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The Case Against James Harden (a Fire Joe Morgan-Inspired Response)

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On April 18th, Doug Robinson, a columnist for Deseret News, a Utah paper, wrote a piece about James Harden.

It was bad.

Our writers, Bryan Oringher and Aqib Gazi, grew up fans of a website called Fire Joe Morgan. Fire Joe Morgan, or FJM as it was called, was a baseball blog designed to critically analyze atrocious baseball takes, many of them by the legendary Joe Morgan. The site evolved into taking aim at pretty much all bad sportswriting period. Its main writer went by the pseudonym “Ken Tremendous,” who eventually revealed himself to be Michael Schur, the award-winning creator behind The Office, Parks and Rec, and The Good Place. In fact, when Bryan was 14, he wrote in to a Joe Morgan live chat with a question for Joe. Joe’s response ended up getting the FJM treatment. FJM no longer exists, sadly. So we decided to revive it in spirit to let “DeseretDoug” know our thoughts on his column. You’ll see Doug’s words in plain text below–our response is in bold, FJM style!

SALT LAKE CITY — I hate to rain on the James Harden parade, but …

OK good. So just stop here. Everyone will be better off. 

I’m going to do it anyway.

Ugh. No. Noooo. It feels like this will be a mistake.

Harden, the Houston Rockets’ guard who’s tormenting the Utah Jazz at the moment, plays an ugly brand of basketball.

If Michael Jordan’s game was a symphony, Harden’s is two guys banging on garbage cans.

Oy. The tired “ugly brand of basketball” tropes. Sigh. Heard it before. Will hear it again. It’s stupid. Quin Snyder said this:

 
Almost every coach in the league has raved about Harden. His unbelievable floor vision. His incredible scoring ability. His improved defense. But Doug Robinson, a writer who hasn’t tweeted since 2015, thinks Harden plays an ugly brand of ball. Let’s let him elaborate more to find out why! 

Yes, he averaged 36 points a game this season; only Wilt Chamberlain and Michael Jordan have done better.

Yes! This seems to support the obvious conclusion that Harden is f***ing amazing at basketball! We like where this is headed! 
And he’s killing the Jazz. Through two games in their first-round playoff series — which the Rockets have won by a combined 52 points — he has 61 points.
Yes! He is crushing your home town Utah Jazz! That couldn’t possibly have anything to do with your distaste for him, could it?
 
But we’re glad that you are touting his accolades. It seems like you’re starting to come around to a sane viewpoint…

But Harden is a gimmick. Actually, lots of gimmicks. His game is a basketball sleight of hand.

Oh. Oh no. 
It’s as if he’s getting away with something — the (uncalled) traveling violations, that obnoxious stepback jumper
The traveling violations that are in fact very frequently not travels, as the former head of officiating has explained many times?
Ronnie Nunn, a former director of N.B.A. officials, has emerged as a kind of defender of Harden’s step-back, which many people see as a travel. It is a travel, sometimes, Nunn told me, when he does “a double step-back.” But, most of the time, Harden’s carefully calibrated move is legal. “Calling travel is about a dance,” Nunn said. “Once you understand the rhythm of it, you can determine whether it’s legal or not. It’s really not about counting steps anymore once you see it. Just know the rhythm.” Harden’s rhythm, as Nunn has described it, is 0-1-2: “A waltz.” I always thought that the rhythm of the step-back was a kind of salsa. I showed videos of Harden’s step-back to Laura Stein, of the Dancing Grounds dance school in New Orleans. She thought that it resembled hip-hop footwork, with its wide step and change of direction, “like a top-rock in breakdancing.”
 
Or the obnoxious stepback jumper, which is what he purportedly travels on according to gather step truthers?
 
Which is it? These are the same ridiculous thing. They should not be listed as two separate things.
and a variety of other questionable moves that magically get him from Point A to Point D after he’s given up the dribble
A to D? How did we get here? That seems like quite the leap. Also, this is a third way of you describing that you incorrectly think he travels all the time. There are no other questionable moves that get him anywhere. There is the step-back. When he does a double step back (very rarely), it’s illegal. When he does it normally, it’s not.
, the constant dribbling, the fouls he intentionally draws or fakes, the too-frequent trips to the free-throw line,
The fouls he intentionally draws? That seems like a good idea, to us. The 3 best shots in basketball are layups, corner 3’s, and free throws. If you can intentionally draw free throws, seems like something you should be doing. The fouls he fakes? What does that mean, exactly? Are they the fouls he intentionally draws (by taking advantage of illegal contact on him on the perimeter, for example)? Or is he faking fouls? How does one fake a foul? And the too-frequent trips to the free throw line is now, once again, the third way of saying the exact same thing. Doug really likes 3’s!
 the isolation game in which his underused teammates spread the court and watch with the rest of the fans while Harden does his thing. Fun.
Underused teammates? Those same teammates who Harden had 20 assists to in the first couple games? The same Kenneth Faried who went from being exiled in BKN to playing playoff minutes for HOU? The same Clint Capela who went from a late 1st round pick to a max-contract roll man with Harden? The Eric Gordon who was considered a disappointment and on the downswing of his career until he found Nirvana in Houston? Austin Rivers, who was abysmal for the abysmal Wizards this year and then the PHOENIX SUNS decided they’d rather pay him not to even play for them? Danuel House, who was in the G-League like 5 minutes ago? PJ Tucker, who was a dirty things undersized big man like Chuck Hayes before he became a Redick-esque, best corner 3 shooter in the league with Harden? Those teammates?!

