Dancing With Noah

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Tag Archives: James Harden

James and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Ten Games

James Harden’s 2014-15 season ended with a splat. If you remember, Harden bumbled and stumbled his way into a 2-11 shooting night with a reckless 12 turnovers and a game score of one. Houston was bounced from the playoffs and Harden had the summer to vanquish whatever demons crept through his pores on that late May day.

It has been a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad 10 games for James

That was nearly six months ago, plenty of time to recalibrate and find the touch that made Harden’s 2014-15 campaign one of Houstonian bliss. Ten games into the new season though and whatever oddities plagued Harden at the end of the playoffs have hardened into a crust. He’s a career 44% shooter from the field with a 51% mark at eFG (adjusted to account for threes being worth one more point than a normal field goal). Since his days as a 20-point scorer began, he averages just under four turnovers/game. Through ten games of the 2015-16 season, Harden’s efficiency has nosedived to 37% from the field with 4.9 turnovers/game.

Comparing Harden to players other than Harden doesn’t offer a much more favorable view. Since 1985-86, just six other players have managed 210 shot attempts with sub-40% from the field over their first ten games. Except for Kobe’s banged up/shot slinging 2014-15, each player below saw some degree of improvement from their early struggles to their end season stats. (As an aside, what in the hell happened in the Atlantic division in 2002-03 that three players began the season so ineptly inefficient?)

data courtesy of basketball-reference.com

data courtesy of basketball-reference.com

It’s not that the list above is filled with bad company, rather it’s an ugly snapshot in time of otherwise talented players.

Much of Harden’s woes from the field can be traced to a combination of increased fascination with the three-ball and significantly decreased accuracy from that spot. His current approach to the three is enough to make Antoine Walker un-shimmy. After putting up between six to seven threes/game over the past three seasons, he’s jacking nearly ten/game in 2015. For context, prior to this season, no player in league history had ever averaged nine three-point attempts/game. Stephen Curry’s shooting 11.5/game this year, but he’s also making a whopping 45% of them. By contrast, Harden’s ten attempts/game are coming with a 24% efficiency. There’s no reason to suspect that his accuracy won’t creep back up to the 36-37% rate he’s maintained his entire career, but it’s also hard to envision him maintaining the current volume.

While Houston has plenty of issues that have contributed to a 4-6 record with a pair of three-game losing streaks (most notably a defense giving up 107.8ppg [27th out of 30th] with a DRtg of 108.9 [29th out of 30]), the chart below highlights the Rockets early-season dependence on Harden’s offensive efficiency for success. In wins, he has an eFG% of nearly 54 while in losses that number drops to under 32%. As a reminder, his career average is 51%.

James Harden eFG by game 2015-16

There’s such a paradoxical element to Harden’s young 2015-16. He’s averaging a career-high in points at 28.4ppg bolstered by nearly 12 free throw attempts/night while sinking 86% of those attempts, but that’s countered by a career-low in ORtg (estimate of points created per 100 possessions). He’s getting more rebounds than at any point in his career, but that’s driven by him seeing more minutes than ever at small forward as Houston’s been forced to go small due to injuries. And CBS Sports’ Matt Moore pointed out that even those numbers come with caveats:

The NBA’s SportVU data has Harden logged for the second-most defensive rebound chances on the team, at 10.8 per game. He’s grabbing just 5.5, with only 1.4 contested. That is a horrendous rate, which is fine if he’s not being asked to do that, but with the Rockets going small, the guards have to rebound, and they’re not.

Speaking of said injuries, through ten games, Houston’s dilly dallied with five different starting lineups to accommodate the health of Dwight Howard and dings to Terrence Jones. Reserve guard Patrick Beverley has spent the season banged up and the assimilation of Ty Lawson appears to be confounding the entire populace of Houston – Lawson’s to-date performance as a Rocket makes Harden’s struggles feel like sunbeams and smart vacation. There’s a continuity issue here reflected in their streaky play (three-game losing streak followed by four straight wins then another three-game losing streak) and need for total domination by Harden to win. In wins he’s averaging 38ppg with a near-38% usage rate while losses 22ppg and 32% usage and a despicable 15% from three on 53 attempts.

We have three-plus seasons of video and statistical evidence that defines a true Harden identity. While he’s been historically bad over ten games, history tells us he’ll progress to the mean at some point and we’ve already seen it happen in a few Houston games this season. The question for coach Kevin McHale and Harden are more of a when than an if. But like Alexander’s mother tells him in the book which this post takes its name from: “Some games are like that. Even in Australia.”


