Guarding Harden by Keeping Your Hands Down, Tanking a Playoff Game and Austin the Unlikeable

Crack Conversations for Your 2015 NBA Playoffs
Day 7

Hands Down on Harden

Houston Rockets at Dallas Mavericks
Game 3 (Rockets lead series 2–0): 4:00 pm PT/7:00 pm ET on ESPN

Over the summer I hope to watch and really take a look at every time James Harden got fouled this regular season (and perhaps the two seasons prior to this one as well). I cannot remember a player getting this much attention about his ability to draw fouls than James Harden this year. The numbers do back it up of course. Harden shot 824 free throws this year which is 170 more than his nearest competition Russell Westbrook. Free throws accounted for 33.2% of all his scoring which makes sense given the volume at which he shot them and his 86.8% free throw shooting percentage. He became only the 11th player in league history to have made 700 free throw shots in a single season. Harden is so good and so deft at drawing fouls — shooting fouls namely — it caused Clippers coach Doc Rivers to say the following:

“He’s an expert at it,” Rivers said. “He actually does get fouled on most of them. He throws those arms up. It’s funny, in the playoffs teams are really aware of it and he doesn’t get those calls. It’s interesting how that changes to me, but it’s hard. It’s hard to prepare for. He’s coming at you. You want to stop him. He’s good at it. He’s as good of a guard as I can remember.

It’s that latter part that interests me. If playoff teams are trying to prevent Harden from getting calls, they’re not doing a very good job. Small sample size caveats aside, Harden is leading the playoffs this year in free throws attempted per game with an average of 15.0 which is a half a free throw more than DeAndre Jordan — a player who gets fouled on purpose because he’s such a bad free throw shooter. Teams, by and large, are not fouling Harden on purpose.

What I want to know is the following:

Would teams have greater success against James Harden if his defenders played him with their hands down?

My hunch — which is all this is right now — is two fold:

1. Keeping your hands down changes the refs perception of the contact being made.

Drawing fouls is sometimes about literally being fouled. But as any disgruntled fan will tell you, sometimes it’s about selling that you were fouled. Refs are humans with very human vantage points of the game. They simply cannot see everything nor can they always properly assess in the heat of the moment the intensity of the physical contact made. Therefore, drawing fouls, especially at Harden’s historical rate, can be about manipulating the refs’ perception of the intensity of the contact. And what I’m suggesting is that a defender with his hands up trying to block the ball or his hands midway up trying to steal the ball looks a lot more suspicious of having committed a foul than one with their hands down. Take a look at this compilation from two years ago:

It’s also worth pointing out that if you take a look at some of Harden’s fouls, it’s really just Harden drawing contact and heaving the ball in the general direction of the hoop. This season he was only 10th in the league in And-1 chances created so it’s not as if he’s converting or in the process of converting baskets every time he’s fouled — which if that were the case, would be the primary impetus in defending him with your hands up.

Harden is still going to get his points and a hands-down approach will transform some of those fouls drawn into simply made baskets. What I’m hoping to figure out though is whether or not it will transform so few made baskets that it’d make the hands-down approach a more favorable option to the hands-up approach. I’d also love to see what Harden — a brilliant offensive player — comes up with to adapt to this new paradigm of defenders defending him.

2. Keeping your hands down allows you to maintain balance and consequently prevents you from actually committing a foul.

So much about Harden’s offense is about keeping his defenders off balance. This could be partially in support of the first point. An off balance defender looks inordinately violent. If Harden is able to sell a foul in close enough proximity to this off balance defender, the ref may be more inclined to call the foul than if Harden tried to sell a foul in close proximity to a defender who was balanced.

Of course, as Doc said, not all of this is about Harden selling phantom fouls. Harden’s mixture of herky jerky stutters and twists and beautiful understanding of the angles of potential driving lanes means so long as he continues attacking the basket, he will continue to draw actual fouls some if not most of the time.

What I hope to find in observing Harden’s drawn fouls is whether or not the defender could have been better positioned had they been more balanced and whether or not they would have been more balanced in their positioning if they had had their hands down. Also, I’m just generally, from observing my own physical movement, assuming that it’s easier to stay balanced and in front of a player if you’re in an athletic crouch with your hands down. I’m nowhere in the same solar system of the athleticism of professional athletes so I just don’t know whether or not this is true for them too.

Will We Ever See a Team Lose on Purpose in the Playoffs in Order to Give Themselves More Rest?

Toronto Raptors at Washington Wizards
Game 3 (Wizards lead series 2–0): 5:00 pm PT/8:00 pm ET on ESPN2

This year was a landmark year in teams losing on purpose. If the Lakers weren’t tanking then wow, that was just really pathetic. The Wolves were tanking in spite of themselves. The 76ers were blatantly tanking. And somehow the Knicks who were trying for the first third of the season ended up with less wins than the 76ers, a team that was blatantly tanking. We thought we had a lottery reform to discourage tanking in the bank but then, a change of heart:

This all, so beautifully, so cinematically and narratively perfectly, culminated on the last day of the regular season, in a game I thought both teams would try to forfeit given that both teams had real immediate legitimate reasons to lose.