And yes, in case you were keeping track at home, THAT WAS ALL ONE SENTENCE. Here it is again:
It’s as if he’s getting away with something — the (uncalled) traveling violations, that obnoxious stepback jumper and a variety of other questionable moves that magically get him from Point A to Point D after he’s given up the dribble, the constant dribbling, the fouls he intentionally draws or fakes, the too-frequent trips to the free-throw line, the isolation game in which his underused teammates spread the court and watch with the rest of the fans while Harden does his thing. Fun.
It begins with Doug out on a mission to convince himself that Harden is actually fooling everyone, and he then proceeds to name about 3 different things but say each of them 5 different ways in a rambling, incoherent mess of a sentence that opens with a — that never closes and eventually just runs itself into a wall. Fun.
Yes, that behemoth of a sentence does just end with “Fun.”
Earlier this month, Don MacLean, the TV commentator for the Clippers, finally had enough of watching the Bearded One.

“This style, what Harden does, is manipulating the game somehow,” he began. “Almost like cheating it somehow. And I don’t really have a thought beyond that other than I’m watching something that isn’t basketball. To me, basketball is player movement, ball movement, designed plays. Not just a guy walking it up and isolating every time … who else could do this? It’s not like that within the system, he’s getting all these numbers. The system is built for him.”

Don MacLean did say this. Don MacLean was roasted at the time for saying it. Don MacLean was dumb. Who else could do this? No one else could do this. That’s the point, and why Harden is so amazing. He won MVP and averaged 12 assists a game playing the Steve Nash role in a spread PNR system. So teams started switching everything. So he developed his isolation game to such an absurd extent that no one can dare stop him there either. And if by some miracle they do stay in front of him, he developed the most lethal shot since MJ’s post fade-away or Kareem’s skyhook in the step-back. It’s a cheat code. Unguardable. And then teams like UTA were too sick of him even iso’ing all day that they decided to try a GIMMICK defense of literally opening up and forcing Harden to his far inferior right hand. And Harden has STILL massacred them relentlessly. He’s a genius. He’s Mozart.

It was built for him by Houston coach Mike D’Antoni, whose coaching philosophy, roughly translated, is: Give the ball to James and get the heck out of the way. It’s not terribly complex. Or fun to watch.

Mike D’Antoni, the same guy who made Steve Nash into a 3X MVP, made Jeremy Lin tens of millions of dollars, made Chris Duhon look occasionally competent…THAT Mike D’Antoni?! The credited modern day inventor of the spread PNR? Who took a Harden who played mostly off the ball and was an All-Star and transformed him into a perennial MVP candidate and point guard? 

I’m not saying Harden isn’t talented; I’m saying he has the ugliest game since Adrian Dantley. It was excruciating to watch Dantley. His bump and grind game was basketball’s version of rope a dope and he still has claim to Ugliest Game Ever. (Karl Malone’s postup-hammerfest game merits mention, too.)

Great. Seems perfectly logical to drag Adrian Dantley and Karl Malone (two HOFers by the way) thru the mud, while we’re here. At least we’re not being an old school “get off my lawn” biased hater and distributing it equally across generations.

What’s wrong with Harden’s game? Glad you asked.

NO ONE ASKED YOU, DOUG. LITERALLY NO ONE.

In playground parlance, he’s a ball hog, with the coach’s blessing.

In playground parlance, no. Already debunked the ball hog myth here:

The Rockets took an average of 87.4 shots per game this season; Harden accounted for 24.5 of them and that was while playing only three quarters of a game on an average night.
Gotta love how playing three quarters of a game here is either meant as a dig or as a “He’s shooting so much without even playing that much!”, when he’s second in the league with 36.8 MPG. How dare he play ONLY three quarters of the game?!!
 He took 1,909 shots during the regular season — 225 more than his nearest rival.
Technically factual.

There’s a statistic that tracks the amount of time the ball is in a player’s hands, as well as a lot of other excruciatingly esoteric data. Harden touches the ball an average of 87 times per game. The ball is in his possession 9 minutes and 20 seconds, averaging 6.4 seconds per touch — the most in the league.

Their ORTG is 116.25, 2nd in the league to GSW. There is no correlation between number of passes and offensive efficiency or scoring. Passing just to pass does nothing. You may not love watching it, but it works.
Remember, he plays an average of 36 minutes per game, which means he’s on the bench 12 minutes (or one quarter of a game)
Again, he actually plays 36.8 MPG. And again somehow sitting out just over 11 MPG here seems to be used as a dig on Harden. But at least Doug is good at reminding us that 36 minutes is equal to 3 quarters which is equal to not playing one of the quarters which lasts 12 minutes. We keeping up? Ok good.
, and he plays defense about half of those 36 minutes. That means that during the 18 minutes he is on offense, the ball is in his hands more than half the time.
Not necessarily true. Of the 36 minutes, Houston could have the ball for 10 minutes. This isn’t remotely scientific. Teams play at different paces and they don’t each control the ball for an equal amount of time. Some teams play fast and take a ton of shots, some teams play slow. But we don’t need to get into nuance here, I guess.

