There are a lot of people who just don’t like to watch James Harden play basketball.
They get that it is effective, you can’t deny the numbers: In his last 12 games, Harden has averaged 40.1 points with a crazy-good 64 true shooting percentage, plus 9 assists and 6.6 rebounds per contest. He’s dragged the Rockets to an 11-1 record in those games, the team up into the playoffs, and himself into the MVP conversation.
But it’s not graceful, not always fluid. Watching Harden is not like watching Stephen Curry drain 28-foot threes or Giannis Antetokounmpo attack the rim. It’s a lot of free throws and isolation dribbling, a lot of flopping and selling calls. Harden is the master at drawing fouls — he swings his arms into the contact and throws his head back to accentuate the blow — but is strong enough to score through the hits. Harden is propelling his current run with threes, averaging 17.2 attempts a game in his last five (23 against the Warriors), hitting 43 percent of them. He pushes the envelope and gets the job done, but it’s not the beautiful game.
So the critics come out, and it’s usually with the complaint, “why does he get all these foul calls?” Harden responded after he dropped 44 on the Warriors including a three in OT to get the win.
Harden is great — and drawing fouls is a skill. It’s one Antetokounmpo and Kevin Durant and LeBron James and others have as well, Harden is simply the best at it and uses it the most. He forces the contact and makes sure he’s fouled — that’s part of the game.
Harden has grown frustrated in the postseason when the referees let guys play a little more — last season Harden’s free throw rate plummeted (by percentage) and he got to the line more than three fewer times a game. That’s the part of the game Harden must adapt to.
Harden’s game, however, is much more than fouls. It’s the best step back going (even if he travels on it now and again), his hesitation moves are sublime, and he just has an “old man at the Y” quality to his game that is old-school. It’s to be appreciated and admired.
Even if it’s not always pretty.