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Is the #HardenFoul on the Brink of Revolutionizing Basketball?

USA Today Sports

USA Today Sports

You’ll witness a #HardenFoul multiple times in any given game for the Houston Rockets: the whistle blows with the referee motioning for two foul shots, and James Harden‘s defender throws his head back and groans in disbelief. The frustration is completely understandable: being on the unlucky end of a call-baiting style of offense that James Harden has mastered, they have received penalty for doing nothing but defending in his vicinity. This is all great for Mr. Harden and the Rockets organization, but the problem is that for everyone else — especially since these fouls have become so abundant — it is a detractor. The #HardenFoul involves referees being manipulated, defenders being unfairly punished, a stalled game, and ultimately provides for a harder-to-watch product.

Scoring in the NBA is a chaotic practice. There are not only many moving parts on both sides of the ball, and huge bodies long limbs in the way; but hot and cold streaks that a scorer will go through, varying abilities of opponents, and countless little decisions and actions the offense can’t prepare for. This is why, for ages, we’ve seen the game’s elite scorers get to the line with regularity. Free throw shooting eliminates all of the noise and allows a player to engage in an action he’s 100% familiar with. The statistics back the free throw’s importance, too, as it consistently rates as one of the highest efficiency plays out there.

But what guys have been doing for ages is nothing like what we’re now seeing with James Harden. Unlike an Adrian Dantley, Harden isn’t a mismatch at every position, nor is he a low-post extraordinaire. Unlike a Michael Jordan, overwhelming athleticism doesn’t make his opponents claw from behind in a desperate attempt to stay with him. A large chunk of James Harden’s free-throw heavy game, rather, is largely based upon flopping and selling contact:

And then we get to his methods where he prioritizes contact and implements innovative tactics to ensure trips to the line. Frequently we will see Harden making a strong move to the hoop, collect himself on a low dribble, and thrust the ball outward before going up for the shot. Naturally, the defenders’ hands get caught in the process:

Are you a defender running back in transition? Don’t dare doing that near Harden, because he’ll smack into you:

And if you put up a hand to be a nuisance, he’ll immediately rise up to draw contact:

All of the above is slowing the game down, victimizing the defenders, and manipulating the referees, but what does it amount to for James himself? He actually has a rather unimpressive shotchart:

Shotchart_1397669945203

And yet, has managed to be 5th in the league in points per game, 5th in shooting efficiency (TS%), 4th in offensive win shares, and 9th in offensive rating.  It is because he’s shooting free throws at a near-historic level, and sinking them at a high rate, that any of his accomplishments are possible. Here we can see his numbers compared to some of the top free throw shooters ever, in terms of volume:

FTr update

Harden’s career FTr is right up there with Adrian Dantley, and it will only climb as he adds new tricks to the bag, further solidifies his presence as a superstar, and naturally improves as a player (for any NBA fans who want to watch uninterrupted games, you may want to get a head start on crossing Houston off of your list).

mySynergySports.com also depicts James Harden as an outlier, clear as day (note: SF denotes shooting foul):

’14 James Harden – %SF: 13; Post-Up%: 3.3; Post-Up %SF: 5.4

’14 Kevin Durant – %SF: 10.4; Post-Up%: 9.1; Post-Up %SF: 12.9

’14 LeBron James – %SF: 9.5; Post-Up%: 14.1; Post-Up %SF: 11.2

’14 Carmelo Anthony – %SF: 7.9; Post-Up%: 20.1; Post-Up %SF: 9.8

’10 Kobe Bryant – %SF: 8.8; Post-Up%: 19.4; Post-Up %SF: 10.3

’10 Dwyane Wade – %SF: 11.4; Post-Up%: 6; Post-Up %SF: 12.9

Compared to fellow superstars, Harden is awarded foul shots on a larger percentage of his possessions than anyone else — by a comfortable margin — and he’s the only one using not using post-ups to get these shots. This is especially impressive, because post-ups invite contact by the defense, and nabbing good positioning in these situations forces fouls to be committed.

