SALT LAKE CITY — I hate to rain on the James Harden parade, but …
I’m going to do it anyway.
Harden, the Houston Rockets’ guard who’s tormenting the Utah Jazz at the moment, plays an ugly brand of basketball.
If Michael Jordan’s game was a symphony, Harden’s is two guys banging on garbage cans.
Yes, he averaged 36 points a game this season; only Wilt Chamberlain and Michael Jordan have done better. And he’s killing the Jazz. Through two games in their first-round playoff series — which the Rockets have won by a combined 52 points — he has 61 points.
But Harden is a gimmick. Actually, lots of gimmicks. His game is a basketball sleight of hand. It’s as if he’s getting away with something — the (uncalled) traveling violations, that obnoxious stepback jumper and a variety of other questionable moves that magically get him from Point A to Point D after he’s given up the dribble, the constant dribbling, the fouls he intentionally draws or fakes, the too-frequent trips to the free-throw line, the isolation game in which his underused teammates spread the court and watch with the rest of the fans while Harden does his thing. Fun.
Earlier this month, Don MacLean, the TV commentator for the Clippers, finally had enough of watching the Bearded One.
"This style, what Harden does, is manipulating the game somehow,” he began. “Almost like cheating it somehow. And I don’t really have a thought beyond that other than I’m watching something that isn’t basketball. To me, basketball is player movement, ball movement, designed plays. Not just a guy walking it up and isolating every time ... who else could do this? It’s not like that within the system, he’s getting all these numbers. The system is built for him.”
It was built for him by Houston coach Mike D’Antoni, whose coaching philosophy, roughly translated, is: Give the ball to James and get the heck out of the way. It’s not terribly complex. Or fun to watch.
I’m not saying Harden isn’t talented; I’m saying he has the ugliest game since Adrian Dantley. It was excruciating to watch Dantley. His bump and grind game was basketball’s version of rope a dope and he still has claim to Ugliest Game Ever. (Karl Malone’s postup-hammerfest game merits mention, too.)
What’s wrong with Harden’s game? Glad you asked.
In playground parlance, he’s a ball hog, with the coach’s blessing. The Rockets took an average of 87.4 shots per game this season; Harden accounted for 24.5 of them and that was while playing only three quarters of a game on an average night. He took 1,909 shots during the regular season — 225 more than his nearest rival.
There’s a statistic that tracks the amount of time the ball is in a player’s hands, as well as a lot of other excruciatingly esoteric data. Harden touches the ball an average of 87 times per game. The ball is in his possession 9 minutes and 20 seconds, averaging 6.4 seconds per touch — the most in the league.
Remember, he plays an average of 36 minutes per game, which means he’s on the bench 12 minutes (or one quarter of a game), and he plays defense about half of those 36 minutes. That means that during the 18 minutes he is on offense, the ball is in his hands more than half the time.
It is revealing that 87 percent of Harden’s field goals were unassisted — the highest in the league except for Harden’s teammate, Chris Paul. Most teams stress passing and minimal dribbling; not the Rockets. Even LeBron James, who insists on having the ball in his hands, checks in at only 65.9 in unassisted field goals.
Now let’s look at usage rate — the percentage of plays that end with a player taking a field goal or free throw or committing a turnover. Harden led the league at 39.5 percent, and it wasn’t even close. James was 30.9 percent, Russell Westbrook 30.1 percent.
None of the above even accounts for the other big part of Harden’s game: free throws. Harden is famous for getting to the line, and he’s crafted ingenious (if illegal) means to get there when he wants to (there is no shortage of video on YouTube that show him hooking defenders so it looks like they foul him — when he isn’t flopping like a tuna on the court).
Since joining the Rockets seven years ago he’s averaged a league-leading 10.2 free throws per game. Almost one-third (30.3 percent) of his points come from the foul line. During those seven years he has attempted 6,635 free throws — 1,661 more than runner-up Westbrook.
Finally, let’s look at his defense. There’s a statistic called defensive rating, which quantifies a player’s performance on the other end of the court. He ranked 385th this season. Harden plays “matador” defense. He allowed 12.8 points per game off his turnovers — 10th worst in the league. He allowed 11.2 points per game off fast breaks, seventh worst in the league. He allowed 10.4 second-chance points, sixth worst in the league.
The pro-Harden camp can point to the Rockets’ winning record (53-29) and fourth-place finish in the Western Conference. They’ve got a point, although it is highly unlikely a one-man performance can carry the Rockets to the NBA Finals. Either way, it’s not the way basketball was supposed to be played, and it isn’t fun to watch.