James Harden Ushers in a New Era of Ugly

April 16th, 2019 | by Clint Johnson

(David J. Phillip/Associated Press)

Admittedly, this is an inopportune time for anyone Jazz-related to make this argument about James Harden.

After all, the reigning MVP — who is a top candidate to repeat this season — just led his Houston Rockets to a crushing Game 1 win over the Utah Jazz, 122-90, in the first round of the playoffs.

Believe me, I know how much this sounds like sour grapes. But this isn’t about the playoffs, or even really about the Jazz or Rockets. This is about the next decade of NBA basketball, about the integrity and aesthetic of the game itself, and how Harden may well iso the league into a fugue for years to come.

Every game has fundamental dynamics from which the game gets its life. When those are compromised, the nature of the game itself changes. These changes can be good, extensions or maturation of the game’s essence. The game becoming more itself, as it were.

I would argue this describes Stephen Curry’s impact on the league, primarily because of something he brought almost single-handedly to the NBA — the unassisted, contested three, like this one he buried against the Clippers in Golden State’s Game 1 win:

This shot, coming off a step back or complex dribble move, has transformed the NBA, from the pick and roll to theories about offensive gravity in determining floor spacing.

The consequences? Pick-and-roll defenses have become more varied and sophisticated, scoring and speed of play have increased, and bigs are increasingly athletic and skilled, needing to both contribute to their team’s spacing and have the agility to defend further from the hoop in space.

All of which is, well, basketball. It’s the newest iteration of the sky hook and the Michael Jordan fadeaway, the shot even really good defense can’t stop, a version for the analytics era.

Yet even against the matchup-hunting Warriors, this shot hasn’t ruined the fundamental nature of defense. Kevin Love has a ring because this essential of the game — that sometimes the defender has a realistic chance to win these contests — hasn’t been compromised.

Love is on ice skates most of this play, nearly too late or nearly too overbalanced to keep Curry from a quality shot. But he hangs in there and is part of the equation when a Curry miss determined an NBA Champion.

What Harden is doing is different. Rather than warping the game with his skill — and it should be said that his skill is remarkable and perhaps capable of making him one of the best offensive players in history on its own virtues — he is doing so by pushing the rules to the point where referees are changing how they adjudicate the game, which is warping play to the point of corruption.

It couldn’t be more obvious.

Rubio guarding Harden from the left side (game still).

To defend Harden in Game 1, the Jazz decided their best chance was NOT to get between Harden and the basket. That is the very first thing a child is taught about defense in the game of basketball: when your player has the ball, get between them and the basket. Everything else — stance, footwork, vision, contesting shots, you name it — grows from that fundamental. 

The Jazz, the second-best defensive team in the league this season (105.2 defensive rating), have decided that in the NBA playoffs there is a player they essentially cannot attempt to defend one-on-one. So they allow the drive and accept the need to scramble defensively on every play.

It would appear insane if the league’s best defensive team, the Bucks (104.9 defensive rating), hadn’t pioneered the strategy.

Bledoe’s Bucks tried this approach, too. (Game still)

Now, Harden defenders will claim it’s the MVP’s unparalleled skill that has driven defenses to this tactic. 

That’s garbage.

Kyrie Irving, the league’s greatest wizard with the basketball, has never earned such treatment, nor have players all but impossible to keep from the hoop, like LeBron James or prime Derrick Rose.

Even against the best rim attackers in league history, this nonsense wasn’t needed for a very simple reason: referees kept those players within the basic rules of the game.

They haven’t for Harden. 

It isn’t even Harden’s infamous double step-back that’s the problem.

The problem is how physical contact between Harden and a defender is called.

In far too many cases, Harden initiates contact and gets fouls called for defensive plays that simply are not fouls. Harden jams his shoulder against a defender’s and stumbles, flails elbows up opponents’ chests, pulls nearby arms into his own and whips up the ball, often falling to the floor or jacking the ball into the air to force the referees into difficult positions.  

