James Harden, Basketball Rorschach Test

Is The Beard an all-time great or a mere gimmick? The truth depends on who you ask.

There has never been a basketball player with a bigger delta between the objective reality of his statistical production and the perception of how that production was achieved than James Harden. But before we can dissect whether this dichotomy is justified, it’s important to first look at the cold, hard facts of the matter.

There is no other way to put it: James Harden’s five-year peak (ongoing this year, of course; unclear for how long it may continue into the future) is some historic shit. In his “worst” year during the stretch (2014-15), he averaged 27.4 ppg/ 5.7 rpg/ 7.0 apg. He has met or exceeded those benchmarks in all three categories every year since, with the exception of last year — his MVP season, as you may recall — in which he “only” collected 5.4 rebounds a night. If you input those ’14-’15 numbers — remember, his worst statistical year of the last five — into Basketball Reference’s Season Finder tool as the parameters and search for total seasons, here’s what you get:

1Oscar Robertson19611968CINNBA8
2James Harden20152019HOUNBA4
3LeBron James20082018CLENBA4
4John Havlicek19711972BOSNBA2
5Russell Westbrook20152017OKCNBA2
6Larry Bird19871987BOSNBA1
7Richie Guerin19621962NYKNBA1
8Michael Jordan19891989CHINBA1

That’s it. That’s the list. Only the Big O hit those marks more often than the Beard, and Oscar averaged way more minutes, at a much faster pace, and the competition was much, umm, what’s the word? Oh yeah — whiter.

Even as he finished second in MVP voting in ’16-’17 (and by all rights should have won with the power of hindsight) and then took home the hardware last year, the first half of this season may be Harden’s statistical opus. He is currently averaging an unprecedented, mind-boggling 33.3/ 5.8/ 8.4, including 4.6 made threes per game, only 13% of which are coming off assists. [For the non-statistically-inclined, this means he shoots a crap-ton of threes off the dribble, and his degree of difficulty is off-the-charts. The eye test backs up this assertion.] Houston’s offense runs through him to a near-comical extent. From a subjective standpoint, I’ve been watching basketball for over 25 years and have never seen a player who shoulders a larger overall offensive burden for his team than Harden does on this iteration of the Rockets. Again, the tape and the analytics shake hands on this: Harden comfortably leads the league in Usage Rate and is second in Assist Rate, meaning he is, paradoxically, both a shoot-first two-guard and a pass-first point guard in the same body.

He has upped his production to an even more insane degree over the last few weeks, particularly since Chris Paul went out with a hamstring injury, and his heroics have basically saved Houston’s season. The Rockets are 10-1 in their last 11 games, moving all the way up to 4th in the West heading into their showdown with the Warriors Thursday night (10:30 PM ET, TNT). During the stretch, Harden has averaged a scarcely-believable 39.7 ppg/ 6.3 rpg/ 8.4 apg and is attempting 13.4 threes per game. Any way you look at the numbers, Harden is pushing the limits of individual offensive impact to the absolute breaking point, it’s totally working, and yet the collective response from most of the basketball-viewing public ranges from mere indifference to outright disdain. How on Earth did we get here?

First, a quick aside. I recently attended a college basketball game with my son, and the group of people sitting directly behind us, to put it charitably, were loud, boorish, and knew next-to-nothing about basketball. Oh well, we drew the short straw, ticket-wise. Whatever. Much to my chagrin, I couldn’t help but overhear their conversations, but at one point, one of the bozos casually asked his friends if any of them had seen Harden’s recent uncalled travel, to which the assembled riff-raff grumbled disapprovingly and expressed the usual anti-NBA sentiments one tends to hear from this class of know-nothings. [I presume he was referring to Harden’s “double step-back,” which is already two weeks old, immediately got meme’d to death within hours on Twitter, and for the record, the NBA promptly admitted the officials got wrong. But I digress.] Harden scored 47 points in the game in question (which the Rockets won by 5 points), and yet literally the ONLY thing that pierced these fans’ bubbles about it — and more broadly, what it says about the NBA as a whole — was the fact he got away with a couple extra steps.

This is James Harden’s cross to bear. Look, I completely understand why fans (of teams other than the Rockets) would find his game equal parts boring, infuriating, and demoralizing. I certainly experience these emotions as well. The difference is, I am able to compartmentalize these responses, and can begrudgingly appreciate his greatness and understand it is not mutually exclusive from the frustration of watching him grind defenses into dust. There is a large subset of basketball fans who cannot do this. They literally think James Harden is just a gimmick, that he is actually not good at basketball. And it makes me feel like I’m on crazy pills.

The NBA season is a grind, and if you aren’t following it closely, it’s easy to get lazy and allow the narratives to do the heavy lifting for you, even when those narratives are inaccurate or only explain a small piece of the puzzle. Harden flops, travels, and baits the refs into giving him calls. That’s a simple narrative to digest, and it gives people something to complain about (which, if we’re being honest, at the end of the day is really what most people want). The team’s stylistic choices and Harden’s ability to bend the rules to his advantage (in terms of his gather step, initiating contact on drives, and so forth) acts as a smoke screen for the the stuff going on underneath which allows him to be a historically great offense unto himself. His transgressions are effects, not causes, but people see what they want to see.