Here’s what’s interesting: Harden doesn’t possess a single physical attribute that the above players don’t, or boast a skill they can’t attain. Does it not seem plausible that with the correct application of his foul-seeking tactics, these stars could, or could have, had even more control of the referees and their scoring? To me, it is downright frightening to think of an all-time offensive force taking the time to appreciate Harden’s brilliance in the foul-drawing field and engaging in his antics.

Players’ games are built off of their predecessors, and that means that young athletes watching Harden are out there right now practicing his moves. Furthermore, basketball analytics and coaching teams’ are seeing dramatic growth by each day; we can only expect them to be on top of “what works”. Teams advocating for their guys to partake in #HardenFoul-inducing behaviors only seems like a smart move to be making with how the game is being officiated right now. That is, if it stays that way.

It’s a big if, given that Harden has referees wrapped around his little finger, and this will likely worsen on a wider scale. The league also deeply cares about its product’s watchability. Remember: Charles Barkley‘s lengthy back-downs, Wilt Chamberlain‘s offensive goaltends, and Reggie Miller‘s shot-kicks were once legal, too. #HardenFouls might possess the power to change the entire scope of what constitutes a foul, and for as painful as James Harden can make games to watch, that is darn worthy of some praise.

*Statistical support from Basketball-Reference unless otherwise specified.

  • highlife

    I think Harden is emulating the ones that came before: Dwyane Wade’s foul-drawing performance in the 2006 Finals was epic and lasted the entire series. Harden is hardly the first to prioritize contact above finishing the play. Lebron and Wade have been doing this seemingly forever, where countless defenders “have received penalty for doing nothing but defending in [their] vicinity”.

  • MDMH1787

    It is not clear to me exactly of what Harden is being accused. Having watched about 80 Rockets’ games I can attest that he does sometimes flop and also sometimes gets “superstar” calls that others do not get. That said, as the article notes, he also drives the lane with the ball low and in front of him and people hack his arms going for the ball.

    There is a solution to the first problem — better officiating in general and an effort to stop pro-star/pro-offense foul calling. There is no solution to the second problem — which boils down to Harden gets hit on the wrist/elbow/bicep all the time driving the lane because of where he places the ball. Those were fouls before James Harden, are fouls now, and should be fouls in the future. What is the other solution? Make it legal to smack people on the arm if the ball is waist level or lower? Further, everyone in the league is currently free to try this gambit but you have to hold on to the ball or it ends as a steal.

    Finally, I will admit there is some synergy between the superstar calls and the “hit on the arm while driving” calls, but, again, the solution to the problem that Harden sometimes gets bailed out when the defender hit the ball not his forearm, is to have better officiating.

  • J Rich

    Harden is a billionaire’s Kevin Martin. Either take the open long ball, or drive and draw contact. That was Kevin Martin’s entire value, and Harden is a smarter, more athletic version of the same M.O.

    The tone of the article comes off as a complaint about Harden. Aren’t his Eurostep and propensity to draw so much contact while still putting up shots with a chance to go in skills within themselves? If (as the post implies) every superstar could drive at will, often draw a foul, keep possesion of the ball, put up a shot with a chance to make the shot, and bury 90% of their free throws, more stars would do that.

  • http://brgulker.wordpress.com/ brgulker

    This comes across as a couple thousand words of butthurt, to be perfectly honest.

  • Dodgson

    Harden is doing nothing different than what Kobe or Wade (two players on your list) do. Paul Pierce does the same thing. How many times have you watched one of those three players ball fake and then jump into a person for the sole purpose of getting a foul? Blaming Harden for this is just ludicrous, those three had perfected this art-form long ago.

  • Drew

    Yeah, Harden has quickly become my least favorite player to watch in the league because so many of his moves are designed entirely into getting the refs to call a foul. Not to mention he gets away with more travels than anyone else, is an established flopper, and is atrocious at defense.

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