It has proven a wise choice, and the next logical step for a franchise dedicated to streamlining the processes of basketball. Daryl Morey, Houston’s general manager, is one of the NBA’s most dedicated students of advanced analytics; his “Moreyball” prizes high-value shots like three-pointers, layups, and free-throws over the artful but inefficient midrange offerings that were trademarks of past stars like Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant. Harden fits Morey’s vision to a T. He drives to the rim, shoots from behind the arc or passes to players stationed there, and annually makes the most free-throws in the league. D’Antoni is entirely on board, allowing Harden unprecedented freedom to hunt for valuable opportunities, old-fashioned tenets of teamwork be damned. The blueprint is realized and Harden is optimized. As the Rockets’ star takes his numerically sound approach on a season-long tour, its effectiveness is not in doubt. Its appeal to fans used to a less rigid style of basketball, on the other hand, still is—though those sentiments are starting to change, as styles across sports bend toward efficiency.
In a profile of Harden published prior to the start of last season, under a sub-head describing his style of play as “ugly,” ESPN’s Pablo S. Torre summed up the widespread distaste for the Rockets’ superstar: “Harden suggests a strapping, 220-pound tax attorney, systematically exploiting the letter of [basketball’s] laws.” A mostly laudatory article published a month ago by Rolling Stone’s Steve McPherson began, “James Harden can be difficult to watch.” Harden may or may not end up the NBA’s MVP, but he is certainly among its most polarizing players.
The gripes about Harden mostly center on his knack for drawing fouls. He has a catalog of maneuvers designed to coax a whistle from a referee, ranging from clever (extending the ball as opponents reach for it so they hit his forearms instead) to cheap (splaying his limbs at the slightest contact, so that you’d think a grenade, not a couple of fingertips, had just hit him). Once, he scored 27 points on a night when he made just two field goals; 22 of those points came at the free-throw line. His first television commercial for Adidas featured a talking head on a mocked-up sports show pontificating above the words, “Trying to Score or Get Fouled?”
The referee-baiting is really just one component of an approach that can look, at times, like nothing so much as a basketball algorithm. Most Harden plays follow the same script. He stands dribbling beyond the three-point line, another player comes and sets a screen for him, and he attacks. The list of usual outcomes to these one-man forays seems meager to someone used to watching the ball movement of the Golden State Warriors or the Swiss Army skill set of LeBron James. Harden shoots a layup or a three-pointer, gets fouled, or sends the ball to a big man for a dunk or a shooter for a triple. He lets the defenders decide what to guard against and takes advantage of what they don’t. Using this same basic action ad nauseam, the Rockets score 112 points a game, the second-most in the league.