James Harden and the 43-13 Club

Once upon a time in the pre-presidential Obama days of the NBA, young Mr. Michael Jordan showed up for a game in Indianapolis against the Pacers and their funny two-guard, Reggie Miller. Jordan’s Bulls lost by four points, but it was due in no part to Jordan who crapped all over the Pacers for a sizzling 47 points, 11 rebounds, 13 assists, four steals and two blocks while shooting 57% from the field and 13-14 from the line. Egads!

Of course Michael Jordan, he of “commerce over conscience” infamy, is the modern-day NBA (defined as 1985-86 which is the first season basketball-reference offers certain box score stats) pioneer of the 43-13 club; aka 43-points and 13-assists, a truly dominant offensive game mixed of equal parts attack and distribution, but all attack.

So how’d we arrive here? James Harden delivered us to this moment on a Friday night in Sacramento in November with his vintage Hardenesque performance: 43 points on 23 shots with 16 FTAs and 13 assists. Harden was a rock or ogre or something irrepressible. And it was kind of fitting that in a league where all two guards are measured by their ability or inability to emulate his Airness, that the two-guard with the most un-MJish game would be the latest in a short line of NBA greats to repeat his feat from 1989.

James Harden considering Mars

James Harden considering Mars

Here’s the criteria:

  • 43 points or more
  • 13 assists or more

The inductees:

  1. Michael Jordan, 26-years-old in 1989: 47pts, 11rebs, 13asts, 4stls
  2. Larry Bird, 33 in 1990: 43pts, 8rebs, 13asts
  3. Kenny Anderson, 23 in 1994: 45pts, 8rebs, 14asts, 4stls, 20-23 from FT
  4. Antoine Walker, 24 in 2001: 47pts, 5rebs, 13asts, 4stls, 9-14 from 3
  5. Tracy McGrady, 23 in 2003: 46pts, 10rebs, 13asts, 2blks
  6. Allen Iverson, 31 in 2007: 44pts on 16-22 shooting, 15asts
  7. Gilbert Arenas, 27 in 2009: 45pts, 13asts
  8. LeBron James, 25 in 2010: 43pts, 13rebs, 15asts, 4blks, 1-9 from 3
  9. James Harden, 26 in 2015: 43pts, 13asts, 7 TOs

It’s an illustriously exclusive crowd Harden’s just joined, but fitting given the versatility of his game. Long a playmaker and dynamic scorer, the Beard is one of just 12 players in league history to average 27ppg and 7apg over the course of a single season. Where our eyelashes barely bat at the inclusion of MJ, Bird or LeBron, Kenny Anderson and Antoine Walker are more surprising. Anderson’s game was necessitated by an injury to Derrick Coleman while Walker’s was an outmatched team on the road where he caught fire.

Context for games like these matters. In Harden’s case, it was his sixth game of the year, the first three of which had all resulted in 20-point losses with last season’s MVP runner-up shooting a combined 12-54 (22%) from the field and 3-32 (9%) from three. His team has been ravaged by early injuries and the challenge of integrating speedy playmaker Ty Lawson into the attack. On this Friday night, there was no Dwight Howard, no Terrence Jones, Donatas Motiejunas, or Patrick Beverley. So against an undermanned (no DeMarcus Cousins) Kings team, Harden seized the reigns and torched the Kings. It was without peer as his best game of the new season with the Rockets largest margin of victory and his own highest usage and ORtg.

Which takes us to the final noteworthy relationship of the 43-13 club; the relationship between usage and Ortg. The 43-13 club means you’re accounting for no less than 60 of your team’s points. A player becomes the catalyzing engine driving the offensive attack from multiple planes much to the defense’s helplessness. I expected higher usage rates which isn’t to say the rates aren’t high, but below we see a consistent relationship: mid-30s usage, mid-130s Ortg – with a couple of truly unique outliers. Allen Iverson’s 44 and 15 on 16-22 shooting stands out as a model of harnessed efficiency which, given his career-long struggles with efficiency becomes the greatest outlier and a likely topic for a future edition.

Stats courtesy of the great Basketball-Reference.com.

Stats courtesy of the great Basketball-Reference.com.

