SALT LAKE CITY — Now that he and his teammates have dispatched the Jazz and sent them packing from the playoffs, James Harden is no longer the Jazz’s problem.
But he is still a problem for the NBA.
Harden is the Flop King, the league scoring leader who gets nearly one-third of his points at the foul line, which he accomplishes by faking fouls and fooling clueless referees who somehow still haven’t figured out his tricks.
He flails, he flops, he leaps into defenders (whatever happened to the rule of verticality?), he arm-hooks defenders as he jumps — all to get to the free-throw line.
Following Game 4, Jazz rookie Donovan Mitchell dared to complain about the Bearded One’s antics. “If that’s what he needs to be the (expletive) MVP,” he said. He walked back the comments the next day after a minor backlash; he shouldn’t have.
When Paul Pierce, Jalen Rose and Shaquille O’Neal talked about the incident on one of those TV gabfests, they said Mitchell should simply learn to sell fouls better himself.
Who wants to do that?!
Who wants to watch that?
Think about where this could lead. What if everyone in the league started doing this nonsense? We’d have bodies falling all over the court, flipping and flopping and flailing and twisting their faces in agony. We’d have soccer.
Look, the free throw is the dullest moment in sports this side of football’s extra-point kick. We don’t want to watch more free throws; we want fewer. And that’s what we’re getting. This year free-throw attempts fell to an all-time low of 21.7 per game.
That’s still too many. The legitimate fouls must be called, but why not curb the garbage fouls? In the game’s final minutes, the losing team intentionally fouls to stop the clock and put their opponents on the foul line, hoping for a miss and a rebound. The solution is obvious: Give the fouled team the choice of free throws or ball possession.
It will never happen. The NBA is more interested in enabling comebacks. Result: A fast-paced game is reduced to nine guys watching a free throw. It looks like a bus stop, only not as exciting.
So, free throws are falling anyway, but Harden is headed the other way. On a typical night, he is averaging almost half of those 21.7 free throws in a given game. He has made getting fouled an art form, and it’s ugly. In the six years since Harden joined the Houston Rockets, these are the leaders in free-throw attempts:
James Harden, 4,726
Russell Westbrook, 3,501
DeMar DeRozan, 3,350
DeMarcus Cousins, 3,286
LeBron James, 3,201
It should be noted that the top 10 are all outliers — they all shoot significantly more free throws than the league’s other players — and that Harden is an outlier among outliers. He has shot 1,225 more free throws than anyone in the league.
He’s averaged a whopping 10.2 free throws per game for six seasons. He’s averaged 787.6 free throws per season during that time. To put it in perspective, Karl Malone, another flopper/flailer and the all-time leader in free-throw attempts, averaged 694 per season during his 19-year career. And Malone played inside where more fouls would be expected.
During his nine-year career, Harden has scored 31 percent of his points at the foul line, compared to Malone’s 26.5 percent. This is especially remarkable when you consider that Harden is a guard and led the league in 3-point-shot attempts this season, averaging 10 per game. Most fouls are called in the lane or on drives to the basket.
All this might be acceptable if anybody truly believed Harden was legitimately drawing that many fouls, but he intentionally draws many of them or pretends to. Look at the video replays (they’re everywhere online). He has mastered the craft of initiating fouls.
Watch what happens if a defender extends his arms horizontally — Harden attacks them, sweeping the ball or his arms through the defender’s extended arms. Or he might use his left arm to hook his opponent under the left armpit as he leaps toward the basket with the ball in his right hand. Those are just a couple of his many tricks.
This is the “presumptive” MVP?
The only thing more remarkable is that referees are still buying what Harden is selling. It’s ugly basketball.