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James Harden’s Difficult Basketball Genius

Houston Rockets star putting up MVP numbers early in the NBA season. Can he keep it up?

James Harden's Difficult Basketball GeniusJames Harden's Difficult Basketball Genius

If a player like Steph Curry can make the work look easy, James Harden makes the work look like, well, work.

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James Harden can be difficult to watch. When he goes to the rim he doesn’t so much attack the defense as jostle through it like a commuter in Grand Central at rush hour. When he gets there, he’s capable of dunking, but rarely does. He is not lightning quick on the break. A gifted ballhandler, he doesn’t seem – especially so far this season – interested in breaking ankles in highlight reel worthy ways (although his stepbacks remain luscious). New head coach Mike D’Antoni has given him the point guard’s responsibilities for the Houston Rockets and he has taken those responsibilities to heart. With one pick-and-pop specialist in Ryan Anderson and one pick-and-roll threat in Clint Capela this year, he breaks most of his crossovers and hesitations off as soon as he’s gotten enough space to get the pass off. He is assisting a mind-boggling 62 percent of his teammates shots so far.

But Harden also shoots at a staggeringly efficient rate. His true shooting percentage (which weights 3-point shots and free throws for their commensurate value) is 65.1 percent and his player efficiency rating of 32.3 is third in the league. He’s shooting 39.4 percent on three-pointers so far this year and his offensive rating is 125 points produced per 100 possessions. Of course this kind of offensive firepower produces highlights – it’s pretty difficult to average 30.6 points and 13 assists a game and not generate some tasty clips.

But if a player like Steph Curry can make the work look easy, Harden makes the work look like, well, work. Often monotonous, frequently unglamorous and generally not fun. In competitive terms, Harden’s offensive game is as good or better than anyone’s in the league. As a performer, though, he’s more prog-rocker than showman.

Consider Jimi Hendrix, who pulls off blisteringly difficult technical feats on the guitar while making eyes at the audience, collapses into a crouch while stabbing the neck of his guitar skyward, windmills his left arm while executing serpentine hammer-ons and pull-offs with his right hand and plays the guitar under his leg, behind his head and with his teeth.

It’s one of the perfect marriages of form and function in music: incendiary, expressive, entertaining, a joy to watch, a joy to hear.

Now let us consider the late Shawn Lane, a guitar wizard who looks, well, like a wizard:

Harden has more in common with Lane than just the beard and a fondness for odd hats. No less a virtuoso than Living Colour’s Vernon Reid called Lane the “fastest good guitarist” he ever heard and it’s hard to disagree. The guitar playing is blistering, but also imbued with a surprising amount of melodicism and a sensitivity to texture and the push-pull between going inside and outside the structures of the song. Aurally, it’s pyrotechnical but visually, watching Lane play has little interest beyond the purely technical. He’s seated (at this point, the Cushing’s syndrome that would eventually contribute to his death at the age of 40 and made made standing difficult towards the end of his life), barely moves, mostly grimaces and generally looks as uncool as possible.

The music produced – whatever you think of it – is astonishing in its virtuosity and technical precision but watching him do it is about as interesting as watching a dude dry-walling a house.

But let’s face it: The majority of life is kind of repetitive and unglamorous. If you can make the utilitarianism of that stuff into something effective, it begins to generate its own kind of beauty, and that’s what D’Antoni has done with Harden’s game.

It began with turning over primary playmaking duties to Harden. Yes, Harden is a player who needs the ball in his hands a lot, but not in the same way as other, less dominant wings like Rudy Gay. He’s as good a facilitator as he is a scorer, but tying these two aspects of his game together, actually amplifies them, not diminishes them. It’s a maxim nearly as old as basketball itself: you have to take away the shot or the pass. But with Harden they’re both equally deadly. Just watch him slice and dice one of the league’s top ten defenses en route to a 24 point, 15 assist, 12 rebound triple double:

It’s hard to understate how important the newly acquired Anderson and blossoming Capela are to the structure of the Rockets’ offense. Often running through double screens set by both at the top of the arc, Harden is given so many options and the defense has to respect all of them: Anderson’s man has to stay with him as he floats out to the perimeter, Capela’s man has to shadow him as he dives into the paint and Harden’s man has to stay tight in case he shoots, but lay back enough to contain drives or help on Capela.

In its broad strokes, this is more or less what every NBA team is trying to do on offense: put together combinations of players who keep presenting opponents with their pick of poisons until they eventually have to choose one. But with Harden as the initiator of this plan, the Rockets can delay and delay until the best possible option opens up. This is because of subtle things that can be hard to read in the moment, in the arena and even on high-def television. Harden keeps opponents off-guard with small tempo shifts in his dribble, with gradual and then sudden shifts in his balance, with an understanding of how to open up fractures in the defense and then let them close if necessary to open up bigger or better ones.

If this sounds reminiscent of Steve Nash on D’Antoni’s Seven Seconds or Less Suns, it should. Playing that way demands a master facilitator and decision-maker and Harden, given that power, has shown he can be that catalyst in D’Antoni’s system.

There is, of course, the question of defense. Two years ago, Harden showed he could be part of a defense that thrived on chaos and effort if not defensive skill or stoutness when the Rockets finished second in the West and went to the Western Conference Finals. This was much the way D’Antoni’s Suns survived, so there’s hope, even if it’s not ultimately championship hope.

But ultimately, a James Harden fully engaged on offense to maximize his powers is a better thing for everyone than one who improves on defense by sacrificing anything of what makes him incredible on the other end. The league was a better place for having the Phoenix Suns under D’Antoni and it’s a better place with this version of the Rockets, an all fire-breathing and scoring machine built around Harden’s prodigious yet not very cool and kinda dorky technical virtuosity. 

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