James Harden's been flopping for years without any consequence. This year, the NBA finally did something about it, and Harden's numbers have vividly gone down. While the Beard's been blaming his poor performances on the hamstring injury he suffered on June 5th (yep, the one that happened five months ago,) here are his free throw attempts and points scored until tonight's game in Chicago.
Source: Basketball Reference
The Chicago game
As you can see, the last game against the Raptors was the first one in which Harden had single-digit free throw attempts and dropped over 20. Was his story that his game wasn't built in part on bulls**t free throws correct, and the hamstring injury caused a poor start of the season? Doesn't seem so. With 3/3 from the free-throw line, Harden posted a disappointing 14/8/5, shooting 4/11 from the floor last night. The game can be summed up as Harden's quest for a foul call, which he celebrated with the entire bench once it finally happened.
I've got no problem with the call - I do with the ironic celebration. This was a legit foul, and Harden is right when he says defenders have been getting away with fouls like this since the season began. I'll even go one further and say there was at least one none call that should've been a foul. It's basically the same situation like the one above.
The problem with Harden's reaction is the fact he's pretending like we haven't been watching basketball for the past few years. Even if we weren't, The Beard started the game with a patented insult to everyone's intelligence, and thankfully, got called for a foul on this play.
So were there a few calls Harden should've got and didn't? Absolutely. But I'm finding it hard to feel sorry for the guy who went against the spirit of the game because it was "analytically justified" and got so many free throws by foul bating and flopping. When I think of James Harden, this is what I see.
The Đoković principle
Why do I think Harden's drop in free throws is more significant than most people think? It's not just the apparent drop in scoring. There's a more profound impact this is having on the issue he's talked about - being in 100% shape. Tennis fans know it as the Đoković principle.
Novak Đoković plays a physically demanding brand of defensive tennis. Basically, the idea is to return everything you throw at him until your spleen and lungs give up. That style of play comes with an apparent challenge - Đoković has to be in better shape than all the other top tennis players in the world, and things might get ugly for him if the match goes the distance. That's why many players have complained that Novak often fakes injuries to get longer breaks during matches. They see it as an unsportsmanlike, dirty way to mitigate the downside of the style of play Đoković is playing.
Another thing Đoković always did was to take an annoyingly long time between points. It got so bad that a rule players can take a maximum of 25 seconds between points has been empowered with a shot clock visible on the court and much stricter enforcement. Sounds familiar?
James Harden's never been known for offseason workout videos. He's more in the strip club/Paris fashion week group. People were predicting his lifestyle will catch up with Harden for a long time, and I think we're seeing that this season. The free throws thing has a catalytic effect on this. Harden's game and body are an indicator of his cardio vs. lifting preference. Everyone who played him will tell you the man is as strong as a bull, but the only thing you have to do to get rid of him is run Harden through a screen. One usually does the trick.
So the lack of free throws is his version of Đoković losing all the minutes he wasted between points. It's less rest for a man who's never been in tremendous cardio shape. Remember how Harden often vanished in the fourth quarters of big games in the Playoffs? Last night's game was determined in the fourth, which the Bulls dominated 42 - 17. If you look at the play-by-play for that quarter, you'll find two James Harden entires. "James Harden misses 26-foot three point pullup jump shot" and "James Harden misses 25-foot three point jumper."
Harden's five-month return from a Grade 2 hamstring strain and his adaptation to the new (sensible) way the game is being called both have the same solution. It can be the treadmill, elliptical, peloton, or swimming. Maybe swap a gentleman's club visit with a good night's sleep once in a while.
Harden won't get the extra time outs standing on the free-throw line as much as he's used to, and the champagne miles are starting to show. Like with everyone else, Father Time is undefeated. Let's see how James Harden responds.