Why We Can't Let James Harden Off the Hook

Why We Can’t Let James Harden Off the Hook

Something historic happened with James Harden last night. What it was cannot and should not be explained in overly-dramatic terms or with ad hominem attacks, but it needs to be explained nonetheless. It’s on us to do it.

 

We are in a golden age of basketball media. The culture of analytical thinking—and yes, analytical thinking can and does apply to more than stats—across the field has elevated our discussions so far beyond hot takes and blanket statements, even if those aren’t totally extinct.

We are smarter about the game than we used to be. We know when players are actually playing well and when they are not. We know the mechanisms by which they are succeeding, or those by which they are failing. We may not always know why, but we can get closer to that answer than ever before.

We don’t know why James Harden had arguably the worst outing of his career in a must-win Game 6 at home with his team at full strength and Kawhi Leonard sidelined. As much as it looked like he didn’t care, that he didn’t want it or that he quit, we know better. Not that we know that to be untrue, but we have no evidence to support it.

We should disprove all other explanations, starting with the most likely (he was exhausted, the Spurs played excellent defense, his teammates played poorly) and progressing to the less likely (he was injured, he was sick, he was concussed, he responded poorly to the pressure), before we go to the least likely (he wasn’t ready to play, he wasn’t focused, he didn’t care).

We do need to ask this question, though. As much as the hot take-rejecting culture has improved basketball analysis overall, saying it has improved it in every regard would be a blanket statement.

Last night and this morning, my twitter feed was overflowing with brilliant basketball writers and thinkers trying to normalize Harden’s performance. “Why do we tear down the Rockets instead of crediting the Spurs?” “Harden had a bad night. It happens.” “One bad game does not undo 82 great ones.”

In fairness, these are almost all responses to absurd takes that are floating around twitter and the rest of the internet. Because I mostly follow people who are smart about basketball and spend minimal time looking at mentions, I see far more defensive responses than I do the offensive comments they are in response to.

Even so, the energy being poured into defending Harden against the idiots of the twittersphere is disproportionate to the value of those idiots’ comments. Moreover, it is distracting great basketball minds from coming together around a very important question:

What the f*** happened with James Harden last night?

Explaining away bad performances as results of good defense, bad matchups, fatigue and randomness is the right approach 99 percent of the time. But we are doing our analytical minds a disservice if we go off the cuff and apply those tried-and-true explanations to Harden’s Game 6, before we make sure that’s what actually happened in Harden’s Game 6.

If there is a one percent, or even a 0.1 percent of performances that can’t be explained in those typical ways, this is in that category. The take that this was the most perplexing showing from a superstar since LeBron James’ final game in Cleveland before The Decision may be hot, but it isn’t wrong. This was historic.

Much of Harden’s statline can be explained away, sure. He only shot six free throws, which is most likely a result of great Spurs defense and playoff officiating. He only went 2-of-9 from three, but guys can have bad shooting nights, especially when isolating a high-variance category of shots (this applies to all threes, but even more so to the kind Harden takes). He had six turnovers, but that is not uncommon for Harden (he averaged 5.7 in the regular season and 5.4 in the playoffs). He had only seven assists (he averaged 11.1 this year), but his teammates made 20 shots all game (Rockets not named Harden shot 30.3 percent from the field).

Some numbers are harder to explain. Harden fouled out for the first time all year. He had only three rebounds, after grabbing 10 in the previous game. Guards tend to see their rebounding numbers fluctuate game-to-game, but Harden spent most of this game at the 4.

Most confounding of all was his 11 shot attempts. He only made two, but even if he made zero, 11 shots rarely makes any sense from James Harden in this offense. It certainly didn’t make sense on a night where his passes were off the mark, his teammates weren’t hitting, and his team was down big. There is no way to explain away 11 shot attempts from the most gifted three-level scorer this side of Golden State as the result of good defense or variance.

Therefore, we need to figure out why this happened, or at least form a best guess.

My personal hypothesis? Harden was gassed beyond a normal level. My evidence? Circumstantially, he became the Spurs go-to post defender of LaMarcus Aldridge after Nene went down early in Game 4. He did a fantastic job for two games, but he is not used to that type of defensive burden. Combine that with the overtime Game 5, the 2,947 minutes he played during the regular season (the most this side of Tom Thibodeau) and the 34.2 percent usage rate (highest of anyone still playing), and the assertion is worth pursuing.

Then there’s the hard evidence. The season high in fouls. The season low in made field goals, and the playoff low in field-goal attempts. The three rebounds, the seven assists, the six free throws; even the more defensible numbers become suspect when they are all viewed together at once.

There’s also the eye test. If we can look at a bad game and explain it through analyzing coverages, matchups, decision-making, etc, we can also look at it and say: That dude looked like he had nothing in the tank from the opening tip. It’s weird, but that’s what the tape says.

The eye test can lie, numbers can be misleading, and it is dangerous to draw connections from past events to present outcomes. But by using all available information and observation to try and figure out what happened on the basketball court last night and why, my best guess is that Harden had absolutely no energy.

To simply leave it there, however, is a disservice to basketball analysis. Players have been gassed before, but it is exceedingly rare that fatigue takes this significant a toll on an all-world player on such a massive stage.

When it does happen, it is our job to figure out why and learn from it. Stephen Curry had nothing left for Game 7 of last year’s Finals, and we determined that Tyronn Lue’s strategy of making him work on defense and grabbing him off ball, as well as his sprained MCL, were major factors in that.

Those who came away from that game thinking that Curry was “exposed,” or a fraud, or that his MVP season was invalidated, were wrong. They were dumb, at least about basketball. Those saying similar things about Harden are equally incorrect and ignorant.

But we did learn from Curry’s clunker. For Golden State brass, it reinforced their belief that they needed a wing scorer to alleviate Curry’s burden. For opposing teams this season, it gave them a path to defending him slightly better. For media members and basketball thinkers, it led us to reconsider whether or not Curry was actually the best player in the NBA, as most of us believed up until last year’s finals.

This game raises real and fair questions on Harden. If he was physically incapable of harnessing the energy needed to compete, and it wasn’t injury-related, Houston needs to determine whether or not they can continue to give him the same level of usage next season. Opposing teams need to determine whether or not you can wear down the Rockets small-ball lineup by posting up Harden all the time.

Basketball analysts, even—and in fact especially—the rational, deep-thinking ones, need to consider this performance and how it impacts Harden’s place in the NBA hierarchy. We cannot spill out hundreds of thousands of words on the extreme minutiae of a regular-season MVP race, and then simply brush off an historically-awful performance in the biggest game any of our MVP candidates have played in thus far this season. This was more than “just one game.” If we continue to react this way, we are putting proving people wrong on twitter over providing objective—and important—analysis of the game.