While star players have gotten this treatment for years to some degree, none has been allowed to push the advantage to the point where quality NBA defenders like Eric Bledsoe and Royce O’Neale simply raise their hands or, even worse, step out of the way in a last ditch attempt to avoid sending Harden to the line. 

Worse, Harden continues to milk his contact advantage even against defenders already refereed into passive acceptance. Just look at how Harden gets room for his step back on this play:

Just consider what is happening here. Rubio is to Harden’s side, not even in his path to the basket, and both players are motionless. Harden moves straight into Rubio, shoving with both his shoulder and arm — and Rubio, who has already ceded an insane position on the play, dances away from Harden’s forced contact, afraid of a foul call on a play where Harden is responsible for all the contact against zero resistance.

Since the 2013-14 season, Harden has shot 4,792 regular season free throws, 1,415 more than any other player in the league1. The disparity between Harden’s glut of opportunities from the line and that of the second-ranked free throw shooter, Russell Westbrook, is greater than the difference between Westbrook and 23rd-ranked Kyle Lowry.

The Harden revolution isn’t built on his step back or underhanded lob or rock-a-baby crossover. It all hinges on his ability to create contact that referees reward with a foul call.

Some would argue that’s a skill, and they’re right. But it’s a skill that cuts against the fundamental nature of the game. The ability of an offensive player to force defenders into physical contact that then penalizes them overturns the central nature of the sport. 

If this is embraced in how the game is refereed, giving a competitive advantage — as is happening right now with Harden — then Harden’s defining skill will propagate.

That which helps you win in pro sports, will spread.

The same process happened when Shaquille O’Neal entered the league. Referees were confronted with a player strong enough to move defenders out of his way with less effort than any before in league history2. This put into question whether a defender had a fundamental right to a position they had already established or whether a physically strong player with the ball could simply shove a defender out of the way and inhabit that vacated space.

The league referees conferenced on the question and ruled, as they typically do, in favor of the offensive superstar in question.

While this video from the Wilt Chamberlain Archive shows a generational shift in allowed play more profound than is attributable solely to O’Neal, it shows the degree to which O’Neal’s presence induced the league to shift the advantage in physical contact distinctly in favor of offensive players. The result can be seen in several of O’Neal’s plays as well as the play by DeMarcus Cousins at the end of the clip.

While an egregious example, that Cousins play illustrates the worst of the new norm that plagued the league for years, with players such as the aging Charles Barkley slamming repeatedly into defenders’ chests to work incrementally nearer the hoop.

With offensive players given such leeway in dislodging opponents in the post, what started as a Shaq-specific exemption licensed by league referees proved a virulent infection that spread throughout the NBA. 

Honestly speaking, does anyone miss those days of dump and bump in the post? 

Now Harden is threatening to usher in a new era of distorted play, where the ability to blunder into a nearby defender for a foul becomes a prime skill in player assessment and development.

Imagine Luka Doncic marring his already advanced step back game by perfecting Harden-esque shoulder checks; Trae Young’s artful weaves to the basket degenerating to chicken-winging a defender’s gut and lolling the ball into the air; Zion Williamson backing off LeBron-like locomotion for rim-rattling dunks to settle for pin-balling off defenders and trapping arms into self-positioned barriers.

That’s the league in the image of James Harden.

How referees call Rockets games in the near future, this playoffs and the next few seasons, will determine whether it becomes a reality. It all comes down to whether fouls are called to penalize those trying to gain an unfair competitive advantage or called to reward an unfair competitive advantage. 

What’s at stake? Only an NBA built on the athletic ability warp basketball into free throw parades. 

Clint Johnson

Clint Johnson

Clint Johnson is a professional author, writing educator, and editor. He teaches writing at Salt Lake Community College. A frequent presenter at both writing and educational conferences, he writes about the Jazz as a break from his other writing work.

