Dancing With Noah

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Tag Archives: James Harden

30 and 10 with no Turnovers; the NBA’s answer to The Maddux?

Aside from being wholly arbitrary and comforting with its round numbers, the 30-point, 10-assist, 0-turnover game is an indelible mark of pro basketball efficiency. Its achievers clearly shoulder the weight of an entire offense, acting as both elite scorer and distributor while taking care to not give away precious possessions. At this early time in the 2016-17 season, James Harden is trekking towards NBA infamy with a turnover-per-game ratio north of 5 which makes his induction into the 30-10-0 club on November 19th, 2016 all the more unexpected, but also all the more possible given his nightly responsibility.

Major League Baseball has an informal mark of master class in starting pitching referred to as “The Maddux,” in honor of Hall-of-Famer Greg Maddux who was known for his ultra-efficiency on the mound. The Maddux is a complete game shutout while throwing under 100 pitches. Not surprisingly, Maddux was the master of The Maddux. He accumulated 13 such performances over 740 career starts – just under 2% of all starts. The next closest pitcher is Zane Smith with 7 Madduxes. Since 1988 when pitch counts were regularly tracked, blogger/writer Jason Lukehart writes that there have been over 300 Madduxes thrown by 190 different pitchers – or roughly 11-per-season.

the-maddux

While it’s nothing near an apples-to-apples comparison, the 30-10-0 club has the feel of a Maddux in its combination of efficiency mixed with excellence. Our dear Player Index resource over at Basketball-Reference tells us that since the 1983-84 season, the 30-10-0 has been accomplished 46 times by 39 different players; or less than 1.5 times-per-season. Given the time constraints and lack of turnover numbers available for historical players, it’s safe to assume 30-10 luminaries like Nate Archibald and Oscar Robertson are grandfathers of the stat, but we’ll just have to move forward with our Reagan-era players.

So if the great Greg Maddux is the godfather of the Maddux, then we’re all inevitably asking, “Who’s the godfather of the 30-10-0? Whose illustrious name shall represent the ultimate in scoring and assisting efficiency?”

My own guesses went the way of Chris Paul, or Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, or Steve Nash. I wasn’t prepared for Stephon Marbury. Maybe it shouldn’t be a shock as the Coney Island Starchild had a 7-season stretch where he averaged roughly 22-points and 8-assists with 3-turnovers, but I was shocked anyway. Here are the top 30-10-0s:

  1. Stephon Marbury – 4 times
  2. Larry Bird – twice
  3. Alex English – twice
  4. Baron Davis – twice
  5. Tim Hardaway – twice
The Godfather of the 30-10-0 Club honored with a statue for having 4 such games

The Godfather of the 30-10-0 Club honored with a statue for having 4 such games

Zero turnovers isn’t some ultimate mark of perfection in basketball anymore than differentiating between 99 pitches and 100 pitches is in baseball, but it’s a hell of a benchmark. Coupled with the points and assists, it’s also a good indicator of team success. In the 46 games we’ve seen the 30-10-0, teams featuring said players are 40-6, winning 87% of their games.

There’s no great takeaway other than acknowledging that something extremely rare and unlikely occurred this past Saturday. History is full of these little untold truths that lie waiting to be discovered through the accomplishments of the present. Alex English going for 46-10-0 while shooting 76% from the field? Larry Bird hanging 46-10-0 on the Magic as a hobbled 33-year-old? Or even Baron Davis’s 33-14rebound-10-0 effort in the playoffs back in 2002? These are masterpieces trapped in the memories of fans and beneath the dust of the archives. If Zane Smith can be Greg Maddux for a night, then even Stephen Jackson can be Larry Bird.

30-10-0-club

First, the Obvious

It’s a bit of Captain Obviousness at his most obvious, but after this latest weekend of norm-crushing outputs, it’s still worth acknowledging the statistical rampages on which Russell Westbrook and James Harden are presently embarking.

Harden’s latest salvo was fired across the electorally-commentating Gregg Popovich’s snout to the tune of 25-points, 11-rebounds, and 13-assists which marked back-to-back triple doubles and the third consecutive game of at least 24-points and 13-assists. The last guy to go three straight 24-13s was the Canadian maestro Steve Nash.

