wanted to be the number one option and not the number three option, I compared him to Manu Ginobili and suggested that if Harden valued winning over individual glory then he would have accepted a Ginobili role as opposed to trying to lead a team. I did not think that Harden had the skill set or durability to score more than 25-28 ppg, and I did not think that he could be the best player on a championship team. I would never have imagined that Harden would score as prolifically as he has for the past few seasons, but I also would never have imagined that the league would let anyone get away with the traveling and offensive fouls that Harden is permitted to commit. I give Harden credit for being physically stronger and more durable than I anticipated, but he has yet to refute my contention that he is not well suited to being the best player on a championship team; Harden's playoff meltdowns are as legendary and dramatic as his regular season scoring extravaganzas.

The big problem with Harden's game is that many of his tactics that work, or seem to work, or are permitted by lax officiating to work, during the regular season do not work during the playoffs. In the playoffs, the officiating is better and stricter, so Harden cannot camouflage his poor shooting nights by generating a parade to the free throw line. Also, the value of each playoff game is much higher than the value of each regular season game; six months from now, no one is going to remember or care that Harden's charge cost the Rockets a chance to tie the game versus the Spurs, but a gaffe like that during a seven game playoff series could be the difference between advancing and being eliminated.

By the way, it is worth noting that it is not a coincidence that Harden's video game numbers have surged this season while playing alongside Russell Westbrook. Last season, Westbrook's teammate Paul George had the best season of his career and finished third in MVP voting after only receiving  MVP votes once before (2013-14, when he finished ninth in the balloting). Kevin Durant won his only regular season MVP playing alongside Westbrook. Westbrook has demonstrated throughout his career that he is willing to be the second option on offense, and that he can adapt his game to enable his teammates to shine. The Rockets would be unstoppable offensively if they properly leveraged Westbrook's ability to attack the hoop in transition with Harden's half court game, but the Rockets seem determined to sink or swim with Harden as the focal point.

This season, Harden may very well average more points per game than any player other that Wilt Chamberlain ever has. Harden may put up numbers that will be deemed "efficient." Harden may be praised as the greatest drawer of fouls ever, despite of reels of video evidence that Harden is cheating the game with his extra steps, his push offs, his arm hooks, and his exaggerated landing space.

However, if Harden continues to play this way--and there is no reason to believe that he is willing or able to change at this point--his team will once again go down in flames during the playoffs, and Harden will once again be the primary culprit.

The analytics that Houston loves do not account for all aspects of the game of basketball; they do not account for the fact that Harden's style of play freezes out his teammates, so that his teammates do not know when/if they will be expected to shoot. As Barkley and Kenny Smith discussed during the most recent Inside the NBA episode on TNT, it is a lot of pressure for a role player to go long stretches without touching the ball and then be expected to nail a shot with the shot clock about to expire. Smith said that the ability to do this is what made Robert Horry special and great as a role player who thrived in clutch situations, but that Houston's style of play forces Harden's teammates to have an Horry mentality every game, which is a large burden to carry.

There is a myth floating around that Harden's Rockets did better against the dynasty Golden State Warriors than any other team, but of course that contention is false because (1) Cleveland beat the Warriors in the 2016 NBA Finals and (2) Toronto beat the Warriors in the 2019 NBA Finals. Maybe no one could have predicted that Houston would miss 27 straight three pointers in an elimination game, but I have often pointed out that shooting a large number of three pointers is a high risk/high variance choice, and that even if the overall percentage turns out well the percentage in a key game could be atrocious, with a disastrous result on the game's outcome; prior to Houston's 2018 playoff matchup with Golden State, I predicted that Houston could very well beat Golden State by more than 20 points in one game and still end up losing the series. Houston won by 22 points on the road in game two, took a 3-2 series lead--and then fell apart when it mattered most in game seven with 7-44 three point shooting, including the aforementioned 27 straight misses. Harden shot 12-29 from the field in game seven, including 2-13 from three point range. The supposedly consummate drawer of fouls shot 6-8 from the free throw line. When it mattered most, Harden could not buy a three point basket, could not draw many fouls, and was unwilling/unable to utilize any other offensive skill. Jordan and Bryant had some playoff games during which they did not shoot well, but they had the ability to impact the game in other ways, and they did not monopolize the ball by dribbling to the extent that they froze out their teammates.

Harden is a talented and durable player, and he would be a prolific--but not record-setting--scorer without the gimmicks, but he is not as great as his fans suggest that he is, and, more importantly, his playing style does not maximize his team's opportunity to win a championship.

Labels: , , , ,

posted by David Friedman @ 2:36 AM

11 comments

11 Comments:

At Wednesday, December 04, 2019 11:29:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I too have been extremely frustrated with the whole situation. Because now the record books will be permanently stained by Harden's presence and we will never hear the end of it for many years to come.

Let's first get the positive out of the way: Harden deserves a lot of credit for actually going out there and playing and scoring that many points every night, in an era where the regular seasons is taken less and less seriously by more and more of the spoiled brats that are the current crop of NBA superstars. He is a refreshing exception.

