As the Houston Rockets were pulling off a surprising 112–97 playoff win against the Los Angeles Lakers on Friday, MSNBC’s Chris Hayes posed an interesting—if loaded—question.
Less a backhanded compliment than a fronthanded insult, Hayes’ query presumes that James Harden—the 2018 NBA MVP, a three-time scoring champion, arguably the best offensive player of all time according to Rockets general manager Daryl Morey—is a force for basketball evil, or at least extreme basketball boredom. Whether this is even true has been a matter of frequent debate ever since Harden evolved from plucky Oklahoma City Thunder sixth man to Rockets superstar, but both pro- and anti-Beard camps can agree that his playing style is rather, erm, unique.
You’ll often hear about a team assuming the identity of its star player, but with Harden this transaction happened in reverse. After getting traded from the Thunder to the analytically driven Rockets in 2012, he grew to embody Houston’s ethos. Part basketball team, part management consultancy, the Rockets covet efficiency and pursue it ruthlessly. Three-pointers and free throws—the highest-value scoring plays in the game—are Harden’s bread and butter, and the man scarfs down a whole lot of carbs and dairy. He’s led the NBA in 3-point attempts in each of the last three seasons, and he’s led the league in free throw attempts since 2014–15. He’s also remarkably adept at combining the two, and no one in NBA history has converted more 4-point plays or drawn more shooting fouls from behind the arc than he.
Critics of Harden’s game will cite this stultifying cavalcade of foul shots, while his defenders assert that it’s not his fault he gets fouled. Though, to be fair, he wants to get fouled. Why wouldn’t he? Free throws are some of the valuable shots in the game, and you can’t lead the league in scoring if you avoid the foul line. It’s why so much of Harden’s game is focused on careening into the lane and flailing his arms at the first sign of contact. And then there’s the way he routinely baits defenders into overplaying him as he lines up shots from deep. All it takes is a slight reach-in and—yep, you guessed it—more flailing.
These tactics are incredibly effective as a vehicle for scoring, but they don’t work as spectacle or as a personal branding exercise. When your style of play relies on getting help from the referees, is it really even your style of play? Harden is like a magician who comes onstage with a band saw, a ring of fire, and a cage full of doves and then spends the entire show pulling nickels out of people’s ears. It’s annoying.
The truth is that Harden does deploy the saw and the fire and the doves. His foul-drawing is just so irksome that it overshadows the effortless style he can bring to the game.
James Harden is a 6-foot-5 sharpshooter with point guard skills. He has incredible handles and is a wonderful passer, especially in the pick and roll. He averaged 7.5 assists during the regular season, which is an impressive feat considering:
• The Rockets don’t pass the ball that often. During the regular season, 19.6 percent of their possessions were isolation plays. This was the highest mark in the league by far. (Portland came in second, but only 9.9 percent of their possessions were in isolation.)
• Houston traded away center Clint Capela, Harden’s favorite pick-and-roll partner, in February to pursue its “microball” experiment. The Rockets toss far fewer alley-oops now, but, in the words of head coach Mike D’Antoni, at least Harden’s teammates can still touch the rim.
Harden’s passing skills are so underappreciated that a few months ago a large swath of the basketball-watching public went wild over a Luka Doncic between-the-legs assist even though the Rockets man has been using it as a go-to move for years. Still, when not orchestrating the pick and roll, viewers can expect a typical Harden play to transpire in one of three ways:
1. Harden dribbles behind the arc and chews up the shot clock before launching a step-back 3-pointer. According to ESPN’s Anthony Olivieri, Harden alone took more step-back 3s (584) in 2019–20 than any other team in the NBA.
2. Harden dribbles behind the arc and chews up the shot clock before driving into the lane to get fouled (or complain about not getting a foul call).
3. Harden dribbles behind the arc and chews up the shot clock before firing a pass to a teammate (who is also standing behind the arc).
Personally, I am a Harden apologist. Seeing him operate within the constraints of his team’s offense is like watching a brainiac go to work on a Rubik’s Cube. There are only so many ways to approach the problem, but the precision and speed with which they approach it is astonishing. Sometimes, they even do it with their feet. (The cubers, not Harden.) (Thank God.)
But what about Chris Hayes’ question? Even if we grant that, to many, Harden is not that fun to watch, there are still plenty of players who were as great (or better) in their respective sports while providing less entertainment value. Pete Sampras is a good candidate (and one that came up frequently in Hayes’ replies), as is someone like Evander Holyfield, who was a chore to watch when he wasn’t getting his ear bitten off.
You can also get pedantic with the question. Any offensive lineman in the NFL Hall of Fame fits the bill. For those who find curling boring, four-time Tim Hortons Brier gold medalist Kevin Martin would be an acceptable answer. Who’s the best race walker? (I don’t feel like Googling it, but that’s a free one for you.)
In a way, Hayes’ question only works within the context of basketball. Aesthetics aren’t a metric that can be fairly translated across sports, but they’re of outsize importance in the NBA. Hence the fact that Harden’s style is his substance. In basketball, there’s no separating the art from the artist.
Also, the answer is Karl Malone. He was the worst.