The Turnover King

The turnover king, the turnover king,
Let’s not say long live the turnover king
He’s fallen in a heap of basketballs made of butter that don’t bounce but splat with buttery densities
His pockets picked clean like the dreams of a drunk passed out on the BART with destination of summer
The turnover king, you turnover king
Thirteen times you gave it away
Those 27 points that were nothing but average all year long
were unattainable,
A single point over half of average which is 14 total which is underwhelming when cities and states depend on you
Average was out of reach like the extra virgin olive oil-covered leather ball that betrayed you on a Wednesday night in May
Those seven assists you casually deliver with just a hair more than the effort I put into catching my morning bus or walking my morning dog
Were as fleeting as an acceptable assist-to-turnover ratio:
Yours was 1 to 2.1666666666667 tonight
(or something, could be there are too many or too few sixes)
But it doesn’t matter
The great turnover king, the turnover king
Exists in multispheres like this:
In my eye as a fan of trivial NBA history
In his eye as a human being trying to achieve something – such as a completed pass to a teammate
In the eyes of his opponents as a brown skinned equation that is a basketball version of the unsolvable, yet only if said equation collapsed on itself leaving mathematician
basketball opponents like, “Oh shit, the math did itself”
Historically bad is still historical you gnarled sweating
Turnover king
I swear to god if this was 1215 instead of 2015, probably the bards and songwriters would write about the turnover king with the amount of sadness on par with the amount of joy they write about the
Three point king or reverence with which they write about the regular king
Unnaturally bearded children would bury their heads in the bosoms of consoling mothers
While sober former players would chalk it up a bad game, shaking their heads shrugging massive suit-covered shoulders and reminisce on their own pimple covered failures in uglier-than-reality embellished memories
And in the sphere of emotional existence, do we not recall our scars as much if not more than our jubilations?
Oh you fucking immortal turnover king with all those errant passes and over dribbles
Are you mad man?
We know you’re not, you filthy turnover king
You just had a bad day like that time I stepped in dog shit with no shoes on before high school and nasty stuff in my toe nails and cuticles
Or that time I forgot my laptop even though my entire existence as a professional hinges to varying degrees around my laptop
Turnover king, I’ve never coughed up 13 turnovers, but I feel you
Or not, you know?
Dear turnover king, like that section in the US Weekly magazines my wife reads, I know you’re a star but you’re just like us – you have bad days
I know this because you had the worst fucking day possible short of a game-flushing timeout called when you didn’t have any timeouts like Chris Webber way back in the day
And I (and the people I know) have had shitty days
Oh sloppy turnover king, were you unfocused, distracted? Did you forget yourself?
I doubt it.
My friend thought you looked like Sidney Dean throwing that game in Watts with Billy Hoyle and who am I to argue even if I don’t agree
I don’t believe you threw the game but if you’d been wearing that Colnago cap with the bill flipped, then maybe
Suffice to say, not even turnover kings are immune to storylines and narrative
Someday turnover king, someday when you’re vanquishing the physical foes of the present, they’ll bring this up in the same way
Gatorade and Adidas and their chummy ad agencies with their truckloads of demographic audience data build storylines around bouncing back and overcoming failure
There’s no good that will come out of this, you gone fishing turnover king, but in our endless quest to attach meaning to every inconceivable
Mishap that befalls us, someone, perhaps you yourself, will invent the silver lining to create achievement out of failure
Like a technicolor flower sprouting out of the ugliness of a desolate wasteland
Whatever turnover king, just let’s take better care of that which we covet next time

Legends, Myths and Man: James Harden

Not so long ago a little black boy showed up at a mountain temple somewhere in Europe or South America. At the gates of this immaculately hidden temple, a giant stood guard. He wore a long robe that had once been pristinely white, but over time became a slushy gray. On his feet, the brown giant wore a pair of Nike Force 180 Pumps, casually untied. The giant looked down at the little black boy with his zip-up hoodie and duffel bag whose brown eyes peered upward towards the giant’s gaze. Their eyes met and the little boy didn’t blink or swallow or reveal any indication of nervousness.

The giant’s mouth opened, it was big enough to swallow the boy whole, but instead of cannibalizing the kid, words rained down on the boy like an avalanche of sound: “What do you call yourself, boy?”

The boy puffed his chest out with pride: “James Edward Harden.”

“Why are you at my gate?”

The boy puffed his chest out even more and rocked onto the balls of his feet, stretching to his maximum possible height and he recited the words that had become a part of him: “I’m here to learn the great game at the feet of the world’s greatest teachers…the disciples and descendants of Wooden, Auerbach, Naismith, Russell, West, Irving. And with all humbleness in my being, I ask for your acceptance.”

