Hi, casual basketball fan! As you’re likely aware, the NBA’s conference finals begin tonight. In the Eastern Conference, the Atlanta Hawks will take on the Cleveland Cavaliers. In the West, the Golden State Warriors will face the Houston Rockets—and their star guard, James Harden.
Even if you haven’t watched the Rockets much the past couple of seasons, you may know Harden from such GIFs as The Time He Didn’t Even Pretend To Play Defense ...
... or The Time He Daydreamed Of Fishing With Grandpa (Instead Of Playing Defense) ...
... or The Time Matt Barnes Bodyslammed Him And Everybody Was Kinda Like, “I Mean, Fuck James Harden, He Probably Had It Coming.”
Setting aside the reactionary hatred a certain cross-section of fans will always have for Cleveland’s LeBron James, Harden probably is the most broadly loathed great player in basketball. That statement has two key components: “broadly loathed,” and “great player.” Let’s examine each one.
Why is James Harden loathed?
This is a different thing from LeBron-loathing. People who loathe LeBron tend to do so because of a weird mélange of personal distaste and misguided sports-moralist indignation. They resent the hype that has attended his every move since he was in high school; they let the crassness of The Decision color how they view his reasonable preference for playing with good players and functional organizations; they imagine they’re keeping the candle lit for Michael Jordan or something. Whatever its background causes, the phenotype of this hate is something like psychosis, in that it warps its sufferers’ perception of reality. They look at quite possibly the best basketball player who ever lived and hallucinate that they are witnessing a bust or an empty hype or someone who fails in pressure situations more often than other historic greats. By contrast, in Harden’s case, people just hate the way he plays basketball and want him to stop doing it.
That’s not entirely unreasonable! Of all the NBA’s stars going back at least to, uh, when Joe Johnson’s season ended on May 1, Harden is the one whose game most frequently lapses into unwatchable drudgery; at his worst, he can seem for all the world as though he is choking the life out of the sport, deliberately, before your eyes. He’s prone to endless- and pointless-seeming bouts of dribbling—and when he attacks, he looks to generate free throws nearly as often as he looks to score an actual, by-God bucket. This means that, by intent, he often slows the game to a miserable crawl punctuated with dreary frequency by a whistle and a minute of standing around. That makes for bad viewing, and Harden, not unfairly, gets the blame for it.
Harden-loathing has a sports-morality component, too, but it’s an on-court one, and it has to do with Harden’s love of free throws. Like some of his peers, Harden has refined the craft of drawing fouls on defenders, and drawing fouls on defenders is a big part of his game.
Here’s an example that is both revolting and not all that extreme, relative to his overall body of work:
Watch it enough times, and you will mutter “Fuckin’ prick” under your breath.
In the series starting tonight, you’ll sometimes see Harden earn free throws by flailing theatrically to draw attention to the kind of minor illegal contact your ideal basketball player might try to power through; sometimes you’ll see him earn free throws by flailing theatrically to draw attention to no contact at all; sometimes you’ll see him create the contact, on purpose, by plowing into Klay Thompson’s chest, and then he will launch himself backward as though struck by a tank shell, like it was Thompson’s fault.
Many sports fans regard the first of those three as poor form—sports morality says players are supposed to be tough guys, and embellishing illegal contact for the sake of appealing to the referees is not tough-guy behavior—and, if they bother differentiating between them, regard the latter two as outright cheating. Altogether it faintly smells of bad sportsmanship—as if Harden is exploiting a glitch, or violating the spirit of the game, which after all is not meant to determine which team manipulates the referees more effectively.
Combine this with Harden’s blatant disinclination to bust his ass on defense, and you’ve got an anti-unicorn for basketball moralists. You may even encounter some of Harden’s harshest comment-section and sports-radio critics describing him as a fraud—a mediocre player who uses subterfuge and shamelessness to create the statistical profile of a good one. That’s mostly nuts, as we’ll get into below. But, even for more forgiving observers and fans—even for many of those who will make pro-Harden arguments—his shit can get tiresome.
You’re familiar with the idea of a go-to move in basketball; it’s the move or action a star player pulls out when nothing else is working, because it always works. Kobe Bryant, for example, would post up on one side of the floor and look for a turnaround jumper; Paul Pierce, in his prime, would isolate near the top of the key, drive to his right, and pull up for a shot from the right side of the free-throw line; LeBron will bull his way to the front of the rim and muscle the ball up through the forest of limbs; and so on. James Harden’s go-to move, the one he reverts to when his jumper isn’t falling and the defense is making hash of Houston’s set offense and his team needs a bucket, is dribbling, and dribbling, and dribbling, and then driving toward the rim and trying to get the referees to call a foul. It seems spiteful—I can’t make a shot right now, but I can pound the air out of the ball and wave my arms and get my buddy the ref to give me some free-throws—and, yeah, kinda poor-sport-y. It’s annoying and un-telegenic, it pisses off his opponents and makes them bicker at the refs, and, because all those whistles stop the clock, it makes the game take forever.