The playoffs are supposed to put an end to all this tanking talk. Winning in the playoffs seems to come with no downsides. Nobody needs to be timid about winning.

And yet, with the Wizards up 2–0 on the Raptors and now in D.C. for the next two games and consequently in a commanding position to win the series, I wondered the following interesting but also possibly profoundly stupid thing:

Should the Wizards rest their starters or some of their starters for either game three or game four in hopes to get their starters some extra rest before they have to play the Hawks in the next round?

The knee jerk answer is NO. Playoff basketball is hugely competitive and nothing should be taken for granted. Not to mention the logic of this idea is a little flawed because if you end up losing one of the games in which you rested some or all of your starters, you end up giving the team you’ll likely be playing a few extra days rest, which seems counterproductive to you getting your own rest.

But right now, as it stands, the Wizards will have played a bit more than the Hawks due to Game 1 having gone into overtime. And their star shooting guard Bradley Beal has logged the most minutes than any player in the playoffs on a per game basis which would be fine except Beal struggled with injuries throughout the regular season. Look, this is a stupid idea, I know. But in a league now more than ever cognizant of player health, of being proactive about injury prevention, of being open minded about losing games in order to give their team proper rest and of being, just in general, more open minded about finding exploitable loopholes to give their team an advantage, I would not be surprised if one day the circumstances align in which at least fans will be calling for something along the lines of tanking a playoff game.

Why don’t we like Austin Rivers?

Los Angeles Clippers at San Antonio Spurs
Game 3 (Series tied 1–1): 6:30 pm PT/9:30 pm ET on ESPN


Photo from RiteAnglez

He’s bad…

In a way, we wouldn’t be talking about Austin Rivers here if he hadn’t been drafted tenth overall in the 2012 draft. But he was. And in doing so, he committed two sins:

  1. He seemingly deprived Anthony Davis of another good running mate. New Orleans had the #1 pick and the #10 pick in that draft. They came away with Davis at #1 and Rivers at #10. People see the names Davis, Bradley Beal, Damian Lillard, Harrison Barnes, Andre Drummond and Draymond Green and they say “How in the world do you come away with Austin freaking Rivers?” The problem with that argument is that Beal, Lillard, Barnes and Drummond were all taken before pick #10 and Draymond Green a seemingly overweight overconfident tweener who was nowhere even close to the player he was with not even a great road map as to how he would become the player he eventually, some would say miraculously, would become. So they didn’t miss out on much. Maybe getting Terrence Jones would have been nice?
  2. In the bigger picture, he failed to delivery on his draft value which is maybe the worst non-criminal thing you can do as a player. We live in a culture that praises things we had no expectations for that manage to surpass these low expectations. However, conversely, we have no tolerance for things we had high expectations for that fail to meet these high expectations. The problem — and this one is valid — with Rivers isn’t so much that he just barely met the expectations that come with being the tenth overall pick — he barely met the expectations that come with being a player that is drafted at all. In his rookie year he was pretty much the worst player in the league with a PIE (Player Impact Estimate) of 3.1 which put him in the company of Sasha Pavlovic, Jan Vesely and the 2012–2013 edition of Grant Hill.

And just in case you think I’m being hard on him or that PIE is being hard on him, why don’t we let Blake show you his impression of Austin Rivers circa 4 weeks ago:

Even when he’s kind of good he’s bad…

From Shane Ryan’s breakdown of Duke’s Blue-White game in 2011:

“The great worry for Duke fans, and something that’s already become a concern for the general basketball-watching public, is Rivers’ attitude. It’s difficult to tell where his sullen intensity crosses over into arrogance and unhelpful anger. Bill Raftery tiptoed around the subject on Friday. “It’s all about becoming a member of a team,” he said in regard to Rivers. “That’s part of the process, too.” He hastened to clarify that he didn’t mean Rivers wasn’t a team player, but the anxiety was unmistakable. Later, play-by-play man Lou Canelis quoted Coach K on the subject:

“He talked about how someone like Austin Rivers needs to learn that this isn’t football,” said Canelis. “That after you make a play on the offensive end, immediately you’ve got to be ready on the defensive end or you lose the basketball. Too many guys look up at the scoreboard, they look at the crowd, they lose focus.”

Hold on, is this real, I can’t find anything about it on the internet…

I don’t think this actually happened so I’m not sure why it’s on his Wikipedia page but if, in the slight possibility it’s real and if Austin Rivers actually said those things with his actual mouth…oh…my…lord…

Oh yeah, AND he went to Duke…

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