But that does not change the fact that he would never average more than 30 PPG if the rules had not been bastardized the way they have, and if he wasn't given special treatment even under the already very unfairly offense-favoring rules of today.

Harden is right now averaging 15 FTA a game. For comparison:

* Kobe was at 10.2 FTA a game in 2005-06, when he had an insane usage rate, and he was one of the greatest ever at drawing fouls with footwork and pump fakes

* Shaq had one season at 13 FTA in 2000-01, when Hack-A-Shaq was at its peak and teams were daring him to make his FTs. His second highest was 11.4

* The only other person to cross the 13 FTA threshold was Wilt. And, wait for it, his highest ever was 17 FTA in his 50.4 PPG (on 39.5 shots per game) 48.5 MPG season. He has all the other 13+ FTA seasons, but he never crossed the 14 FTA threshold other than in that season. And he was also deliberately fouled because of his poor FT shooting

So Harden is averaging more FTs a game than the most dominant centers the game has ever seen did when the offense was going entirely through them.

That is absurd.

That's 5 PPG at the very least just from the free throws.

Then there is the question of whether he would be able to get that many shots and to shoot them as efficiently as he is now if defenders weren't afraid to be called for a three-point shooting foul.

Almost certainly not.

Which is why in the playoffs he has only shot better than 41% in one season with the Rockets.

What I don't understand is why the NBA is allowing this to happen.

If they think it is helping ratings, they are flat out empirically wrong.

Ratings are down by a lot.

 
At Wednesday, December 04, 2019 5:38:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

I agree with you that Harden's antics--and the NBA permitting him to get away with those antics--have tainted the record books.

I also agree with you that this has made the NBA less entertaining and less watchable, as reflected by the declining ratings.

 
At Thursday, December 05, 2019 7:18:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

HI David,

You are the only one quipping about this ridiculous situation.

At this rate Harden will have smashed Jordan's and Kobe's 40 50 and 60 point games in a couple of years.
Time will tell if he passes Wilt.
NBA and the refs are trying their best to do so.But what for that I do not comprehend.

regards,
Nimble

 
At Thursday, December 05, 2019 11:49:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nimble,

Yes, it is true that I am one of the few people who has pointed out the flaws in Harden's game and the damage that this circus is inflicting on the record book.

I think that most of Wilt's records are safe, but at his current pace Harden could very well surpass many of the marks set by Jordan and Bryant, who are the "non-Wilt" record holders in many scoring categories.

I am baffled at the suggestion made by many that Harden is a master at drawing fouls. We have all seen the videos of him traveling, pushing off, hooking arms, etc. Supposedly, the referees scout players' tendencies just like coaches do, so there is no reason for the referees to be "fooled" so often by Harden. I could understand if he fooled them the first time he did something, because looking at the play from one angle in a live view it might appear that Harden was fouled--but after you see the evidence that Harden is faking, as a referee you should know that unless you actually see a foul by the defender then you should not call a foul. That is what the referees are supposed to do, anyway--not guess, but just call what they see.

I think that in general the quality of officiating has deteriorated--look at the blatant travel that LeBron got away with last night--but that still does not completely explain Harden's record-setting FTA numbers.

 
At Saturday, December 07, 2019 10:01:00 PM, Anonymous Eric L said...

Anytime David posts about Harden, I read, scroll, and enjoy. I've been a follower of your blog now for well over ten years(!), and your analyses are usually some of my favorite and most refreshing. You are always bringing the truth out of this bearded charlatan's game. I absolutely agree with yours and everyone else's comments above regarding the scoring records (non-Wilt) being forever tainted. As someone who highly respects MJ and Kobe due to their immense all-around skillset and desire/success in winning, I am going to be beyond livid if/when Harden passes them on the all-time 40- and 50-point games.

In regards to this generation's (2010s) best scorer, I still have to go with Kevin Durant. KD has the scoring titles to back it up and possesses a far superior offensive skillset than Harden's. Durant could have etched his name further into the record books in regards to scoring if he wanted to but he joined a super-team in Golden State and had far less opportunities to do so; Durant also valued fitting in a system where winning as a team was prioritized over individual glory.

Steph Curry in his last MVP season (2015-16) could have scored so much more had he not sat out all those 4th quarters because the Warriors were so dominant. It's a shame that Curry is injured right now because I think he could have recreated some of the MVP magic that we witnessed. Heck, I would even claim that Curry is a better scorer than Harden. Lastly, I have this belief that Harden right now is trying to break Curry's record of most 3's in a season that he set back in 2016; Harden came pretty close last year.

Which leads me to my next point: Harden is the ultimate stat-padder; it's baffling how the media doesn't deem him selfish for jacking up all these shots and as you said, not allowing his teammates to develop their offensive rhythm. It's the false, sensationalized, and superficial ESPN coverage like the Goldsberrys that will influence many fans and other media members. They're reading this analytical garbage that doesn't take the full context of scoring and flows of a game into account. In contrast, the media loved to bash Westbrook when he was the alpha dog on the Thunder leading them to wins while smashing the triple-double records; additionally, they love to use Russ as the scapegoat for the Rockets' losses.