16 Comments

  1. Dave Cebrero says:

    Shoulder checks isn’t something new man, it’s just part of Harden’s game. Time and time again, defenders try to undercut Harden on his step back threes so he lands on their feet, watch closely next time.

  2. Rob Mac says:

    If the body is 70% water then how are you 100% salt???

  3. Ricky Rubio says:

    He only had 3 free throws in game one. If anyone in the NBA can play this way, they would. I know I would use Harden’s style if I could make 100+ million.

  4. JONATHAN M WILLIAMSON says:

    The reason this article is dumb is because it can’t happen. In order for other teams to play like the Rockets they need a player as good at isoing as James Harden. There are none. And we can go twenty more years and we may never see one. If we do, it might be one or two.

    So yes, this just sounds like sour grapes.

  5. Bob Rumin says:

    Take away all Harden’s free throws this season—every single one of them—and he still leads the NBA in scoring. The only other players to average more than 35 ppg for a season all shot more free throws per game than Harden.

    Harden’s supposed ability to Jedi-mind-tricking the refs into calling fouls, even if it were true, is not what makes him impossible to guard. It’s his intelligence, plain and simple. Throw any defense at him and he’ll counter it within a quarter or two, max.

    Talk all you want about the aesthetics of basketball. For every gazelle like Dr. J, I’ll give you a bulldozer like Shaq. What makes the NBA great isn’t Steph Curry, it’s that not everyone in the entire league plays in a style like Steph Curry.

  6. Donald Becker says:

    I have to think this writer knows what he’s talking about. Anyone who has watched Jerry Sloan coached teams plays obviously knows ugly basketball when he sees it.

  7. Marko says:

    Harden has most FTs because he shoots the most shots and drives the most. It’s called PERCENTAGE. Operating on totals can make any top player look dumb. Look at Harden’s FT rate this year, he is not even in Top 10.

  8. Rick G says:

    The Jazz rooted for a child rapist and have a history of racist fans. No need for sour grapes when you guys are wine barrels of sick.

  9. Jeff Spencer says:

    The Jazz invented flopping in the 90s.

  10. Joey Dorsey says:

    Just be glad that Jazz legend Karl Malone didn’t usher in a new era of impregnating 12-year old girls.

  11. BigB says:

    Haha! So many angry comments! Looks like you touched a nerve with some of these Houston fans. You must be onto something Clint.
    Actually though, this has been going on long before Harden. He was just smart enough to push it a little further. For years now, the refs have been favoring offense. They have allowed offensive players to “create” a foul when they want to. Big guy stands there with his arms up and a guard runs into him- foul on the big guy even when he didn’t do anything. (he’s supposed to keep arms straight up, but if you hit him hard enough, his body moves back a bit. Hands are in the same place, but arms aren’t vertical anymore, so they call foul.) I hate watching it.
    How about all those sweep through fouls they were supposed to get rid off? still happens.
    How about all those Blake Griffen highlight dunks where he puts his forearm into the defender to rise above him, create space and get the foul?
    They are penalizing players for even trying to play D. Hopefully they will start changing things. It might take awhile.

  12. Blade Andrews says:

    Dude, did you really just try to argument-judo yourself into a position that your opponent’s historically incredible offensive skill-and not the resultant ugliness seen in your own team’s defensive ineptitude when encountering that skill- is the problem here?

  13. Uncle Sam's Trench Gun says:

    Tissue? That mascara streaming all down your cheeks is a real mess.

  14. Kay says:

    Sure, maybe the author is sour.
    Sure, maybe Harden gets away with nonsense.
    But, every one of you commenters took this shit personally, and that’s MORE pathetic than shitty refereeing.
    Bunch of disgraces.
    Just shut up if you plan on being an asshole. That goes for me too.

  15. ANC says:

    It is ugly basketball, turns it into a soccer game, but it is a remarkable skill.

  16. ZZ says:

    It’s even uglier when Harden whines and moans because he doesn’t get this preferential treatment on a few plays. I mean, come on.

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