It also works, and it works because James Harden is a great fucking basketball player. Which brings us to the “great player” part.
What makes James Harden a great player?
First things first: You, casual basketball fan, reading this right now, could not draw a foul on, say, Klay Thompson, a good but certainly not extraordinary NBA defender who almost certainly will send James Harden to the free-throw line many times over the next several games. For that matter you almost certainly could not collide with Klay Thompson on purpose in a basketball game at all. If you tried, he would see it coming an hour ahead of time and step backward, and you would fall onto your face. If you tried to do it while dribbling a basketball, he would step aside, out of the vector of your movement, poke the ball away from you, and go the other way for a dunk. If anyone were whistled for a foul, it would be you, and it would be a technical foul for soaking the parquet floor with your tears. (I think you should try it anyway.)
Pictured: You, attempting to make contact with Klay Thompson in a basketball game.
Even if you practiced your drawing-a-foul-on-Klay-Thompson move every day for six months, and by some fluke happenstance managed to make it work one time, that would be the only time it ever worked, in all your entire life. You are not a good enough shooter to make Klay Thompson stay close to you on defense, and if he did, you are not quick enough to take advantage of it by getting a step on him off the dribble, and you are not crafty or coordinated enough to throw a convincing pump-fake at him and get him in the air. You would never catch him leaning the wrong way, because he would never need to lean in any direction to anticipate your movement, and even if he did, you are too slow to take advantage. You could not catch him resting on his heels, because he would be off of them an hour before your recognition that he’d been resting on them in the first place translated into an action intended to exploit it. He could defend you from under a beach umbrella, hundreds of miles away, sight unseen, by communicating defensive instructions to a Roomba over the phone. You could no more draw a foul on Klay Thompson than you could draw a swinging strike from, say, Giancarlo Stanton.
So let’s dispense altogether with the twin notions that drawing fouls is a cheap exploit and that James Harden is a mediocre player spamming his way to good stats. A mediocre player—even a mediocre NBA player—could not work his way to 10 free-throw attempts per 36 minutes simply via shamelessness and good acting, and especially could not do it as the centerpiece of a 56-win team that makes the Western Conference finals. If angling for cheap free-throws is a distasteful practice, and being good at it is a disreputable skill, fine—but the practice and the skill are built on Harden’s actual game, which is abundant and splendid and frequently terrifying. It just doesn’t look abundant and splendid, at a casual glance. That’s part of what makes it terrifying.
When Harden is doing his endless dribble-dribble-dribble routine, he has two deadly weapons at his disposal: a deceptive, cruelly quick first step (with either foot!) toward the basket, and a step-back jumpshot he can get off in the blink of an eye. If the defender plays him too close, Harden will dart past him and knife into the defense’s guts before he can react; if the defender moves back to head off a drive to the hoop, Harden will step back and flick up that jumper before he can get a hand up to contest it.
If there’s a safe range from which to defend James Harden, far enough to contain a drive but close enough to contest a shot, it is a line roughly as thick as a human hair—and he’s constantly moving it, forward and back, with those aimless-seeming dribbles. More than any other current NBA player (Kobe doesn’t count), Harden is working a game of leverage and timing, putting his defender slightly off-balance and then attacking during the split-second that defender spends recovering. He is viciously good at it.
Watch him put Ricky Rubio on rollerskates, here:
Rubio, usually a very good defender, thinks he’s timed the pattern of Harden’s lazy little crossover and ventures a poke at the ball, but Harden’s been baiting him. A quick crossover to his right gets Rubio out of position and reaching; he’s beaten already and doesn’t know it yet. Harden baits him further, shifting his weight onto his back foot so that Rubio lunges, reflexively, in fear of a drive to the baseline or the deadly step-back jumper—but now his hips are turned too far and Harden’s already crossing back to the left. By the time Rubio hits the deck, Harden might as well be in another zip code. He could have tangoed to the rim if he wanted. He could have built a gyrocopter and flown there.
With each of those little steps and shifts of his weight, Harden’s dictating Rubio’s next move before the last one is finished. He’s making Rubio’s eyes and mind work too fast for his feet. All it took was that one little opening, the swipe at the ball, and he had Rubio completely at his mercy. It’s a sexier iteration of the mini-game Harden plays basically every time he has the ball, but even when it’s completely unsexy—and it can get pretty fucking unsexy by the 20th time he’s used it to draw a foul on somebody—it is deadly effective, and demands outrageous basketball skill.
Economy of motion and the reflexes of a goddamn housecat are the keys to it. Harden takes tiny steps, handles the ball lower and closer to his feet than anybody else, snaps off that lefty jumper with just the tiniest shiver of movement, makes only subtle changes of direction en route to the hoop, and seems to process body language before it happens. As a result, Harden often appears not to be doing anything special, or exerting himself much at all—and yet, there he goes, blowing by a good defender and getting all the way to the rim, again, or pump-faking another helpless sucker into the air and drawing a foul. It’s infuriating and agonizing to root against—What the fuck, guys? You knew he was gonna do that! It’s what he always does!—even when the end result is a bunch of smooth buckets rather than an endless succession of free-throws.