Regarding this recent 60-point game from Harden, he was still in the game when the Rockets had a gargantuan lead against the Hawks; Kobe's 62 vs the Mavericks in 2005 was far more impressive considering that he outscored an entire NBA team through the end of three quarters and that this Mavs team went to the Finals, while this current young Hawks team is struggling mightily and missing core players like John Collins.

It should go without saying that Harden and D'Antoni are perfect for each other because their stubbornness to make adjustments especially in the playoffs will once again be their undoing. It's criminal that Westbrook is not utilized to maximize his strengths for this team, but Morey, D'Antoni, and Harden want this to be Harden's show. There was a recent interview (on YouTube by the way) that Stephen A Smith (I know, not the most credible source) did with Harden in which Stephen A asked him what adjustments has he made to which Harden replied, "none". That just about sums up who Harden is as a player - solely focused on his own personal statistics and trying to create this narrative of becoming the modern-day Wilt.

As you and others have said, I hate that he's being allowed to travel, bait the refs, initiate contact between defenders, etc. His style is so full of gimmicks, and it's disgraceful to the game and disrespectful to the greats who came before him.

 
At Saturday, December 07, 2019 11:18:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Eric:

Thank you for your kind words. I appreciate that you have been a long-time reader and contributor.

I agree with you that both Durant and Curry are better scorers than Harden. LeBron James should be mentioned as well; if James stays healthy, he has a very good chance to pass Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's all-time regular season career scoring record. Of course, Karl Malone, Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant each looked like they at least had a chance to make a run at that mark before injuries/age, retirements/age and injuries/age respectively derailed each player several thousand points short of the record. I remember that when Wilt Chamberlain was asked about Kareem breaking his record--which had seemed untouchable until the ageless Kareem came along--Wilt said, "If I had even thought about anyone trying to break that record, I would have put it way out of sight," or words to that effect.

 
At Wednesday, December 11, 2019 4:42:00 PM, Blogger Keith said...

Thank you for your write up, David.

After the 2016 Finals, I thought we might be entering an interesting period of relative parity for the NBA, even if I disliked how arbitrary the regular season was treated by tanking teams and referees. But overpowered free agency leading to artificially stacked teams and now James Harden gimmicking his way to the third highest PPG scoring average has ensured that I've been paying less and less attention to the game overall.

The playoffs are still interesting but there's not enough team consistency anymore to really have anyone specific to continually root for. Things need to change at some point and I know the league recently discussed fiddling with mid-season tournaments and reseeding but that doesn't seem like enough to make the game honest again.

 
At Thursday, December 12, 2019 5:43:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hello David,

Edit and update to my post,Harden erupted for an incredibly efficient 55 point today.

I tip my hat to him and refs in a sense for only using the stripe for 5 times to getting to that point total.

Regards,
Nimble

 
At Thursday, December 12, 2019 8:07:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

(anonymous from the first comment)

@anonymous from the last comment:

Just because Harden only had 5 FTs that does not mean he did not score 55 points because of the refs. I did not watch the game, but it generally remains true that Harden's game relies on the refs not just for the FTs themselves -- players are afraid to play real defense against him because they don't want to get whistled for phantom fouls, and he gets away with travelling and offensive fouls all the time. Which is how he can generate so many shots and shoot them at a high percentage. If you stop giving him the cheap phantom fouls and start calling his own violations of the rules, his whole game falls apart (which is what happens every years in the playoffs). And that actually makes perfect sense, because when the game had not yet been bastardized by rule changes that unfairly favor the offense and by preferential treatment to certain players even within those relaxed rules, the sheer athleticism of the superstar players mattered a lot. Go through the list of the all-times great, there are not that many who are not true outliers in terms of their physical attributes, and there are also very few who are undersized. Harden is both kind of undersized and very much not that athletic. So he should not be able to dominate in any of the previous eras of basketball, for those reasons.

Again, I did not watch the game, so I cannot comment on how these exact 55 points were scored.

But you cannot separate his game into unrelated components. It is all connected.

 
At Thursday, December 12, 2019 8:01:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Keith:

I share your frustration with some of the ways that the game has changed in recent seasons, and I agree with you that the game is not as fun to watch as it use to be.

 
At Thursday, December 12, 2019 8:10:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous/Anonymous:

I agree with the notion that Harden's game is "all connected" in terms of him gaining advantages based on permitted travels, no calls, and so forth. I did not see the 55 point game, but I agree that just because Harden only had five free throws we cannot automatically conclude that the game was officiated correctly. Even just in the game highlights, I noticed some defenders who seemed reluctant to get close to Harden; the way that Harden is officiated enables Harden to often shoot uncontested shots that he does not deserve because defenders are afraid of being called for phantom fouls. It also looked like Harden got away with uncalled travels on at least a couple of his so-called "step back" threes.

 

Post a Comment

<< Home