James Harden: Don’t Hate – Appreciate

Like most of you, I constantly subscribe to /r/nba . Lying on the couch at night, or wasting time at work, there is some great original content posted up. Heaps of original thought, heaps of great deep dive into stats, and heaps of hilarious comments. Sometimes after work I’ll Youtube, watch some highlights, and every now and then it will autoplay an basketball talk show. Whilst often lacking in quality original content, they can sometimes be really good.

I’m a massive Rockets fan, so a lot of the content i watch lately has to do with James Harden and his historic run. Some quality posts, some great propaganda in /r/rockets, and a lot of talking heads chatter about his 30-for-32 run. And boy have I loved watching some of the highlights.

But one of the things that I’ve started to blindly hate is, well, the un-informed Harden Bashing. We have all seen it, the “I could score 30 in that system” posts, the “they lost again” posts, “another step-back travel” highlights. Heck, one tweet even implied that ” free throws are inefficient “. The one that set me over the edge was Jalen Rose sitting there, getting paid for his opinion, and arguing that ” I don’t care about efg, what about his actual fg%? ” I’m sorry – what Jalen? Did someone tell Jalen that not all shots are created equal?

This historic run recently came to an end after Harden’s 28 point effort against the Hawks. Now in its wake, it’s time to reflect back on what we just witnessed.

Some of you are going to be reading this and going “Here we go, another Rockets fan protecting his flopper”. Honestly – that’s fine, but if that’s your opinion, then I at least implore you to go into reading this article with an open mind. It’s like that question in the Bill Nye vs the creationist debate . If nothing will change your mind, then there is no point us arguing.

Within this article, I aim to point out that while Harden doesn’t deserve the blind hate that he gets, he also certainly isn’t flawless. So, let’s have a deep dive into some league wide stats from December 13th to the 21st of February: the 32 game stretch where Harden exceeded the 30 point threshold.

“He only has so many points because he flops”

False. This is straight up false. Say for the sake of the argument, that free throws do not exist, guess who leads the league in scoring over the last 30 games? James Harden with 26.2 points per game. Steph Curry comes in second at 24.1 points per game. Even without the benefit of a friendly whistle, the Beard is still scoring at a very good rate.

To further put things in perspective, let’s say that James Harden doesn’t get any free throws, but everyone else still does – guess where he ranks in scoring?  9th in the league. Doesn’t look like his scoring has come via excessive flopping.

“Well he flops all the time”

I’m not gonna argue this one with you. he does embellish contact a lot. You know who else does? Every scorer in the league. Seriously. Search it on /r/nba . Everyones name turns up sooner or later. They wouldn’t do it if it didn’t work.

James Harden has no control over what the refs determine is worthy of being called a foul. If you want to hate the NBA, and the refs, claiming the game has gone soft, then that’s an entirely different argument. But hate the game – not the player who takes advantage of the rules.

There is a great Ringer article on all his foul drawing talents . I think you could make the case that Harden is elite at drawing fouls. That doesn’t mean I like watching him shoot free throws, but it is dang effective at putting points on the board. He leads the entire league in drives per game at around 20, so don’t kid yourself into thinking he just gets gifted free throws for tying his shoelaces.

“But he plays for the foul, and he complains a lot”

I will say – the thing that really annoys me watching James play, is late in games when he plays for the fouls, not for the points . He has done it multiple times, and it rarely rewards free throws. It’s a risky game, as teams just play great straight up defense, and then we lose.

The other one that really kills me is when he fails to get back on defense, instead opting to yell at an official . This is unacceptable, and has me screaming at my TV. Save the complaining for when there’s a dead ball, but while the game is continuing around you, focus on defense instead please James.

“But he can’t play defense”

I get the history behind this one. we have all watched the video from a couple years ago. That video led to the rise of the nickname ‘James Haren’ (as in no D). However, that hasn’t been the case this season. Or the last season for that matter. James will never be an elite average wing defender. He just isn’t built for it, and he can only do so much work in a game. He has always been pretty solid defending against post mismatches. (Luca’s note: advanced stats back this up – 91st percentile on post up defense, #1 in deflections per game at 3.9 per game) .

As of the time of writing, he is #3 in the NBA in steals per game at 2.2, and #3 amongst guards in blocks per game at 0.9. Yes, there’s the argument that he may be stat padding his defensive stats by gambling on defense. Advanced Stats just so happen to paint Harden in a decent light defensively too. The Beard is 71st in defensive win shares – not a world beater, but respectable. Opponents are shooting 43.9% when defended by Harden, also a very respectable number. That number becomes even more impressive when you consider that opponents are 1. Trying to repeatedly attack him because of his perceived defensive shortcomings and 2. Are trying to repeatedly attack him to wear him down on the offensive end (as evidenced by the fact that he defends the 3rd most shots out of guards). So, whilst he’s never going to be mistaken for a lockdown defender, he also isn’t the turnstile we make him out to be.