Russ responded in kind with an even nervier performance on Sunday (the day of my birth and the day after his own birth so thanks for the bday entertainment) when he unloaded for 41-points, 12-rebounds, and 16-assists while turning the ball over just twice and shooting 67% from the field. That OKC lost to the ever-struggling Magic is just details in the micro, but worrisome in the macro where there’s a collective evidence that disallows celebrating the individual performance in basketball unless there’s a corresponding team success. Aside from the tiresome debates of our day about winning, stats, and the individual in modern basketball, you can be reassured that Russell’s performance was of a most rarefied air. Since 1983-84 which is as far back as Basketball-Reference’s game logs go, only one other player has posted the 40-10-15 triple double and that was three-time NBA champion and ghost chasing coverboy, LeBron James – though Bron needed a full 47 minutes while Russ needed a mere 38. (As an aside, the night Bron executed the 40-10-15, the Cavs lost to Denver in a classic Carmelo-Bron duel where Anthony put up 40 in a game his Nuggets won in overtime. Can we get this on some NBA OnDemand platform? Please? Or is that too much to ask given that we can’t even get a workable version of League Pass?)

russell-james

We’re a mere 10% into this new season, but inching further away from the small sample size theater and into some world of sustainability. These gaudy stats (32-9-10 with 5 turnovers and a 41% usage for Russ, 30-8-13 with 6 turnovers and 34% usage for Harden) would seem to taper off at some point and yet that assumption is driven by two notions: 1) neither player is physically capable of keeping up these torrid paces, 2) a single player carrying a disproportionate load eventually becomes an impediment to team success.

Physically speaking, Russ has proven his Wolverine-type resiliency over the years as he hadn’t missed a single game through the first five seasons of his career until Patrick Beverley notoriously dove into his leg during the playoffs. This is a man who had his skull dented and continued to play. He appears capable of carrying anything and has the second-highest usage rating in league history at 38.4% in 14-15 which he achieved over 67 games in a season when Kevin Durant was frequently absent with foot injuries.

Harden is a case in stylistic contrast, but has proven himself to be a player with a single-minded emphasis on forward progress. He’s in the midst of a stretch of over 300 games dating back to 2013 where he’s averaging right at 10 free throw attempts-per-game. Despite a bruising style that results in him getting hacked as much or more than any player not named LeBron, his only missed game since the 14-15 season happened in March of 2015 when he was suspended. He’s led the league in minutes played the past two seasons and appears more than physically capable of doing it again year. Iron Man, Iron Beard? So what, get your minutes Harden.

If you’ve seen OKC during one of its 14-minute stretches each game when Russ sits, then you’ve seen a train wreck of a directionless offense flying off the tracks, careening into the fiery depths of basketball hell. They have just one 5-man lineup that doesn’t include Westbrook and has a positive point differential and that lineup has seen just 4-minutes this season. Westbrook leads the league in both box score plus/minus and VORP (value over replacement player) and his on-off difference is a whopping +25.7. Whether you watch or study the data or just close your eyes and imagine, in any scenario, by any measure, OKC needs Russ like the winter needs the spring.

But if you think a +25.7 on-off is nice, Harden’s with the Rockets is +38.6. Like Westbrook, he appears in Houston’s most productive lineups and has become the singular point of propulsion for this potent offensive attack. Maybe the return of the knee-crushing Beverley does something to reduce Harden’s burden, but he’s never been a traditional point guard/playmaker either, so while his return may assuage some of the wear and tear, it’s not likely to limit the role of the bearded one.

By all visual and statistical appearances, these team’s hopes weigh disproportionately on the shoulders of these native Los Angelinos. It may not meet the aesthetic that some have of basketball, but it does create a space for insanity to reign and for us to plumb the depths of man’s ability to mythologize in a most John Henry (or early MJ) way.

Is it sustainable though? Russ is shooting a career-best 35% from three on a career-high 6 three-point-attempts per-game. Harden is averaging over 40% more than his best assists-per-game average. And both guys are rebounding at career-best levels.

Without Durant, OKC is playing the fastest pace of Westbrook’s career which is resulting in around three more possessions-per-game than at any other time in his career. Harden, conversely, is playing slightly slower than last season, but in line with 14-15. The big flip for Harden is that, per BBR, he’s seeing 98% of his minutes at the point guard position versus 1-2% the previous three seasons. He’s surrounded by glorious shooters like Ryan Anderson, Eric Gordon, Trevor Ariza and even a blossoming Sam Dekker. The variables are in place for both guys to continue churning out offense at gluttonous levels.

Points and assists are so much more in the player’s control than rebounding and while the scoring/assist combinations are the stuff that Oscar Robertson and Nate Archibald can relate to, it’s the rebounding as lead guards that make these players so unique and dangerous. Like LeBron or Magic, both guys can retrieve the defensive board and catch a vulnerable, unset defensive off-balance. As of 11/14, Westbrook leads the league in transition possessions and Harden is tied for 5th. Neither player is exceptionally efficient, which, given the volume of their breaks doesn’t diminish from the overall impact.

All that defensive rebounding-leading-to-breaks aside, Harden maintaining 8-rebounds-per-game or Westbrook at 9 are the most likely stats to fall off.

To put these lines into perspective though, only one player in NBA history has maintained the 30-8-10 line for an entire season. Yep, Mr. Triple-Double himself, Oscar Robertson pulled off the feat three separate seasons: 61-62, 63-64, and 64-65.

