But just as Harden skillfully incites contact on his way to the basket, he magnetically draws nitpickers off the court. The loudest, and longest-standing, complaints center on his parades to the free-throw line, his postseason shortcomings, his happy feet, and his inattentive defense. But his solo act is now drawing scrutiny of a different kind.
“The James Harden [highlights] are cool and all, but we really need to be teaching kids how to pass and catch,” Rebecca Lobo, the Connecticut women’s legend and ESPN analyst, mused on Twitter. “And pass. And catch. And get teammates open. And pass. And pass.”
Harden’s defenders quickly retorted that he averages 8.2 assists (top five in the NBA) and 53.5 passes (top-20), and that Houston is second in offensive efficiency (entering Saturday). Indeed, his willingness to pass and his ability to single-handedly carry an elite attack sets him apart from the likes of Bryant and Carmelo Anthony, scorers whose peak individual feats often came at the expense of teammates.
But those numbers do not constitute a convincing defense. Lobo wasn’t accusing Harden of ball-hogging, she was singing the praises of ball movement and player movement — eternal basketball virtues. It’s perfectly reasonable to argue that it’s unhealthy for a team to depend so heavily on a single player. Just ask the 2016-17 Oklahoma City Thunder, who were eventually swallowed up by the Russell Westbrook black hole.
Houston’s stagnant style is inarguable. The Rockets rank 28th in assists and 29th in passes. Harden recently scored 57, 58 and 48 in consecutive January games, and none of his 47 field goals in that stretch were set up by a teammate’s assist. By contrast, the back-to-back champion Golden State Warriors, who preach “strength in numbers” under Coach Steve Kerr, rank first in assists and fifth in passes. Remarkably, Harden averages 15 shots after holding the ball for more than six seconds; Golden State’s entire team averages only 12 such shots.
Much of this disparity is by design. Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey and Coach Mike D’Antoni, long a paragon of passing and activity, have carefully crunched the numbers on Harden’s isolation brilliance, concluding that his ability to maintain his efficiency through three-pointers, lay-ups and free throws, regardless of workload, justifies the strategy. Understandably, they’ve double-downed on Harden after injuries sidelined Chris Paul and Clint Capela, asking their superstar — rather than their fringe role players — to fill in the gaps.
The second-guessing of Harden’s isolation approach is reminiscent of criticism faced by Warriors guard Stephen Curry during his 2014-15 MVP breakthrough season. “To a degree, he’s hurt the game,” said ABC commentator Mark Jackson. “I watch these [high school] kids and the first thing they do is run to the three-point line. You are not Steph Curry. Work on the other aspects of your game. People think that he’s just a knock-down shooter. That’s not why he’s the MVP. He’s a complete basketball player."
Jackson took plenty of heat for those comments, in part because so many fans view Curry’s rise as one of the best things to happen to the sport. Still, Jackson’s underlying point was valid: mimicking Curry’s outrageous shot selection, without possessing Curry’s incredible shot-making ability, is not a recipe for success.
Similarly, structuring a team with four passive bystanders and one player pounding the air out of the ball will only work if the initiator has all of Harden’s play-making attributes: his elite handle, deep three-point range, strong frame, superb body control, great vision, smooth finishing, and reliable free-throw shooting. Basketball coaches looking to mold the next Harden would do well to realize that there hasn’t been another player in NBA history who checks every one of those boxes.
Harden-ball is a radical approach made possible by a one-of-a-kind talent who is at his pinnacle. It carried the Rockets within one game of the 2018 Finals, and it’s kept them afloat after a slow start and a stretch of poor injury luck. Harden’s scoring exploits and consistency have been phenomenal, as impressive as anything the NBA has seen in the post-Jordan era, and Houston should continue riding him for as long as he can hold up or until healthy reinforcements arrive.
What’s best for the Rockets this season, in these circumstances, need not be what’s in the best interests of the sport’s future. Harden, like Curry, defies emulation, and he shouldn’t be blamed if and when his imitators fall short.