Let me tell you why I don’t like James Harden. It’s certainly nothing personal. I am not the type of fan to dismiss a player on a few interviews or how they carry themselves or their unfortunate choices in facial hair. A player’s demeanor and attitude can go a long way towards enhancing an already high opinion of their athletic ability and transform them from someone I admire into one of my favorite players, but it is rare that the opposite is true. I try and judge and if need be dislike someone on the field of play purely on the merits of their performance. There are exceptions, where by the accretion of ill will and the need to prove time and again that they totally suck I have indeed written a player or two off––ahem, Dwight Howard––I try to keep this a rare occasion in both life and sport. You really have to earn a spot on my shit list when it comes to personality, and Mr. Harden is assuredly not in that swath of the sporting population.
I dislike Harden purely on the content of his game. He is a deadly three point shooter, a fantastic slasher, an above-average passer, and one of the league’s best all-around scorers. Nothing not to like there. But it is the manner in which he can over and over, within the span of even a single game, make you forget about all of that that really puts me out. That’s because his true primary focus on offense, and hell, in his game as a whole, since he has never shown much interest in defense whatsoever, is doing whatever it takes to get to the free throw line. The ability to draw fouls is part of becoming a complete offensive superstar, but in Harden’s case it does not merely accentuate his talents, it sublimates them into afterthoughts. His knack for getting to the line does not underscore his game, it is what his game is all about. Quite frankly James, you look soft son.
He flops, he flails, he sends his arms and legs akimbo, crashing through the lane like an unconscious sky diver, embellishing every single point of contact made on his way towards the hoop, or more usually, the floor. Half the time, it doesn’t even appear he has designs on putting up a shot, but is driving into the teeth of a defense with the single goal of hearing a referee’s whistle sound. He acts as if fouled so often in fact, I don’t believe most refs know whether or not he actually earned a legitimate call. It’s a cheap way to make an NBA living, and to go about your business as a star player. I question a man as the cornerstone of a franchise and as a leader if he earns his buckets acting his way to the stripe and not hitting shots from the field. Not only that, but the way he plays damages the league as a whole, since the NBA has recently solidified to the casual fan its reputation as a game with less and less watch-ability.
The greats have always found a way to get to the line, from Jordan to Shaq (most times unwillingly) to Kobe to LeBron, but it has always been a part of their game, and not its centerpiece.
Harden’s position as the poster boy for the NBA’s flop-first shortcomings is often brought into severe focus by active defenses, as was the case on Saturday night, when the Rockets hosted the dazzling Golden State Warriors. Golden State players were in foul trouble early and often, and visibly showed their frustration with near the same frequency as whistles were blown. Phantom contact and questionable calls haunted their defensive efforts, and though they held the Rockets under 40% from the field and Houston seemingly could not buy a bucket, the Warriors still found themselves in an eight point first half hole.
They were outperforming Houston when the clock was running, but got killed at the line time and again, with baffling foul calls that sent Klay Thompson to the bench with two fouls in the blink of an eye, left Stef Curry laughing in disgust, and let Harden continue to score without any ability in the early going to hit a shot. It made me shudder to think what a playoff series between these teams would look like, and brought up memories of the 2006 NBA Finals, which were competitively dismantled by Dwyane Wade’s knack for failing down on every drive into the lane. The Mavericks watched in awe as their series lead evaporated and Wade’s free throw shooting eventually turned the tide of the championship series in Miami’s favor.
That’s why Harden really burns my toast. He doesn’t just offer up an aesthetically, if not morally lacking form of basketball, he hurts the flow of the game as a whole, creates impossible decisions for referees, and hampers the defensive abilities of what as a whole is a supremely talented defensive league. Instead of a wonderful, up and down, back and forth blur of beautiful basketball, I get feigned attrition and finesse-as-function histrionics wrapped in an ugly looking beard. The cynics can claim what Harden does is within the rules and in fact a brilliant manipulation of the NBA’s status quo, but I didn’t develop a love of sports to be a cynic. I want it to be more than that. I want it to not just entertain me, but delight me. Not only to fill my time, but make that time worthwhile. I want the ballet of basketball performed with grace and tact, not reduced to an ugly grind where I watch one player thrash through a defense and shoot free throws. I don’t want to watch James Harden, that’s for damn sure.