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Wednesday, October 27, 2021

Playing Basketball is Much Harder for James Harden Than Playing "Flop and Flail"

Did you ever wonder what would happen to James Harden's statistics if he were forced to play basketball without getting the benefit of phantom foul calls? This season, the NBA is no longer rewarding offensive players for pushing, pulling, and crashing into defensive players. Here are Harden's statistics in the first four games of the 2021-22 season: 17.3 ppg, 8.3 apg, 7.0 rpg, 4.8 tpg, .364 FG%, .323 3FG%, .917 FT%. Yes, this is a small sample size. Harden will probably eventually figure out how to play basketball again--something that he has not been required to do for several years--but right now he is posting his worst scoring average since he fled Oklahoma City in 2012, plus career-lows in field goal percentage, three point field goal percentage, and free throw attempts, along with his third worst turnovers average. Harden's minutes, field goal attempts, and three point field goal attempts are almost identical with his 2020-21 numbers, but his scoring average has plummeted more than seven ppg from his 24.6 ppg average last season. Harden scored 20 points in each of the first two games of this season, followed by 15 points in the third game, and 14 points in the fourth game. He shot 4-8 from three point range in the first game, and then 6-23 from beyond the arc in the next three games. 

James Harden is the greatest "Flop and Flail" player of all-time. No one matches his ability to hurl his body into another player's body and then convince a referee to reward this action with two (or even three) free throws. Harden parlayed his unparalleled "Flop and Flail" skills into an MVP award, seven All-NBA selections, and huge contracts. He also convinced himself and others that being the greatest "Flop and Flail" player of all-time means that he is a great basketball player. Harden once said--in a not so veiled reference to Giannis Antetokounmpo--"I wish I could be 7 feet, run and just dunk. That takes no skill at all. I gotta actually learn how to play basketball and how to have skill. I'll take that any day."

That comment was ridiculous when Harden made it, and it has not aged well. The reality, as I explained shortly after he uttered that nonsense, is that the Antetokounmpo-Harden Comparison is No Comparison:

Harden has been the show in Houston for seven full seasons (this is his eighth), and the result has been three first round losses, two second round losses, and two Western Conference Finals losses. Harden's field goal percentages during those playoff runs are ugly: .391, .376, .439, .410, .413, .410, .413--and he was not on fire from three point range, either: .341, .296, .383, .310, .278, .299, .350. Harden is awful when it matters most. The gimmicks that he relies on to pile up regular season points do not work in the playoffs. Harden's notion that he "learn(ed) how to play basketball" is a joke; Harden is a 25-27 ppg scorer (which is nothing to sneeze at, but also far from being the best scorer--let alone best player--in the league) who became a 30-plus ppg scorer only after he was permitted to travel, and to commit offensive fouls, with impunity. Also, like almost every ball dominant guard who has played for Coach Mike D'Antoni, Harden's regular season numbers are inflated by the system/style of play. Harden lacks the all-around offensive skill set not just of Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, but also of many other great scorers of the past and present who could score from all areas of the floor without traveling and committing offensive fouls. For instance, Larry Bird, Adrian Dantley and Dell Curry each had a great step back move that did not involve traveling and/or committing a foul...

Antetokounmpo is taller, bigger, stronger and faster than Harden. Size--Specifically, Height--Matters in the NBA, so even if I thought that Antetokounmpo and Harden were approximately equal from a skill set standpoint I would give Antetokounmpo the edge based on his significant size advantage. Antetokounmpo is a better overall scorer than Harden even though Harden is a better three point shooter and a better free throw shooter; Antetokounmpo is a better scorer in the paint, he is a better scorer per minute, and--despite Harden's prolific three point shooting that, at least on paper, compensates for his poor field goal percentage--he is a more efficient shooter. Moreover, Antetokounmpo can dominate consistently in different game situations, while Harden's impact is high variance: when Harden is not making three point shots he generates a lot of empty possessions, something that regularly kills Houston in the playoffs. It is obvious that Antetokounmpo is a vastly superior rebounder, but even adjusting for the positional difference he is still a better rebounder than Harden. Defensively, there is no comparison; Antetokounmpo is arguably the best defensive player in the NBA, while Harden struggles to not be a liability at that end of the court. Antetokounmpo passes the ball to generate points for his team, while Harden passes the ball to generate assists for himself, and there is a big difference; this is like comparing two-time NBA champion Isiah Thomas to Stephon Marbury: if you only look at assists or "advanced basketball statistics" but you do not watch the game with understanding then you miss the big picture. Regarding ballhandling, I prefer Antetokounmpo's relentless drives to the paint over Harden's overdribbling, traveling, and ceaseless efforts to trick officials into calling fouls in his favor.

