No one can guard James Harden in today’s NBA; he is 100 percent unguardable when hand-checking is illegal, and theatrics are all that is needed to draw a foul call. On Thursday evening he went to the free throw line 25 times in a 100 – 92 victory over the Memphis Grizzlies, and only two of those free throws attempts were due to intentional fouls when the Grizzlies were trying to cut into the Houston Rockets lead. Harden scored 27 points on only two made baskets; that is the most points ever scored on only two made shots. Harden’s ability to get to the line with such frequency is his greatest asset, but will he be able to sustain that play throughout the season and during the playoffs?
Over the last two season’s with Houston, Harden leads the NBA in free throw attempts per game at 9.8 attempts. He gets to the free throw line due to his herky-jerky dribbling, the way he extends the ball out in front of him when he picks up his dribble, and his rare ability to fall down without being touched and make people believe he was hit. Now don’t get me wrong, the whole flopping epidemic has taken over the NBA, Harden isn’t the only player that uses this tactic to his advantage. “Drawing” fouls has become a real skill, a trait that every team needs from at least one player on their roster, so it is no slight at Harden when I say he is the best at making officials believe he was fouled when he wasn’t
The only problem with the way Harden plays is that there are only four players who have ever led the NBA in free throw attempts and won the NBA Championship in the same season: Shaquille O’Neal, Moses Malone, Wilt Chamberlain and George Mikan. All of those players were centers, and not normal centers, they were all before their time in both size and athleticism. Teams fouled those four guys out of necessity, and in Chamberlain’s and O’Neals case they also fouled because those two were horrible free throw shooters. What I read from this statistic is that when wing players who get to the free throw line as frequent as Harden, their teams become reliant on them getting freebies, and their offenses bog down later in the season.
When Kevin Durant led the league in free throw attempts Oklahoma City was out of the playoffs in the first round, same for the Los Angeles Lakers the season Kobe Bryant led the league, Boston made it to the second round when Paul Pierce led the league, and Philadelphia didn’t even make the playoffs the season Allen Iverson led the league in free throw attempts. During the seasons that these wing players led the league in free throw attempts, only Kobe’s team finished above the league average in offensive rating. When an offense if focused solely on one player’s ability to drive the lane and get fouled, they falter in the playoffs. My assumption why is because the officiating gets tighter in the playoffs, thus their are less fouls called. In last year’s playoffs, Harden had a 20-free-throw night, but other than that he was a full free throw attempt below his season average, and that is with him playing two more minutes per game.
Harden is one of the best players in the league. He can score, and is an underrated passer, but his defense is below-average — and that’s putting it nicely. When the playoffs roll around he will have to be able to get buckets, not just attempting to “draw” fouls. On Thursday night there were four straight possessions when he didn’t even attempt to get a shot, his sole focus was getting fouled; he was awarded a foul once, actually fouled once, and twice the ref didn’t blow the whistle. It worked out well for Houston this game, but there has to be more to Harden’s game if the Rockets are going to fulfill their goal of winning an NBA Championship.
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