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NBA Daily: James Harden’s All-Around Deadly Game

Spencer Davies debunks the myths surrounding James Harden’s skill set by using a breakdown of the Houston Rockets’ first-round series vs. the Utah Jazz as evidence.

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“Lazy! Ballhog! Choker!”

The basketball social media universe is unforgiving for a number of players in the NBA. By scanning the timelines of many users in this world, you’ll see all kinds of arguments and debates—seriously or jokingly—rooted in recency bias due to the 24/7 news cycle rate at which news happens in 2019. A good chunk of these are referred to as “hot takes,” a.k.a. baseless claims meant to get a rise out of people reacting in real time.

Now, the issue with those viewpoints is that once something is proclaimed, it is set in stone. Some fans won’t bother to watch or listen when a player improves or adapts to whatever area was once a struggle. Above all else, they shudder to see success because it means they’re wrong. And who can be wrong about something in today’s world? Oh no, the horror.

In turn, that realization evolves into an actual hatred of a player’s game (and in some cases personal, unfortunately), causing a domino effect throughout and gaining traction to spread that disdain.

The target most seem to go after? None other than the NBA’s reigning MVP, Houston Rockets superstar James Harden.

Let’s get this out of the way first—yes, Harden embellishes. He does it more often than anybody in the league, probably. He’s also been given leeway on stepbacks regarding the gathers he takes. Just because that’s true, however, does not mean that every foul committed against him isn’t one, nor is every movement he makes a travel.

With the officiating the NBA has, you have to be mindful that a more demonstrative sell job is going to get you a call. Plus, if it works to your benefit and keeps working, why stop? Nobody wants to hear that, but if you look anywhere around this game you’ll recognize that plenty of players are doing the same exact thing.

That said, in the first-round series with the Utah Jazz, Harden hasn’t even been getting the number of foul calls we’re used to seeing him get anyway. If it weren’t for Game 3, he’d have been to the free throw line just eight times with only 12 personal fouls drawn. While it’s only a small sample size, to this point, his free throw rate is the lowest it’s been since last postseason.

Sure, he worked his way to the charity stripe twice as much Saturday, but that’s because his shots were not falling, meaning he had to take matters into his own hands to attack more frequently—especially with the Jazz forcing him right and going behind him defensively every possession.

Which brings us to the next point: Harden is an exceptional passer. Due to his isolation-heavy game, the common misconception is that Beard is a selfish player. That couldn’t be further from the truth.

Since he’s put up less-than-ideal scoring numbers when he’s put it on the floor against Utah, Harden has found another way to positively impact the game with his distribution. His 6.7 assists per game off drives is far and away the highest average among the rest of the league in playoff time.

The main beneficiaries of these dimes have been two guys—Clint Capela and P.J. Tucker. If you want to know why Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni constantly raves over Harden’s playmaking ability, there’s your reason (threes and layups!)

In forcing defenses to collapse when he takes it to the hole, it more often than not leaves that pair open. When Harden comes in, Capela clears out just long enough to create space for a quick baseline cut and easy high handoff for two points.

Capela converts on 75 percent of the passes he receives from Harden, who’s averaged four assists per game to the big man this series. This has been one of the most deadly combinations for years, and the duo’s chemistry has only gotten stronger with more time together.

If defenses try to take away the alley-oop and crowd Harden at the point of attack, he’ll send it to his guys in the short corner almost every time. During this series, that man has been Tucker. All five of his three-point makes have come off a Harden assist. Sometimes others will occupy the spot as well and just wait for that kick out.

Harden’s also been able to locate the elbows pretty well, citing Eric Gordon and Gerald Green’s combined five three-balls as an example of that. If an overall career-best 48.6 assist percentage to start the postseason doesn’t turn people off to the “ballhog” narrative, nothing will.

It’d be remiss of this writer to not mention Harden’s work on the defensive end, too. Matched up against Joe Ingles and Ricky Rubio—the players he’s guarded most—he’s held those players in check.

He isn’t assigned to the best offensive weapons on the team—Mitchell has had his way against him—but Harden has limited Ingles to six points on 49 possessions and Rubio to eight points on 41 possessions, respectively. The whiff in transition with Royce O’Neale going right around him for an easy dunk looks terrible, but it’s nothing but a blip on the radar regarding the whole picture.

Cherry picking certain highlights and statistics is a common practice of the hot take culture to fit their perspective, so they’ll use that to their advantage in arguments. Don’t let it distract you from the fact that Harden is, without a shadow of a doubt, turning himself into one of the most cerebral players in the NBA.

Consider that this small stretch of elite basketball has come against a top defensive team in the league. Harden finds ways to dissect. There’s always the threat of a stepback three—over eight contested attempts per game in which he’s knocked down 38.5 percent of—going down. If he chooses to deliberately slow the pace down in the halfcourt, there’s a good chance he’ll zoom right by you to open up those previously mentioned options.

Going 0-for-15 to start Game 3 was historically poor, but Harden racked up seven assists and six steals during the struggles. He still proceeded to score a game-high 14 points in the fourth quarter and knock down the most critical three of the night to lead Houston to a clutch win on the road.

In the end, it’s not how you start. It’s how you finish.

Some of Harden’s detractors will still blind themselves of the truly special performances that are actually happening. At that point, it’d be better to admit you don’t like the guy rather than to invent reasons why he’s “overrated” on the floor.

While everyone has their opinion on Harden, D’Antoni has his own.

“That’s the best offensive player I’ve ever seen,” the Rockets head coach said last March. “It’s impossible to guard him. It’s impossible.”

D’Antoni’s been around this league for a long time.

Perhaps we shouldn’t take the opinion of a person that’s coached Steve Nash, Kobe Bryant and Carmelo Anthony lightly.

Spencer Davies is a Deputy Editor and a Senior NBA Writer based in Cleveland in his third year with Basketball Insiders. Covering the league and the Cavaliers for the past five seasons, his bylines have appeared on Bleacher Report, FOX Sports and HoopsHype.

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