It is revealing that 87 percent of Harden’s field goals were unassisted — the highest in the league except for Harden’s teammate, Chris Paul. Most teams stress passing and minimal dribbling; not the Rockets. Even LeBron James, who insists on having the ball in his hands, checks in at only 65.9 in unassisted field goals.

Hmm…maybe him not getting assisted field goals has something to do with teams defending him by face guarding him to half court to not let him touch the ball again and being willing to instead play 4-on-4 and eschew any help defensive principles because they’re so paranoid about Harden?
LeBron James likes to dribble the ball as well. He gets more assisted field goals because he’s not nearly the shooter that Harden is, and so when he’s spotting up teams don’t play with their back to the action and insist on not letting him touch the ball. Also, checking “in at only 65.9 in unassisted field goals” feels like it’s missing something like this: %

Now let’s look at usage rate — the percentage of plays that end with a player taking a field goal or free throw or committing a turnover. Harden led the league at 39.5 percent, and it wasn’t even close. James was 30.9 percent, Russell Westbrook 30.1 percent.

Ok. Technically true. Usage rate calculated plays that end with a field goal, free throw, or turnover. Got it. 3 things. FG. FT. TO. Easy enough. Field Goals. Free Throws. Turnovers. I got this. 
None of the above even accounts for the other big part of Harden’s game: free throws.
DOUG!
Harden is famous for getting to the line, and he’s crafted ingenious (if illegal) means to get there when he wants to (there is no shortage of video on YouTube that show him hooking defenders so it looks like they foul him — when he isn’t flopping like a tuna on the court).
We already discussed this, Doug. Stop repeating yourself.

Since joining the Rockets seven years ago he’s averaged a league-leading 10.2 free throws per game. Almost one-third (30.3 percent) of his points come from the foul line. During those seven years he has attempted 6,635 free throws — 1,661 more than runner-up Westbrook.

Hmm. You have to wonder if maybe this is a good thing that everyone would be copying if they were good enough to do so.

Finally, let’s look at his defense. There’s a statistic called defensive rating, which quantifies a player’s performance on the other end of the court.

That’s not really what defensive rating is, Doug. Defensive rating is literally the points per possession the team allows on defense. Individual defensive rating is the points per possession the team allows when you’re on the court. Defense, as you may know, requires 5 men and basketball is a 5 man sport. Individual defensive rating is a terrible, horrendous stat no one should ever use.
He ranked 385th this season. Harden plays “matador” defense.
Doug used it, to draw this ridiculous conclusion.
He allowed 12.8 points per game off his turnovers — 10th worst in the league.
*SPITS WATER ALL OVER MYSELF* 
I (Bryan) worked for NBA teams for 7 years. I worked high D1 college for 2 years. That’s almost 10 years of working in basketball at the highest levels.
I have no earthly idea where these stats are from.
I have never in my life seen someone attempt to assign points per game off turnovers to an individual defensively. Why? Because it’s nonsensical.
Harden turns the ball over. He sprints back and flies around the court. Clint Capela is tired and walks back. His man gets a dunk. Is that counted against James Harden?
No one uses individual points off TO’s allowed. I don’t believe it is even tracked, and if it is tracked it is certainly not meant to be used like this.
 He allowed 11.2 points per game off fast breaks, seventh worst in the league.
Ditto.
 He allowed 10.4 second-chance points, sixth worst in the league.
Ditto and also LOLOLOL WHAT?
How can you assign second-chance points to any one individual??
Harden’s man takes a shot. He misses. The center underneath gets a putback dunk. Is that on Harden?? Or is it when the big man misses the putback dunk, Harden’s man crashes, and slams it back in himself? Either way, it seems like an impossible thing to track, even by a human given how subjective it is. I am 99.9% positive there is no accurate formula or tracking data that does actually track this and use it how Doug uses it here.

The pro-Harden camp can point to the Rockets’ winning record (53-29) and fourth-place finish in the Western Conference.

Yes, they can indeed point to the Rockets being amazingly successful. That seems important. They can also maybe point to his MVP contention or scoring title or his league leading 15.2 win shares or league leading VORP or league leading Box plus/minus… the list goes on and on.  
They’ve got a point, although it is highly unlikely a one-man performance can carry the Rockets to the NBA Finals. Either way, it’s not the way basketball was supposed to be played, and it isn’t fun to watch.
Nobody asked you, Doug.

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About Aqib Gazi

Aqib was born and raised in the great city of Houston, TX. He grew up a Rockets fan and his favorite player growing up was Steve Francis. Aqib graduated from the University of Houston in 2017 and covers the Houston Rockets for TLSM.

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