The Frustrating Brilliance of James Harden

The reigning MVP has been on a historic offensive tear unlike any we've seen before. Why is he continuing to garner so much hate?

Yesterday, James Harden and the rest of the Rockets showed up against the Memphis Grizzlies severely shorthanded. Before the game, news had broken that center Clint Capela would miss 4-6 weeks due to a thumb injury. This injury left the Rockets without three of their biggest pieces, Capela, guard Eric Gordon, and All-Star Chris Paul. This would often spell disaster for any NBA team. If you were playing 2K, and you saw that you 3 out of your 4 best players went down with injury, you’d probably turn off the game and try again later. However, the reigning MVP viewed it as just another day in the office.

In lieu of the lack of support, Harden continued to play out of his damn mind, posting another ridiculous scoring night. He put up 57 points on 17 of 33 shooting, and also added nine assists to his impressive night. It wasn’t just the amount of points that he scored, it was the swift manner in which he did it. He scored 36 of his 57 in the first half, in only 19 minutes. He had 36 of his team’s 54 first half points. Before the fourth quarter even started, he had already reached 46 points. He carried Houston to a 112-94 victory, in a game where the second leading scorer on his team was forward Danuel House, with 15 points. He transformed into an offensive Godzilla that refuses to be stopped by anything insignificant like defenders or defensive schemes.

This epic performance that he posted comes in the midst of a historic run of outings unlike anything the NBA has seen in a long time. With the performance last night, he passed Kobe Bryant for the most consecutive 30+ point games since the ’76-77 NBA merger (17). Within this span, he is averaging 41.3 points per game, 9.2 assists per game, and 7.5 rebounds per game. He has unequivocally been the best player in the NBA the past couple of weeks, sparking questions about his place in the upper echelon of offensive weapons. For the past month, he has played out of his mind, putting up performances on paper that should be commended and hung in the rafters of history.

But they aren’t, because we hate him. Well, we don’t hate him per se (this statement actually varies, depending on who you ask around the league). We hate the way that he plays. If you ask the average NBA fan, that is not a Houston Rockets fan, they most likely have some very strong opinions about James Harden. I’ll bet the majority of my life savings ($81) on those opinions not being positive. You can see it for yourself. Scroll on Twitter during any game where James Harden is playing, whether he is playing out of his mind or putting up a stinker of a performance. There is a large percentage of population that is complaining about the way Harden plays. For every Rockets fan on there, there is seven detractors ready to flame him for any failure or missed clutch 3.

The way that I’m describing this criticism just sounds like normal hating of greatness, but this is different, I promise. This isn’t just playa hating that normally permeates throughout the NBA. The Harden detractors focus on the manner in which Harden dominates the league’s defenses.

#13 has figured out a way to masterfully manipulate the rules of the NBA to his advantage. The way that Harden plays basketball can be likened to when your figures out a cheat code in Mike Tyson’s Punch Out (amazing video game) and proceeds to smash the cheat code into oblivion until the buttons refuse to work anymore. It’s similar to the way that Pharrell has found the fountain of youth and withholds the location from everyone else, reaping the rewards for only himself by staying young forever.

He is the best in the league at drawing fouls, manipulating the referees into making calls into his favor. It’s not as though he is just driving into the lane like a bull in a china shop, hoping for foul calls. He’s more akin to a spider, drawing defenders in and trapping them with sly contact. His top class body control allows him to slow his drives down, putting the defenders in a position where they have to make contact with him. It’s at that point where he will put a shot up, forcing the refs to make a decision, putting the game into their hands.

More often than not, the calls will go his way. He’s averaging 11.3 free throw attempts a game, and leads the league in total free throw attempts (452). The second closest player in total free throw attempts is center Joel Embiid, with 402 attempts. The baffling number of fouls that he draws, in combination with his mediocre shooting percentage (43.7), draws the wrath of fans across the league. In the last game of 2018 against the Grizzlies, Harden shot eight of nineteen, but put up 43 points. That’s because he shot 21 OF 27 FROM THE FREE THROW LINE. Some teams don’t even get 27 free throw attempts in a game, and that bearded bastard did it in 41 minutes. This output wasn’t an outlier, either. During his scoring streak, he’s had games where he attempted 19, 18, and 17 free throws as well.

These totals are enough to make any opposing fan’s blood boil. Watching a player take advantage of the misgivings of the referees to the extreme is frustrating to say the least. I’m not a basketball purist, but I know when I watch Harden utilize his play style against LeBron, I’m ready to exile him from the league. But I realize that I am falling into a trap. I am blinded by the initial outrage of the “bullshirt” foul calls that Harden draws. With the rampant number of foul calls, there is a beautiful understanding of the game of basketball that has stemmed from a greater responsibility in the Rockets offense.

The offense that Mike D’Antoni has employed is nothing more than a glorified hero ball that focuses on Harden’s ability to make things happen. The success of the Rockets depends on Harden’s prowess and his playmaking abilities. He has still been able to lead the team to a stellar offensive output, even with key pieces missing around him. They are second in offensive efficiency behind the Golden State Warriors (111.4) and fourth in True Shooting percentage (57.7). Due to this, it’s not a surprise that Harden has been affecting the game in ways other than scoring. He has six triple doubles this season, including a 50/11/10 performance against the Lakers. He is nothing if not a constant producer for a team that depends on his success.

It’s okay to hate the way that James Harden plays. It’s okay to believe that the NBA needs to crackdown on the way that he’s able to draw fouls and avoid traveling calls. The blame for how Harden plays is not his alone. A lot of his success is due to the shortcomings of the rules of the NBA. What that means is that it is not okay to hate the success that James Harden has achieved. I’m saying this as a consistent hater. But at some point you need to realize that brilliance of his game, no matter how frustrating it may be.

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