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Wednesday, November 03, 2021

Examining James Harden's Counterfeit Numbers

The Brooklyn Nets defeated the Atlanta Hawks 117-108 on Wednesday night primarily because of another outstanding performance by Kevin Durant (32 points on 13-20 field goal shooting, seven rebounds, five assists, +15 plus/minus number)--and despite James Harden shooting just 5-14 from the field while posting a -9 plus/minus number. Harden led the Nets with 11 assists (four of them to Durant, who does not need Harden's help to score), but he scored just 16 points because the NBA no longer gives him 10-plus free throw attempts per game to provide cover for the many games in which Harden shoots poorly. Before the NBA belatedly decided to return to officiating games the way that they are supposed to be officiated, Harden posted counterfeit numbers while flopping and flailing his way to three scoring titles, the 2018 regular season MVP, and six All-NBA First Team selections. 

Yes, I called Harden's numbers from the past several seasons counterfeit. 

If you have a million dollars in a bank account, but $200,000 of those dollars are counterfeit bills that escaped detection then you are not really a millionaire--and if you average over 30 ppg but you are given several free throws per game that you did not deserve then you are not really a 30 ppg scorer. Harden's numbers are even more tainted than that analogy suggests, because the problem is deeper than just the undeserved free throws: the incorrect foul calls in Harden's favor put opposing players in foul trouble, put the opposing team in the penalty, and created a situation so absurd that great coaches determined that the only way to avoid fouling Harden was to instruct their players to play defense with their hands behind their backs. 

Shame on every media member who participated in and endorsed this sham instead of calling it out as an embarrassment to basketball.

I am not "Screaming A" Smith. I have not and never will call James Harden a "scrub" or demean him personally the way that loudmouth Smith verbally assaults players who he does not like. Harden is not a scrub. He is an All-Star caliber player--but he is not an MVP-level player or an All-NBA First Team-level player. 

Why do I often write about James Harden? Media members not only gave Harden an undeserved MVP, but they recently voted him onto the NBA's 75th Anniversary Team. In 20 or 30 years, people who never saw Harden play may actually believe that Harden was an elite scorer and an all-time great player. Someone has to speak out and at least attempt to fix the historical record before fiction becomes permanently canonized as fact.

Harden's 16 points and 11 assists on 5-14 field goal shooting and 1-1 free throw shooting accurately reflects his typical level of play--but in previous seasons, he could have played at exactly the same level and finished with 30 points on 5-14 field goal shooting plus 15-16 free throw shooting. He would be the same caliber of player in either scenario, but those years of counterfeit free throws have distorted the historical record.

Consider Harden's 2017-18 MVP season. He played in 72 games, and he made less than 10 field goals in 47 of those games. Harden had at least 10 free throw attempts in 20 of the 47 games in which he made less than 10 field goals. Harden attempted at least 10 free throws in 37 of his 72 games in 2017-18, including 20 games in which he attempted at least 14 free throws. In one Houston loss to Boston, Harden shot 7-27 from the field but still scored 34 points due to his 15-15 free throw shooting--and remember that the problem is not just the unearned free throws, but also the way that the (lack of) enforcement of the rules compelled defenders to tiptoe tentatively around Harden instead of guarding him normally. Perhaps the most amazing thing about that 7-27 shooting performance is that a player could shoot that badly on that high volume of shots when he knew that the rules did not permit opponents to contest his shots.

Am I saying that Harden did not earn any of his free throw attempts? Obviously, no. Do I blame Harden for taking advantage of the situation? Yes, I do. If a security guard helps you to pass counterfeit bills, does that make it right to do so? No, and if referees let you get away with traveling, flailing, and flopping that is not right, either. The game should be played the right way. If you are a Top 76 player, then prove it with your basketball skills, not your flop and flail skills.

