Over his past two seasons, Rockets combo-guard and iso-scorer James Harden has accumulated seasonal averages of 36–8–7 and 34–7–6, respectively. In other words, James Harden has averaged 35–7.5–6.5 for two straight years now.
Yet, he’s one of the most hated and most under-appreciated players in the league.
Unfortunately, it is becoming more and more apparent that as time goes on, James Harden isn’t going to get the respect he deserves from fans and the media until he’s old, or even out of the league.
That’s a shame.
Last season, Kawhi Leonard and a healthy Toronto Raptors squad beat a broken and injury-riddled Golden State Warriors roster 4–2 en route to the Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy. After averaging 29–10–4 with 2.0 steals and 1.2 blocks per-game on a 43–36–91 shooting split, Kawhi Leonard went home his second Finals MVP award, and became the consensus best player on the planet in the eyes of most fans and media.
Just two series prior, James Harden had averaged 35–7–6 on a 44–35–82 shooting split against a healthy and ready Warriors team before losing in 6. Let’s look at that again.
- Kawhi Leonard in the Finals without needing to worry about Klay Thompson or Kevin Durant guarding him (or scoring on him on the other end): 29–10–4 with 2.0 steals and 1.2 blocks per-game on a 43–36–91 shooting split.
- James Harden in the Semifinals vs. a fully-healthy Warriors team with the worry of Klay Thompson or Kevin Durant guarding him (or scoring on him on the other end): 35–7–6 with 2.2 steals and 0.5 blocks on a 44–35–82 shooting split.
The numbers are a wash — Kawhi and Harden took turns leading various categories –– and their shooting efficiencies are nearly the same as well.
Nonetheless, the narrative around each player and their playoff performances was vastly different. Kawhi seemed to have cemented himself as an all-time great and a no-doubt top 3 player in the game today, while James Harden seemed to have embarrassed himself in yet another playoff disappointment.
Let’s make one thing extremely clear: James Harden gives the Warriors their biggest scare in the Western Conference playoffs every single year, and was leading the charge as a part of the only team that went up 3–2 against the Kevin-Durant-Era Golden State Warriors in the WCF. Sure, the Rockets lost the next two games. Sure, Harden could have been better. But let’s not act like he just disappears in the playoffs (which may be the biggest “knock” against him).
He took the Kevin-Durant-Era Golden State Warriors to 7 games. You know who else can say that? No one. No other team in the league. Additionally, if it weren’t for Chris Paul getting injured and sitting out in Game 7, there’s a really good chance that the 2017–18 Rockets are NBA champions. As the best player on the team that pushed the KD-Era Warriors the furthest, he deserves a ton of credit; it wasn’t like the Rockets got there despite James Harden. They got there because of James Harden.
The notion that he fails year-in and year-out is just a fabricated lie. As seen above, he played about the same (if not better) against the Warriors as Kawhi (who didn’t even meet them at full-strength), and yet the narrative surrounding him and his game is one much less desirable than the one surrounding Kawhi.
So, why don’t people appreciate him?
It’s quite simple. Harden haters seem to fall into one or more of these three categories:
They hate his…
- Style of play
- Constant time of possession
- Defensive reputation
The first reason many people dislike James Harden is due to his style of play. That’s fine. If you don’t like to watch a certain player because of their play-style, I won’t try to argue. However, you’re allowed to dislike a player while simultaneously allowing yourself to appreciate how good the player is at the sport. It’s fine if you dislike watching James Harden. Just don’t tell me that’s the reason he’s “not good” or, even worse, “overrated”.
He’s masterful at making his way to the free-throw line by manipulating referees’ perception of genuine contact near the rim and getting nearly 10 of his points-per-game for, well, free.
That’s a “cheap” way to play though, right? It’s the “easy” way to play the game, right?
Then why don’t other players get to the stripe as frequently as he does? Why don’t other players shoot the three-pointer as well as Stephen Curry? Why don’t other players handle the ball as well as Kyrie Irving?
Because it’s a skill that they’ve mastered. James Harden has mastered the ability to get to the free-throw line. He’s the best in the game at it, and it isn’t close.
