Remember when Daryl Morey said it was “just factual” that James Harden was or is one better score than Michael Jordan, and for that matter the greatest goal scorer in NBA history? It was rich.
At the time, Harden won titles in Houston, and analytically, he actually confirmed Morey’s claim. But very few people would have agreed with Morey’s assessment, which was based on a strict point-per-possession formula. That formula, of course, included penalty throws, which Harden for years piled up by taking his contact-selling techniques to direct theatrical levels.
Well, it no longer works. During the low season, the NBA decided to stop rewarding offensive players for making contact, or more often just creating the illusion of contact, using non-basketball moves and natural shot moves, and Harden is not the same kind of goal scorer as a result.
Through four games this season with the Brooklyn Nets, Harden has scored 83 points on 78 shots. After only reaching the free throw line three times per. fight, down from the double-digit attempts he had on average in Houston from 2014-20, he averaged 16.6 points on 35 percent shooting, including 33 percent from 3.
The Harden, of course, will not draw a connection between his decline in false wrong calls and his production. After Brooklyn’s loss to Miami on Wednesday, Harden attributed his hard start to the season to his inability to play “pickup” games during the offseason when he was forced to retrain his hind thigh.
Listen, it’s a shame to have to retrain an injury during a low season. It prevents you from working on your game. But the dark truth behind this slow start is that Harden has never been an elite shooter. He is 36 percent from 3 for his career. He raised himself to a historic level of volume, both from the field and the free-throw line.
You can see him still slinging away like a matter of habit, throwing shots up with no intention of actually making them the second he feels contact, and generally trying to manipulate contact, or again the appearance of contact, over just shooting a usually shots in hopes of hearing the once-friendly whistles. But they just do not come, as caught in this thread of @NateDuncanNBA:
Let us now be aware of this: the Harden is not just a product of volume and penalty throws. He is a great player and his game and numbers will pick up speed. He’s still not completely well. But to suggest that this new reality of not being able to steal points at the free-throw line – not to mention the greater leeway it now gives defenders to actually challenge his legitimate shots without fear of him collapsing to the ground , as he stepped on a landmine – is not part of a new Harden equation is naive. Of course it affects him. And so far it has been for the worse.