Note that Durant is not having the slightest problem scoring under the "new" rules (which is just a return to enforcing traditional basketball rules). Also note that the same media members who rewarded Harden for his counterfeit numbers now offer up numerous excuses for his poor play: he is supposedly injured, or he is rehabbing his injury, or he is out of shape. Why didn't Harden get in shape and stay in shape during the offseason? Alonzo Mourning once said, "My body is my business," meaning that keeping his body in shape was his responsibility so that he could perform at a high level. Harden's body is his business, and his body is the vehicle that has delivered fame and fortune to him. There is no excuse for him to be out of shape at the start of the season (or at any time, for that matter), and this is at least the second season in a row that he has started the season out of shape.

If you are younger than 40 and/or not familiar with basketball history, find some video of Adrian Dantley, who averaged at least 30 ppg for four straight seasons in the early 1980s while winning two scoring titles. Dantley was a master at drawing real fouls. Compare his arsenal of pump fakes and post moves with Harden's chicanery to learn the difference between fundamentally sound basketball and sideshow theatrics. Then, compare Dantley's step back move--accomplished without hopping, skipping, or jumping--with Harden's counterfeit step back move.

After completing that research, shake your head in despair that Harden has been immortalized as a Top 76 player while Dantley was left off of the list. If you have the time and are not sick to your stomach by that point, compare Harden to Bernard King, Alex English, and a host of other great players who were denied the Top 76 recognition that Harden received. 

I do not enjoy watching Harden play, but there is a feeling of schadenfreude when watching Harden play so far this season. Basketball purists have to hope and pray that the rules will continue to be enforced correctly, even if that means that the counterfeit nature of Harden's statistics from the past several seasons will be revealed.

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posted by David Friedman @ 11:49 PM



At Thursday, November 04, 2021 6:26:00 PM, Blogger Keith said...

Hi David,

It's interesting that even outside of Harden, many of the big-name NBA guards are struggling so far this season in light of the rule changes. Curry is not playing badly but he is also posting some of his weakest shooting percentages of his career. Lillard is having easily his worst shooting season of his career so far and so is Bradley Beal. Obviously, there's also been a change in the brand of basketball used but watching stuff like this makes you wonder how well these players would have done in older eras with hand-checking rules. Happy to see this rule change.

At Friday, November 05, 2021 1:03:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


It is true that other guards are struggling. In some cases that may be because of the rules changes, and in some cases that may be for other reasons. In Harden's case, the evidence strongly suggests that the main reason he is struggling is that he can no longer rely upon being given 10 or more unearned free throws per game, nor can he rely upon defenders being afraid to guard him closely.

The evidence suggests that many of today's stars would not put up the same numbers had they played in earlier eras, and that is one reason why my 75th Anniversary Team did not include players such as Harden and Lillard who were selected to the official 75th Anniversary Team.

Like you, I am happy to see the rules being enforced properly, and I hope that there is not any regression as the season progresses.

At Sunday, November 07, 2021 11:46:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

what about fouls called on plays where shooters deliberately jump forward (in an exaggerated manner) to make contact with airborne defenders, who would not have made contact with the shooters if the shooters had jumped normally? Harden has done this, from what I recall, but so have many other players, some of whom have been considered elite. is this any less blameworthy than Harden's other improper antics?


At Monday, November 08, 2021 1:37:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I dislike any non-basketball plays during basketball games, and I particularly dislike non-basketball plays when referees reward the perpetrators with free throws. You are correct that Harden is not the only player to deliberately jump forward and make unnatural contact with airborne defenders. My understanding is that eliminating such calls in favor of the offensive player is one of the points of emphasis for referees this season. I distinguish Harden from many of the other practitioners of such "dark arts" because he is--or has been--very dependent on receiving such foul calls. Other players who have occasionally indulged in such shenanigans nevertheless have more complete overall games than Harden and thus can more easily adjust to playing in a properly officiated game. Harden relies on shooting uncontested three pointers--and they have been uncontested in past seasons because defenders were afraid to be within arm's length of Harden due to being victimized by poor officiating in Harden's favor--and on shooting a large number of free throws to offset his erratic field goal shooting. When he is not just given a large number of free throws and when he is forced to create his own shot within the rules everyone can see what kind of player he really is. I believe that he will adjust to the proper enforcement of the rules--assuming that the referees do not revert to past form--but I also believe that his days as a 30-35 ppg scorer are over. He will score less, and he will score less efficiently.


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