Check out the corner three-pointer over Pablo Prigioni that starts at 0:58 in the video below:
At first, all the jab steps and knee-bends look like aimless noodling, or like he’s just trying to bore Prigioni to sleep—but, like with those absentminded-seeming crossover dribbles he took before dropping Rubio like a bag of dirt, he’s baiting Prigioni, giving him a false sense of a predictable pattern. On the third repetition of the jab-step-knee-bend combo, the very instant Prigioni’s hand starts to drop in anticipation of another jab step, the shot goes up; it’s on its way to the rim before that hand can get back up to contest it. He dicked around instead of moving the ball; he jabbed in place instead of making a quick decision. It was bad TV, and maybe even unsound basketball. It was also, in its way, pretty damn impressive.
James Harden is like that a lot.
And he’s really bad at defense?
Yes. The basketball internet went through about an eight-minute stretch this season where it considered pulling one of its by-rote contrarian “Actually, he’s okay at defense!” things, but nobody’s heart was in it. He’s bad at defense. As bad as decontextualized gifs of his very worst moments can make him look? Of course not. But still pretty bad! Whether he could be good at defense is, I suppose, up for some debate, if you particularly care about the reason he’s bad at it, but he’s bad at it.
Personally, I’ve seen him D-up credibly enough times to conclude that he probably could be a not-dismal defender, and that his usual defensive badness is a product of him reserving his energy and attention for the offensive end. I have a hunch that the Rockets mostly are cool with it, and probably have some analytical basis for saying it’s a good thing. For that matter, if the Rockets can perform well on defense with their best offensive player saving his energy for dusting fools at the other end, that’s probably smart. Stuff like this is pretty hilarious anyway:
Keystone Kops shit like this is the sort of thing that makes the Rockets hard to take seriously, even now that they’re one round away from the NBA Finals.
I thought the Rockets were the stats-optimized team of the future, though?
Sure! They do lots of stats-smart stuff. They bomb lots of threes. (In both the regular season and the playoffs, more than a third of all their shot attempts have been three-pointers.) They take less than half as many long twos as any other team. And they score a higher percentage of their points at the free-throw line than any other team.
But the watching-Harden-dribble stuff sounds like it’s straight from 2002.
Sure! At his worst, Harden’s an unholy amalgam of the worst parts of two basketball eras: The dismal stand-around-and-watch-the-star-dribble offense of the post-Jordan, pre-LeBron years, and the current era’s post-human fixation on efficiency above all else. After all, shooting lots of free throws at 87 percent accuracy is very efficient. Caring about whether going into Ragdoll Mode at the slightest contact makes you look ridiculous, on the other hand, is not.
Yeah, that seems like bad TV to me.
It can be. Remember, though, that we’re mostly talking about a marginal style difference between Harden and just about any other star player who handles the ball and shoots a lot. LeBron pounds the air out of the ball sometimes; freewheelin’ pixie Steph Curry embellishes contact when he can turn it to his advantage; human highlight reels Anthony Davis and Blake Griffin both shoot tons of free throws.
Harden attempts, on average, around 10 free throws per game, a measly two or three more trips to the stripe than telegenic carnival-ride players like Curry and John Wall make. It’s really not that big a deal. Mostly he’s just a super-duper good basketball player who makes defenders look like fools and pours in buckets. That’s (sometimes) really good TV!
It’s only bad when he’s not making baskets—but, please, show me the NBA player who’s particularly fun to watch when he’s chucking up bricks.
So, how do I enjoy watching this dude?
Hope he makes his jumpshots. Even if you’re rooting for the Warriors (which amounts to rooting for Basketball Twitter and my colleague, air-humping Warriors stan Kevin Draper, which is to say, don’t do it), hope Harden’s jumper is wet. If it is, he’ll shoot more jumpers, and spend less of the game reenacting Willem Dafoe’s death scene from Platoon inside Andrew Bogut’s armpit.
But also, and more importantly: ditch the sports morality. Harden’s bad defense makes the game better for everyone but Rockets fans, by enabling more baskets. At the other end, once you set aside the idea that what he does is bad basketball ethics (“He’s not sharing the ball!” mewl the dudes who, in all other arenas of life, think the word “sharing” is a euphemism for “dirty, godless Communism”), you see a freakishly skilled athlete pulling tricky-cool stuff that can be astounding to watch once you figure out how it works and why he’s doing it. At his best, he’s a younger, more relentless version of Manu Ginobili with better hair, and that’s good shit.
And, remember: A Rockets-Cavaliers NBA Finals would be the most hated series in sports history. LeBron James on one side, and floppin’ James Harden and insufferable phony Dwight Howard on the other, in a matchup of unsexy, middle-American markets ... what might happen? Would the hate congeal into a visible green smog? After Harden and Howard combined to shoot 94 free-throws in a 13-hour Game 2, would Disney chairman Bob Iger roll up a copy of the league’s outrageous new TV deal and beat commissioner Adam Silver to death with it? There’s only one way to find out!
Top photo via AP
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