It is difficult to see how an objective and knowledgeable basketball talent evaluator would take Harden over Antetokounmpo, or even think that the comparison is particularly close.

As Harden's Rockets Went Down in Flames During the 2020 Playoffs, I analyzed the flaws in Harden's game:

Russell Westbrook led the Rockets with 25 points on 8-16 field goal shooting (including 3-8 from three point range), but that was not enough to overcome James Harden's predictable playoff choking. Harden shot 2-11 from the field (including 1-6 from three point range) en route to perhaps the least least impactful 21 point game in NBA playoff history; through a combination of his gimmicks and some careless fouls by the Lakers, Harden was given 20 free throw attempts, and he converted 16 of them.

Usually, Harden saves his 2-11 field goal shooting performances for elimination games. Harden shot 2-11 from the field and scored 14 points when the Rockets lost 104-90 to the Golden State Warriors in game five of the 2015 Western Conference Finals; Harden also set the all-time NBA single game playoff record with 12 turnovers in that contest. Then, he shot 2-11 from the field and scored 10 points when the Rockets lost 114-75 to the San Antonio Spurs in game six of the 2017 Western Conference semifinals.

There are people who can keep a straight face while saying that 21 points on 11 field goal attempts is efficient, but anyone who understands basketball realizes how ridiculous it is to term this choke job by Harden as "efficient." Harden shot 1-7 from the field (including 0-3 from three point range) in the first half as the Lakers built a huge lead that they never relinquished. Casual fans think that the NBA is a fourth quarter league, and they focus a lot of attention on fourth quarter statistics, but those who understand the NBA realize that the NBA is often a first quarter league; big comebacks are rare but often remembered, while most games are decided by the team that sets the tone from the start.

Harden is not capable of consistently being efficient and productive when it matters most. Every year in the playoffs, he has enough talent around him to advance--if he were really as great as he is supposed to be--and every year he fails to step up. If Harden had authored an MVP-level performance then this series would have been tied 2-2. Harden has had a few big playoff games in his career, but most of the time when there is a chance to make a positive difference in the outcome of the series he disappears.

Unless they are ignorant or willfully delusional, even the most ardent Harden advocates must admit that Harden is not an elite player, no matter how many regular season records he sets, and no matter how many awards he receives. The Daryl Morey analytics-centric offense that the Rockets have built around Harden is not a championship caliber offense. There is no denying or excusing the yawning gap between the gimmicky way that Harden piles up regular season points and his consistent inability to produce when it matters most against elite competition in the playoffs.

Morey has been preaching the same nonsense since 2007, he has had Harden as his "foundational player" since 2012, and he has nothing tangible to show for all of his arrogant bleating about how he knows more about basketball than the rest of us. Rarely, if ever, has a general manager or executive promised so much, delivered so little, and kept his job for so long. Morey says foolish things--such as stating that James Harden is a better scorer than Michael Jordan--and the media gives him a pass instead of calling him out.

Officiating the game correctly affects Harden in several ways. The first and most obvious is that during the games when he cannot hit the broadside of a barn with a bazooka--which happens a lot with him--he does not get to inflate his statistics by "efficiently" making 10 or more free throws. The second is that without having to worry about being called for phantom fouls defenders can guard Harden straight up. Harden does not have blazing speed and he is not a great ballhandler, so if defenders are permitted to guard him straight up then he is forced to either pass the ball or shoot a lot of contested shots; this is reflected in his poor field goal percentage and high turnover rate. Harden can make open shots at a high rate, but when he is guarded closely he is--to put it mildly--not even in the same conversation with Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan, and the other truly elite scorers in pro basketball history. The third is that Harden now has to expend more energy to score, which is another factor that is impacting his field goal percentage and turnover rate.

Right now, Harden's frustration is obvious, and he is no doubt trying to figure out if correct officiating is the new norm or if he will soon be able to get away with his old tricks. If the league holds fast, then Harden will eventually change his mindset, and go back to playing basketball. He was a good, but not great, player in Oklahoma City. 

It will be fascinating to see how long it takes Harden to adjust to playing basketball by the rules without being bailed out by his "Flop and Flail" antics. Basketball purists have to hope and pray that the league does not revert to letting Harden get away with the stuff that he got away with for so many years. Without "Flop and Flail," Harden is--at best--a 25 ppg scorer. However, he has rarely been motivated enough to start a season in peak condition, and that is going to have a negative effect on his game as he gets older. 

Baseball uses the terms "dead ball era" and "steroids era" to provide context for statistics posted during anomalous periods in the sport's history. I propose that the inflated statistics posted by Harden (and a few others who feasted during the past few years by relying on non-basketball tactics) be labeled as products of the "Flop and Flail" era.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:49 PM



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