The giant stared back and began questioning James Edward Harden with a rapid fire assault of questions: “Who invented the game? What’s a diamond press breaker? Who is Black Jesus? Describe John Wooden’s pyramid of success. How many squares make up Boston’s parquet floor? What’s your personal definition of leadership? How do you respond to adversity?” It was an intense interview for a man of knowledge, let alone a pre-teen like James. But Harden, being a well-studied prodigy rattled off staccato answers: “Naismith, Earl Monroe, 112…”

The big man revealed a faint smile stretched across his giant’s lips: “Yesss…” the boy looked up at him, “Yes…YES!” the giant shouted and began to exhale a great embracing laugh that shook his whole body and scared James Harden more than it reassured him. He felt the sonic vibrations in his bird chest, the ground rumbled, the birds cried, the trees shook and the temple opened up to him. The giant stepped aside and James Harden crossed the threshold.

James Harden may or may not have perfected his ball-handling by dribbling up and down these stairs while being pressed and trapped by multiple defenders.

Boys and men in sandals and high tops, jerseys and robes moved throughout the temple and its surrounding gardens, all moving quickly, but without hurrying. There was a palpable sense of purpose inside these gates and James wanted to be a part of it. He slowly became acclimated with his surroundings and the tears that silently streaked down his cheeks at nightfall during the first few weeks eventually dried up and pain was replaced with peace; dreams of gyms full of basketballs; bouncing, soaring, nets splashing and swishing, floating down lazy rivers in rafts made of basketballs, men with round Spalding faces, faces he would caress and men he could trust. He would wander the temple grounds, in his oversized robe, thin ankles and wrists poking out, revealing his youth. The clouds hung low, the air was cold, but his robe warmed his body, his immense black beard protected his boyish face. The first few months, he didn’t touch a single ball and only occasionally did he glimpse one. He didn’t step foot on a court or hear the sound of nets or rims snapping. He walked calmly, exploring himself and his surroundings while the black beard grew into his skinny, hairless chest. He took a special interest in rocks, pebbles, stones and would drag his long, thin fingertips across the cool surfaces feeling the texture: Earth-worn, wind-washed, rain-rinsed. James preferred the smooth stones instead of rough or abrasive ones, round edges to sharp jagged ones. Fingers on both hands would explore these, reaching into an ancient geology through touch and sense. In particular moments of focus, he let his eyes relax, let the eyelids droop and trace the history of existence through the curves and indentations of the rocks. At night, he clutched them closely like pets or parents and fell asleep patiently awaiting his turn.

By the time he was introduced to a basketball for the first time, his hands explored it delicately, feeling the worn dimples, the weathered leather and his favorite part of the ball: the smooth black rubber channels that any hand naturally seeks out, but which James had an elevated appreciation. His first teacher was a dark, thin man with great white teeth, a mustachioed man with thinning short hair who would spin and pirouette with the ball and obsessively pounded basketballs in a complex manner: through the legs, behind the back, inside out, right-to-left-to-right in motion with impeccably timed spins and herky jerky fakes. Young bearded James would mimic his teacher, pounding basketballs until his arms and hands were fatigued, sweat pooling in his nest-like beard, sweat dripping, hanging from the tip of his nose, exhales blowing sweat through the air while he ran or spun bouncing balls with both hands baseline to baseline. But this was just the first of many teachers.

The ball became an extension, a new, more versatile version of the stones. His innate sense of touch allowed him to freely use both hands with equal dexterity; a trait he assumed all humans had…like walking with both feet or breathing through both nostrils. Once he began working with the architects, older men of all colors, men with thick, out-of-style glasses, men with silver hair, men who drew diagrams and repeated myriad theories; he was quickly identified and drilled more intensely due to his ability to identify a defense and its weaknesses. His sense of attacking and passing and when the situation called for one instead of the other was uncanny and quietly, out of earshot of little James, the silver-haired and bald men who were too stoic to express themselves with excitement and pride would overflow in awe; each attempting to outdo the others in praising the young boy with the old man’s beard.

In the hands of these master builders; players, coaches, Woodenites and Auerbachers, Harden’s prodigious talents were sculpted and groomed (his game, not his beard which became something of a black hair-covered elephant in the room; a beard so massive it was tied up in rubber bands or a net and collected burrs, thorns and leaves like animal fur would). With a largely diverse collection of styles and his obvious athleticism, Harden quickly developed a hybrid style built on the foundations of American street ball, collegiate fundamentals, European improvisation and timing; a game not predicated on speed, but on timing, deception, acceleration and deceleration with broad strokes of the mysterious South American style so influenced by the beautiful game of football with its passing, cutting and interwoven pieces. His teachers were legends and scholars; wise in the language of basketball…a game in which he became fluent in all styles.