The numbers are there if you care to see them. Yes, Harden shoots a lot of free throws: 11.1 per game this season, hitting at an 85% clip. That’s 9.4 ppg out of his season average of 33.3, meaning he is scoring almost 24 ppg on made FGs alone. He is a supreme shot-maker by any definition, but his ability to manipulate the arms of defenders and occasionally exaggerate contact are seen by many as his main offensive weapons. In practice, these tricks are merely the fondant on his offensive cake, which is baked out of ingredients like strength, quickness, court vision, and balance. His style is seen as boring and/or selfish, but it is simply the logical endpoint of team offensive philosophy when you have a player with his skill set. He puts an unbelievable amount of pressure on every level of a defense, whether it’s the quickness to beat his man at the point of attack, the strength to finish over length (or get fouled) in the paint, and the basketball IQ to sense the collapsing defense and kick out to a shooter for an open 3. You may not like the way he plays, but the harsh reality is if you are looking for a quality shot, there is virtually no better NBA offense than handing James Harden the ball, flanking him with shooters, and letting him go to work.

Simply put, almost any team would be foolish not to run the “Harden Offense” if they had a player who could do the things Harden can do. What he does is not a gimmick, no matter how much we might want it to be for our own entertainment preferences. The guy is an arbitrary statistical quirk away from being a two-time defending MVP, and after his latest torrid stretch of play and Houston’s rise up the standings, most betting markets now have this year’s award as essentially a two-man race between Harden and Giannis Antetokounmpo. You can dislike his greatness until you’re blue in the (bearded) face, but trying to deny it exists is a losing argument.

Whether it is incumbent on the NBA to legislate out the more nefarious parts of Harden’s game is an entirely different question, and in my opinion is more of an argument FOR Harden’s greatness rather than a refutation of it. They sure as hell don’t change the rules for the Wesley Johnsons and Bismack Biyombos of the world. The Rockets’ only obligation is to do what wins games, but the league faces a trickier balance: the NBA, more so than any other professional league, has long understood the success of the enterprise as a whole is tied to both the competitive nature (and balance) of the sport and the entertainment value of the product. With the season so long and the margins so thin, teams are naturally willing to exploit any competitive advantage they can find, and the league is often required to be flexible in finding solutions which hew to both the spirit of the game they are looking to maintain AND help increase the profitability and accessibility of the on-court product. Sometimes they get it wrong, and either way they take a ton of shit for whatever they change, but overall the league does a good job of tailoring the rules to the evolving athletic and strategic realities of the game.

Is the way Harden bends the rules to their breaking point (and occasionally beyond) worthy of legislation? Again, it’s all in the eye of the beholder. The league has repeatedly reviewed Harden’s step-back move and deemed it conforms to the current interpretation of legal footwork. Changing the way gather steps are officiated simply to negate the efficacy of this one move would have a ton of unintended downstream effects, many of which might change the appearance of the game in ways fans may not appreciate. Others have suggested the league make it an offensive foul to initiate contact by “trapping” the defender’s arm on a drive, another common Harden tactic. Problem is, it takes two to tango, and defenders would simply flip the script and try to draw calls by purposely getting their arms caught. This would only serve to create a different sort of gray area for officials to negotiate, rather than solving the underlying problem, if in fact one exists.

One thing I do think the league could do is legislate out the “hand in the cookie jar” fouls, where ball handlers feel contact from the trailing defender in the pick-and-roll and then fire up a three simply to draw a shooting foul. Harden does this *all the time* (he has drawn by far the most three-point shooting fouls in the league over the last several seasons, often by employing this move) and it’s not really a basketball play. The way I see it, it’s basically an extension of the “rip through” maneuver the league legislated out a few years ago, and no one complains about that change, so it could be a small tweak worth trying rather than doing anything drastic.

Harden’s “plight” is symptomatic of the way fans interface with NBA superstars in the modern era. In most areas of life, we encourage victory by any means necessary (many job postings list a “whatever it takes attitude” as a prerequisite for employment, setting aside entirely whether this is actually a positive trait for a well-adjusted human being to possess), but when it comes to transcendent basketball talents, for some reason we move the goalposts and demand they win according to terms we arbitrarily set and change without notice. [Cut to LeBron James and Kevin Durant nodding vigorously.] If Harden didn’t take advantage of all the tools at his disposal and was a correspondingly less effective player as a result, everyone would just bitch at him for that, so what is he supposed to do?

Harden’s success has undeniably changed the boundaries of the sport and the way we think about what we want the game to be. That is its own form of greatness, whether you enjoy the physical manifestation of it or not. Even if you don’t, history is going to make you eat crow anyway: Basketball Reference estimates Harden’s current Hall of Fame chances at 98.5%, so he could hang up his beard tomorrow and we’d still have to have this talk again three years from now. So perhaps it’s time to shift the conversation from what the league needs to do to slow down Harden to what opposing defenses need to do. If it turns out there is no defensive counter to limit his offensive production, and the answers are “hope Daryl Morey doesn’t put the right players around him” and “just wait it out until he gets old and declines,” then we’ll have no choice but to admit we’re dealing with an all-timer and channel our inner Wes Mantooth:

Top Photo Credit: Slam

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