Besides, is there a smarter, more strategic way to collect points than by standing 15 feet away from the hoop and shooting it without anyone guarding you? If there is, I’m unaware of it.
The second reason that people dislike –– and don’t appreciate –– James Harden is because of the fact that his usage rate is so high. He seems to have the ball in his hands at all times when he is on the floor, and uses up a lot of the game-clock while attempting to score in isolation on his defender. Thankfully for him, he’s the best isolation scorer in the game, and it tends to work; however, when it doesn’t, he just looks like a bearded homeless man who spent 16 seconds of the shot-clock dribbling at the top of the key before bricking a 29 foot step-back three off the left side of the rim.
There is a very, very simple explanation for this: Mike D’Antoni.
Harden produces his points from three spots on the floor: near the rim, off of a three-pointer, or from the free-throw line.
That’s it. That’s the freedom Mike D’Antoni allows his offense.
While D’Antoni has changed the way offense is played in the NBA today (along with Stephen Curry) through his use of free-flowing lanes and distaste for mid-range jumpers, his offensive system has its flaws. Though it may boost Harden’s production (his numbers spiked once D’Antoni became the head coach), it almost makes him less effective as a well-rounded basketball player. James Harden is far more predictable in 2020 than he used to be when he was allowed to score in any-which-way he wanted.
Harden doesn’t dance on defenders with his ball-handling from 30-feet-out just for show; he does it because he needs to find a way to either score at the rim or hit a three, with no in between. It buys him time. He needs to figure out where he’s going, because if it’s to the elbow for a mid-range jumper, he’ll hear it about it at halftime from his head coach.
D’Antoni’s stubborn philosophy about mid-range jumpshots ultimately restricts a great offensive player’s movement and makes their game seem much more calculated, if not more predictable. Harden holds the ball for so long and then either gets fouled at the rim or takes a step-back three not necessarily because he wants to; he does it because he’s told to.
Harden’s constant possession of the ball at the top of the key does give him the opportunity for a driving lane if the defender ends up biting on any of his dribble-moves, and with Harden’s filthy ball-handling ability, sneaky-quick first step and unparalleled strength at his position, it usually works. That isn’t the point.
The point is that he has much less overall offensive freedom in the system he currently plays in. His coach doesn’t allow him to play off-the-ball nearly enough; that isn’t Harden’s choice. No player has the kind of usage rate James Harden has by themselves; they have that kind of usage rate because the system they play in demands it.
Stop blaming the “ball-hogging” on Harden. Blame it on Mike D’Antoni.
The third and final reason that a lot of people (and media) disrespect Harden is because of his defensive reputation; a reputation that he certainly earned.
However, James Harden’s defense isn’t nearly as bad as it once was. He developed his terrible defensive reputation around 2015, and at the time, he was still great, but was producing far less on the offensive end than he is now. In 2015, his defense simply wasn’t okay. It didn’t make sense. It was abysmal and disgraceful.
Over the past two seasons, Harden’s defense has improved greatly. He can hold his own as an isolated individual defender, and he knows how to use his frame and bulk to fight back against offensive players trying to score on him on a drive. Ben Simmons was even quoted a couple months ago during a Twitch stream for stating,
“I’ve got something to say. Everyone talks on James’ defense, but he can play D. I don’t think y’all understand how strong that dude is. He’s a strong guy. A lot of people listen to analytics and stuff, it makes no sense. Analytically? You can’t always look at numbers, man.”
When a player who plays against Harden twice a year has that to say about him, it probably holds a bit of weight. Believe it or not, Simmons probably knows a bit more about James Harden’s defensive ability than we do.
I’ll admit that Harden still has moments where he looks like someone who just had their controller die on them in the middle of an NBA 2K game, but it happens very rarely. Besides, he’s giving you 35–7–6 each night. So, yes, Mr. Harden. Take a play off. I can live with an occasional defensive lapse. As long as your defensive assignment doesn’t give us what you’re about to give them. You do plenty on the other end.
All things considered, we’re lucky to be able to watch James Harden play basketball. He’s giving us an opportunity to watch a player so unique that there may never be another.
Remember that the next time you watch him play. Appreciate his game, before it’s too late.