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Murph: Why does James Harden’s historic season feel so ‘meh?’


© Noah K. Murray | 2019 Jan 23


James Harden is out here making NBA history.

So why does it seem like everyone, especially here in the Warriors-centric Bay Area, is saying: “Meh”?

Part of it is anti-Rockets sentiment, surely. Just eight months ago, the red-clad villains had a 3-2 lead on the Warriors and were one 0-for-27-from-three-point-land binge from extinguishing our local heroes’ championship dream.

Fortunately for the Dubs, that 0-for-27 binge occurred. Next stop: parade in Oakland.

But Harden is taking his game to another level, and no one out here seems to be giving him the historic love he may deserve. Or does he?

And when I say “another level”, I mean the only level that exists in the galaxy higher than any other basketball level: Wilt Level.

Sure, we can all talk Jordan and LeBron and Kobe and Magic and Bird and Steph and K.D., but when it came to mammoth figures in NBA scoring history, nobody did it like Wilt. (Cue your jokes about his romantic life right about here, sports fans.)

Harden has now scored more than 30 points in 21 straight games. Only Wilt has ever done that. I don’t want to diminish Harden’s achievement, but Wilt had three separate streaks of twenty-or-more games with 30 points, including doing it once SIXTY-FIVE GAMES IN A ROW.

Yes, I went ALL CAPS on that. Take it easy on the little people, Dipper!

Anyway, Harden is having a historic season, punctuated most recently by his 61 points in New York City, at the arena some jokingly called “Madison Square Harden.”

And yet, on our show this morning, there was that whole “Meh” feeling — this for a guy who is scoring 36 points per game. Hs nearest competitor, Anthony Davis of New Orleans, is scoring 29 points per game. In the last 20 seasons, nobody has come close to that margin between the top scorer and the runner-up. It’s Jerry Rice-type stuff.

I think it comes down to style. The same way Pat Riley’s early 1990s New York Knicks suffocated the art out of the game, the same way that the Detroit (Bad Boy) Pistons were too violent for some fans’ tastes, is the same way Harden’s dribbledribbledribbledribbledribbledribbledribble — oh! — step-back three! — is turning some fans off.

The astounding statistic is, in games where scored 57, 58 and 61 points — none of the points came on an assist. After all, you can’t spell ‘James’ without M-E. Hey, oh!

He is also shooting an average of 13 free throw attempts per game which, according to my deep research on ESPN.com going back to 2000, is higher than any player in the last two decades. There is something less appealing about playing for the free throw — granted, a legitimate way to score; I tell the CYO kids to go ahead and draw contact — than an artfully executed half-court set.

I’d call Harden a historic gunner and ball-hog, but that same research showed that in the early 2000s, players like Kobe Bryant, Carmelo Anthony, Allen Iverson and Tracy McGrady actually took more field goal attempts per game than Harden’s current clip of 23.9 per game. Shout out to the O.G. gunners.

If you’re a Harden defender, you say: He’s playing without Chris Paul! He has to carry the team! The team is winning! He’s doing things only Wilt did! He’s averaging 8.3 assists, fourth in the league! You’re a hater!

Some of those exclamation-point yelps are accurate.

But the Warriors’ run of four consecutive NBA Finals and three NBA championships is built on something entirely different. We are witnessing the Halley’s Comet of unselfishness in Oakland, mostly because the best player, Steph Curry, happens to be one of the most well-adjusted and team-oriented stars in league history. And because coach Steve Kerr instituted the slogan, “Strength in Numbers”, not “Strength in One Dude Doing It All”.

So we are accustomed and trained to the “beautiful game”; it pleases our Warrior sensibilities. In our view, the Warriors are playing the game the right way; Harden is merely a talented ball hog.

The Warriors lead the NBA in assists. The Rockets are 28th.

So shoot if you must, James Harden. The Warriors will be out here on the West Coast, looking for the open man, and turning good shots into great shots.

 

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