Stats courtesy of the great basketball-reference.com - a great website

Stats courtesy of the great basketball-reference.com – a great website

Like my presumption of Russ and Harden’s toughest counting stat being rebounding, the Big O’s greatest volatility was on the boards where he dropped from 12.5/game as a 23-year-old to a mere 9-10 in subsequent seasons. What makes the Robertson comparison interesting and what makes Russ and Harden’s outputs so damn ridiculous is the difference in pace between the mid-60s and today. Below I’ve included the same table, but with team pace included at the far right:

oscar-pace

The numbers are frighteningly similar despite the massive gaps in both minutes played and pace. None of this should take away from the Big O who averaged a triple-double over his first six seasons in the league which spanned 460 games and a 30-10-10 stat line. But it feels almost like Miguel Cabrera winning the Triple Crown a few years back. There are hallowed numbers that feel out of reach, until the savants of today show up with their beards and fringe fashion statements and make you think the impossible is possible. Dinosaurs can walk again – but can they do it for 82 games? Shit man, you’re asking the wrong guy.

It’s all lollipops and rainbows until someone averages 5 turnovers

Black Friday, a time for some consumers to pit their deal-stalking prowess against the masses, a post-holiday competitive consuming dessert. For the NBA, a day to get back on track after one of the few league-wide off days. For some, strange cornucopias like chocolate drizzled on turkey manifested themselves on this Friday.

11-28-15 - james & russ mysteries

The criteria:

  • 50 or more points
  • Nine or more turnovers

Two of my favorite storylines this year in the NBA sense of soap opera are Philadelphia and Houston. Black Friday was a chance to see these train wrecks on the same court navigating through their own personal debris in efforts to find some stable safety. But there can only ever be one winner in the NBA and for Houston (they won 116-114 at home knocking to Philly to 0-17 and extending their losing streak to 27 games) it took every particle of James Harden’s basketball being to achieve the victory. Harden hoisted the hodge podge Rockets on his back for the following line:

  • Harden, 11/27/15: 50pts on 12-28 from field, 6-12 from 3, 16-20 from the line, 9rebs, 8asts and 9 turnovers

This is right in line with the season he’s having where’s now averaging a career best 30 points/game alongside a career worst five turnovers/game. As I’ve written though, the only time the Rockets seem capable of competing is when James is dominating – efficiency be damned – and his inability to control the ball didn’t prevent a Rockets win. It does put him in some rare company though. As we see below, just two other players in the past 30 seasons have pieced together such uneven lines:

Harden wasn’t the only big leaguer to struggle taking care of the ball on this evening. Up north in Oklahoma City, Mountain Dew pitchman Russell Westbrook bing bang bobbled his way into 11 turnovers in just 29 minutes of play (he fouled out) against the Pistons and former teammate Reggie Jackson. His TOs covered a broad swath of ball un-control:

  1. Dribbled off his foot
  2. Forced a pass
  3. Charge
  4. Bad pass
  5. Bad pass
  6. Stripped
  7. Stepped out of bounds
  8. Charge (bad call as Ilyasova pushed into Russ as he drove)
  9. Dribbled off his foot
  10. Unforced lost ball on drive
  11. Charge (tried to draw contact jumping into defender)

The criteria:

  • 11 or more turnovers
  • 30 minutes or less

Unlike James and his friends Allen and Hakeem, Russ is all alone on this one. Since 1985-86, we’ve never had another guy turn the ball over this much in as limited playing time. It’s entirely possible that someone turned the ball over 12 times in 24 minutes of play, then proceeded to play another 10 minutes of TO-free basketball, but that’s not the criteria.

This is probably Russ’s worst game of the season. On top of the sloppy ball control, he shot 5-14 from the field and fouled out for just the ninth time in nearly 600 career games (playoffs and reg season). His already league-leading turnovers/game went from 4.9 to 5.2 in what’s suddenly become a race to the bottom between him and Harden to see who can turn the ball over most. Like Harden and the Rockets, OKC was still able to win and by double digits despite Russ’s off night. So instead of this being a costly headache, it’s the flipside consequence of a player that exceeds all speed limits and handling guidelines and occasionally goes off the rails as a result.

Not everyone can grace us with the ball protection and calm of a Chris Paul assist-to-turnover ratio. Harden and Westbrook are two of our most dynamic guards, centerpieces of a New NBA with an unstated philosophy that to make the perfect omelet, many, many eggs must be broken. On the same night, pro basketball wunderkind Stephen Curry dropped 41 points while turning the ball over six times and raising his career-worst turnovers/game up to 3.8. It’s like Tyler Durden told us in Fight Club, “even the Mona Lisa’s falling apart.”

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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