James Harden glided over every hurdle they put in front of him with ease and grace. And it was decided, with James’s reluctant, but eventual agreement, that in order for him to achieve his true potential, he would have to return to the land of his birth and reveal a new style, a new to way to play—and although he took great joy in basketball, James never considered a game, but rather an expression of art, of self, of unity. So it was he accepted his eventual departure. To say goodbye to his second family, his world of extremely tall and talented fathers, a family of brothers, older and younger, was difficult, but necessary. He shaved his beard, packed up his meager possessions—basketball shoes, shorts, sweatpants and sweatshirts and a few of his favorite rocks—and set out on a journey to California to a high school called Artesia…fitting since in ancient dialects it translates to “Many will enter these doors, but James will be chosen.”

There are no known photos or even artwork of James Harden’s time at the mysterious (mythical?) temple, but if you close your eyes at night, you can almost conjure up the image of the young James Harden resting with his lean back and narrow shoulders against the trunk of a giant tree, his eyes soft with meditation, a smooth stoned cradled caringly in young hands with dirty fingernails.

*(The rest of the James Harden story is well-known and has been thoroughly documented by many sources. A simple web-search for “James Harden bio” will reveal multiple results—most of which contain mostly factual information.)

**The history above is in no way meant to indicate that James Harden arrived at Artesia High School with all of his skills intact, as a fully-developed, NBA-ready guard, but rather that the foundation of his game was created in the aforementioned idyllic setting. Additionally, the nuance and details of his style reflects numerous coaches and former players. The degree to which his style is more reflective of one player than another is a point that continues to be debated even by the men who raised him.

And Like That, He’s Gone

I was an angry basketball fan last night when OKC shat the bed once again in the fourth quarter. I was texting out blames to Russell, Kevin, Maynor and especially Scotty Brooks. It was inevitable and Dallas somehow knew it with all their experience and come-from-behind poise and it grated me; grated the skin right off into a nasty little pile on my coffee table.

On that note, I decided to say goodbye to the Thunder for the 2011 season:

Russell Westbrook: You were the most intriguing player in the playoffs this year and in terms of basketball culture, you’ve made the leap. We all knew who you were and anyone who watched OKC knew what you were about, but by the end of the whole thing, I just wanted to give you a hug and tell you it’ll all be alright:

Kevin Durant: Was there a sadder scene than Durant at the game four post-game press conference? All gangly arms, legs; shoulders hunched forward and infinite sadness painted on his 22-year-old face with that damn backpack on asking, “What could I do?” We love you Kevin because it hurt so bad:

James Harden: Has Harden always been this good or is it a product of off-the-radar, covert development? Was OKC just playing possum for next year when they unleash this guy? Seeing him play point opposite Westbrook and Durant on the wings was watching living, breathing basketball genius—and then Scott Brooks snatched it away from us:

Nick Collison: I watched Collison play a few years in Seattle before the departure and was always impressed with his defense. He did the best job any single human could do against Zbo and Dirk and did it all by his damn Iowan self. This man is underappreciated.

Serge Ibaka: Don’t be scared, Serge. It’s all over now.

Kendrick Perkins: We all stood up and applauded the great Sam Presti after he made this trade; then the playoffs happened and we realized he was still hurt. Perkins was about as effective as a grocery cart with a brain would’ve been (as opposed to a grocery cart without a brain?) and was exposed by John Hollinger as being the biggest detriment to OKC’s success against Dallas. We know you weren’t healthy, but still, it was ugly.

Eric Maynor: You walked into my life as a warm, soft beacon on the horizon; something to cling to in a time of chaos and tumult. Then you betrayed me when you tried to slay Dirk on one play.

 Scotty Brooks: Jeeeeee-sus. I used to be a Scott Brooks fan and maybe there’s still a place in my heart where he can redeem himself, but when OKC calls a timeout and I immediately text people “Bad Shot Alert!”, it’s a fucking problem. And any arguments about Brooks being just a second-year coach or coaching a simple game because his team is so young are ignoring the obvious: Brooks was out of his league. Maybe it’s time to hit up Phil Jackson for some of that peyote:


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