The James Harden Hangover

Updated: October 26, 2021
harden foul

It seems everywhere Harden goes his franchise feels the need to protect the way he plays. With James’ slow start to the season, much has been made about the rule changes for offensive players initiating contact with non-organic movement. A man who has notoriously been unguardable due to his ability to consistently live at the line game in and game out has looked rather pedestrian these first few in Brooklyn. The most glaring number is of course his 3 free throw attempts a game.

Coach Steve Nash was quoted after the loss to the Hornets “I feel like he’s unfairly become the poster boy of not calling these fouls. Some of them are definitely fouls still.”

James doubled down with, “I’m not the type to complain about it,”…(then filed his public complaint)”I just ask every official [if] they see a foul just call a foul. Sometimes I feel like coming into a game it’s already pre-determined or I already have that stigma of getting foul calls but, I just ask for officials to just call what they see.” 

The entire situation is obviously amplified by the fact that not only does Harden look less explosive and has been unproductive by his usual standards, but the Nets just have not looked good thus far without Kyrie. The assumption by everyone going into the regular season was that Brooklyn had lost their 3rd star, but they still had 2 of the top 10 players in the league, arguably two of the top 5 offensive weapons in the NBA. Well, if defenders become comfortable crowding Harden and no longer fear him tossing his large frame forward or sideways to get himself to the line for 3 free free-throws, will he still be the player he once was? Especially considering that he looks out of shape and dealt with a hamstring injury in the postseason last year and was rumored to do little in the offseason in its recovery the combination of the injury, age, and the rule change may leave this top 10 player looking more a top 20 player.

The biggest concern for KD, Nash, and Brooklyn though should be that James Harden has always been a monster in the regular season, and most likely he’ll figure out the new rule changes and probably focus more on being their primary facilitator. Where Harden has consistently been inconsistent though…is in the postseason. Even with all his weapons, fully healthy, no rule changes, he hasn’t shown up for game 6 or 7 since his young days with KD in OKC. He still can’t walk into a strip club in San Antonio without someone asking to see the Harden Houdini disappearing act. The hope was that, with such a surplus of superstar talent, the lack of pressure would allow Harden to ball out as the 2nd or 3rd option. But with Kyrie sidelined and no indications that he is going to play this season, not only will the wear and tear be extensive on Harden and KD, James will need to be James in the postseason…something we have never seen when it really mattered. 

It’s Not Just Harden

The focus has been Harden and Brooklyn, mostly because they’ve looked like subpar to start the season, but the emphasis on the rule has been seen all around the league. Two players specifically who have continued to try and draw non-organic fouls by flaring their bodies are Trae Young and Steph Curry. Curry specifically has been asked as well about the fouls not being called especially the contact being created out on the perimeter. According to Harden and Nash’s comments, it is the referee’s premeditated intention to highlight these fouls that the new rule is attempting to remove. 

In a way they’re right, some of these fouls are contact created by the defender and the call is not being made on these players. The reason for this though is because these 3 players continue to flare their bodies. Curry has actually been the worst culprit of this, consistently splitting his legs or pushing his hips back after firing off 3 pointers. It hasn’t really affected him, because he so often makes these 3-pointers even with the extra body motion added to the end of the shot. But there have been plays where if he had just taken the shot, the contact created by the defender would’ve been called a foul. 

The eye test suggests the referees have been told something that is a little different from the way the rule is stated. The rule states that contact created by abnormal movement forward or sideways by the offensive shooter, specifically outside the perimeter will result in no-call or an offensive foul depending on how egregious it is. Instead, what they appear to be calling on top of that rule is, if a player obviously flares their body in any way that is outside of their natural shooting motion, even if minor contact is made by the defender after the shot (and it was not created by the abnormal motion, say on the wrist or hand), then the contact will result in a no-call. The unspoken rule is basically stating, “stop flaring, we will not reward it.” Now if Curry splits his legs and throws his hips back, but then gets run over or his landing space is soaked up by a defender’s foot, the call will be made. But if he splits legs, which looks way more ridiculous than I think he actually thinks it looks, even if a defender hits his hand or wrist post shot, the contact will be ignored as a punishment for the flare. 

It is quite transparent what they are doing so it’s hard to imagine that coaching staffs haven’t picked up on it yet. It’s possible that the muscle memory has just been built in so heavily into their 3-point jumper that it’s hard to unprogrammed the body and mind just to shoot. But they will just have to readjust to the new NBA because the basketball is simply better without the constant trips to the line that was so obviously manufactured. This rule and getting rid of the 2-minute replay rule has made for a much better viewing experience and the ratings have been the best since 2017. The hope is that the referees will continue to be constant and carry these changes not only through the season but into the following seasons unlike they did with the flopping fines they only enforced for 6 months.

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