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Remember when Daryl Morey said that it was “just factual” that James Harden was, or is, a better scorer than Michael Jordan, and for that matter the greatest scorer in NBA history? That was rich.
At the time Harden was winning scoring titles in Houston and, analytically speaking, actually validating Morey’s claim. But very few people would have agreed with Morey’s assessment, which was based on a strict points-per-possession formula. That formula, of course, included free throws, which for years Harden piled up by taking his contact-selling techniques to outright theatrical levels.
Well, that’s not working anymore. Over the offseason, the NBA resolved to stop rewarding offensive players for drawing contact, or more often simply creating the illusion of contact, by way of non-basketball moves and natural shooting motions, and Harden is not the same kind of scorer as a result.
Through four games this season with the Brooklyn Nets, Harden has scored 83 points on 78 shots. Having only gotten to the free-throw line three times per game, down from the double-digit attempts he averaged in Houston from 2014-20, he’s averaging 16.6 points on 35 percent shooting, including 33 percent from 3.
Harden, of course, isn’t going to draw a correlation between his decline in phony foul calls and his production. After Brooklyn’s loss to Miami on Wednesday, Harden attributed his rough start to the season to his inability to play “pickup” games over the offseason, when he was forced to rehab his hamstring.
James Harden: “As much as I want to get back to 30s and 40s points, I can’t do that. As much as I want to, as much as I would love to, I didn’t have any opportunities to play pickup. It was all rehab.”
Listen, having to rehab an injury over an offseason sucks. It does keep you from working on your game. But the dark truth behind this slow start is that Harden has never been an elite shooter. He’s 36 percent from 3 for his career. He elevated himself to a historic level of scoring on sheer volume, both from 3 and the free-throw line.
You can see him still flailing away as a matter of habit, chucking shots up with no intention of actually making them the second he feels contact, and in general trying to manipulate contact, or, again, the appearance of contact, over just shooting a normal shot in hopes of hearing those once-friendly whistles. But they’re just not coming, as captured in this thread by @NateDuncanNBA:
Part Deux pic.twitter.com/ijRAqBDgFC
Harden has Bam beat, tries to draw the foul instead of making a play. Refs ain’t biting. At least the 4th time tonight. pic.twitter.com/c6gtIK4mF1
Now let’s be clear about this: Harden is not just a product of volume and free throws. He’s a great player, and his play and numbers will pick up. He’s still not fully healthy. His volume was always going to decrease, independent of the league’s crackdown on bogus calls, by virtue of playing next to Kevin Durant.
But to suggest that this new reality of not being able to pile up 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 like he stepped on a land mine — isn’t a significant part of a new Harden equation, well, that’s just naive.
I mean the guy has literally made more free throws over the course of his career (6,585 entering Wednesday) than he has field goals (6,537). For reference, Michael Jordan made 12,192 field goals over his career against 7,327 free throws. Harden is, quite obviously, disproportionately dependent on freebies. Of course getting less of them is going to impact his game. And so far, it has been for the worse.
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