“He always travels on that stepback”

Nope. Does he sometimes travel on a stepback? Yes. There is this video of the obvious one . It gets passed around, and everyone goes “it’s a travel everytime”. We all laughed when Steph got called for his travel . Let’s try and think about it critically for a second. My guess is that that every rival franchise has sent a video of the footwork to the league for full analysis. Is it bending the rules? Absolutely. It’s taking a gather step to the bleeding edge. However, at present, it’s a legal maneuver . Don’t hate on Harden for pushing the limits to get himself points.

“He is just an inefficient ball hog”

People sort of have a point here. He has been an inefficient ball hog, just in the best possible way.

You look at his 44.1 FG% and his league leading 41.1% usage. While he isn’t shooting poorly by SG standards, check out his advanced stats. His EFG% of 54.5 is 51st in the league, and true shooting is good for around 12th in the league. He may not be scoring at an efficient rate like LeBron James or even Steph Curry – but at the same time, he’s not really just chucking it either like Russell Westbrook. Much like prime Kobe Bryant, he makes a living off of taking low quality shots, and making a disproportionately high number of them, resulting in an underwhelming FG%. The difference being that we are currently in the age of the 3 ball, meaning that he’s a much more efficient volume shooter than his predecessors ever were.

His usage is absolutely sky high – but I don’t necessarily know that that is a bad thing. He does get others involved, and averages 7.5 assists, often leading to open corner 3’s. When he’s needed to, he’s shown the ability to be an elite distributor that can average 10+ assists a game, but that’s not what this current Rockets team needs from him. Have you seen the roster they trotted out during the 32 game streak? D-leaguers such as Gary Clark and Daniel House saw extended playing time, as well as waiver wire pickups such as Kenneth Faried, Austin Rivers, and Gerald Green. During that same stretch, the Rockets were without Chris Paul for 18 games, Clint Capela for 15 and Eric Gordon for 9. Yet, in large part due to James Harden, they went 21-11 in that streak. If Harden’s usage doesn’t drop when the Rockets trot out their full lineup, then this absolutely is a problem. While they’re short-handed though? Pass it to ~Will~ James .

“He cares more about his run than whether or not they win”

I don’t believe this. He has said in interviews that wins were more important than the streak, and the streak was only about achieving wins.

In that last game, he didn’t spend the last 5 minutes trying desperately to get to 30. Realistically, he could’ve sat out that game due to injury, and protected the streak by coming back healthy.

“He is a choker”

This one is actually kinda true. Harden does shoot 41.8% in clutch situations, which is below his usual levels of efficiency. He’s had his big moments: after all, we have all seen the match winner against the Warriors . He had that stinker against San Antonio in the playoffs a couple years ago that is almost impossible to erase from the memory bank. Unlike a lot of superstars, when it comes down to last second shots, he is fine with not taking the last shot if the defense is targeting him  ( Stares at Scottie Pippen ).

But, something interesting did turn up when i started doing some advanced stats digging. Check out James Harden’s EFG by quarter:

Q1: 55.3

Q2: 58.1

Q3: 51.5

Q4: 52.7

Put simply, James isn’t scoring as efficiently in the 3rd and 4th quarters. This is very interesting. It could be due to him simply getting tired, and defenses getting tighter, but this is a concerning statistic.

“He can’t lead the Rockets past the Warriors”

Maybe. Maybe not. Likely no-one will. The Rockets have beaten them 3 times so far this season though.

“He doesn’t deserve the MVP this year”

Honestly, I’m quite torn here. Using Westbrook’s MVP year as an example, he got the award for doing something that hadn’t been seen in an era – and the Thunder were a 6 seed that season. Harden has done something that hasn’t been seen in an era, and the Rockets are (at the time of writing) a 5th seed. If we are going on historical data and how the NBA typically decides the award, he should be your MVP.

On the other hand, I hated the Westbrook MVP selection, because it was a gimmick. He got it because he achieved an arbitrary number of points, rebounds, and assists. You could say the same about Harden and this season.  Personally I could understand the argument for either Harden, or Giannis. I think I personally lean slightly to Giannis, mostly because the Bucks have significantly more wins.

“I just don’t like the way he plays”

Honestly – this is totally fine. Enjoying a player is subjective. There is no amount of stats that can make you like someone. Not enjoying the way he plays does not make Harden a bad player, despite what internet forums or boards may have you think. Because it’s aesthetically unappealing to a vocal chorus of fans, should Harden stop doing what he is doing? He has single-handedly dragged what has been a corpse of a roster to the 2nd best offense in the league this season, and the 6th best record over the 30 game stretch in question.

Getting the PJ Tucker’s of the world more involved in the offense is not conducive to winning basketball games, believe it or not. If the refs are going to keep blowing fouls in his favour and not call travels on his step back, he should keep doing both those things until the rules dictate otherwise.

I’m not asking you to love James Harden, but as a fan of basketball, it’s very hard not to appreciate what he just did. Whether you like him or not, he deserves credit for his historically great run.