Over the offseason, we all had a good laugh at Monta Ellis when he talked about the fact that he plays “Monta-ball.” I mean, what even is that? Ellis defined the concept as trying to get to the rim and make plays whenever possible, but when Monta Ellis is involved, the possibilities for what “Monta-ball” might really be are endless. But Ellis isn’t the only player who deserves to have a conceptual approach to offense named after him; as he continues to show on a near-nightly basis, James Harden of the Houston Rockets has become the foremost practitioner of “Harden-ball.” It’s a system that’s completely dependent on two things: free throws and three-pointers. Give Harden an inch of space on the perimeter, and he’s going to jack a three using whatever sliver of daylight he’s offered; crowd him on the perimeter or allow him to get into the pick-and-roll, and he’s going to get to the free throw line by penetrating into the lane and initiating contact with a defender at the perfect moment to draw a foul. It’s perfectly effective, but “Harden-ball” is also starting to become perfectly boring.
On Thursday night, Harden used Boxing Day as an occasion to repurpose and refine his approach to scoring a ton of points in the most efficient manner possible. He set something of a record, setting the mark for most points in a game since 1985-86 (as far back as Basketball-Reference’s play index goes back with full game logs) with 2 or fewer made field goal attempts. Charles Barkley is the only other player over that time frame to hit just two shots from the field and score 25 or more points; Barkley totaled 26, where Harden just beat him out with 27. Harden went 2-for-9 from the field, mostly taking shots from behind the three-point line, where he was 1-for-5. That kind of poor shooting display usually spells disaster, but for Harden, it was simply a caricature of the way in which he generates most of his output. For while he might not have been at all effective on field goal attempts, he lived at the line, drawing 25 free throws and hitting 22 of them.
It was only the 36th time in the 3-Point Era (since 1979-80) that a player shot 25 or more free throws in a single game, performances that run the gamut from a 71-point outpouring by David Robinson to the aforementioned 26-point performance by Barkley. The most surprising fact to come out of last night’s one-man conga line to the charity stripe was that it was the first time in Harden’s career that he’d taken 25 free throws. This season, Harden’s attempting more than a free throw for every two field goal attempts (.564 free throw attempts per field goal attempt, to be precise), resulting in 8.5 free throws per 36 minutes.*
*That free throw rate is actually a 3-year low for Harden, who nearly reached the point where he was taking 60% as many free throws as field goal attempts last year.
Of course, it’s an incredibly effective — and efficient — way to score. Other than a layup or dunk, the best shot for a player of Harden’s shooting abilities is a trip to the line, where he expects to score 1.6 points for every two-shot foul. And it’s perfect for what the Rockets are trying to do on offense. On a larger scale, “Harden-ball” is “Morey-ball,” predicated on taking open 3s and getting to the stripe. But it’s also incredibly snooze-worthy, especially on nights where Harden and the Rockets are fully dedicated to drawing as many fouls as possible; the endless parade of clock-stopping, flow-killing free throws makes for some of the most disjointed basketball this side of an under-8 Boys & Girls Club game. Again, it’s completely understood that this is a right-minded approach toward winning games, the analytically correct way of going about things. But sometimes, the proper means toward an end result in the most mind-numbing journeys, Aesop’s fables delivered in the dry, dense rhetoric of Immanuel Kant which puts the children to sleep long before the lesson can be learned. The only time that free throws are truly entertaining is when there’s an egregiously awful shooter at the line and the possibility of an air ball or sideways-rotating tornado (love you, Joakim Noah) exists.*
*It seems worth noting that Harden is far from alone on the annals of NBA history when it comes to his predilection for drawing fouls. Since 1979-80, there have been 57 seasons where a player took at least 55% as many free throws as he did field goal attempts (minimum 1000 field goal attempts), and some of the greatest names in the game are on that list. But many of them were bigs, for whom free throws were simply a part of spending the vast majority of their time in the paint and trying to score at the rim among a forest of upraised arms. And as the rules have changed and the importance of extended post play has waned, the number of such seasons has decreased as well. Essentially, with the retirement of Shaquille O’Neal and failed health of Amar’e Stoudemire, Harden is the only one left in the league to carry the banner for a nation that sustains on a cornucopia of free throws.
Yes, when James Harden is on one of his crusades to the foul line, he can make the game incredibly boring. And it’s only noteworthy because the rest of his game is cause for such excitement. The reckless abandon with which he chucks up triples any time he even thinks he’s close to being open, regardless of reality, is vicarious gambling. The odds seem stacked against him — and against the observer — but the payoff is so rewarding that the risk taken seems more than worth the potential outcome. His defense, which to describe as “matador” would do a great disservice to generations of Spaniards, makes for electrifying plays on the other end when his mark blows past him for a vicious dunk or kicks it to the corner for a wide-open 3 after the defense has to collapse. And Harden’s own drives to the rim are riveting, at least until they terminate in a blown whistle and another long walk to that stripe 15 feet away from the basket.
But for fans of the Houston Rockets, I assume this situation anything less than boring, because the free throws lead to wins. And in that vein, this is far from the typical complaint about inefficient choices reducing a team’s chances of victory; instead, it’s an aesthetic grievance, asking that one of the league’s immortals might throw us a bone and not go to the line 20 times a night. And it’s an empty one at that. As long as the Rockets keep winning, and as long as Harden can keep scoring by throwing his body into defenders, the free throw train will continue.
Can James Harden be boring? Absolutely, and doubly so on nights like Thursday. But the NBA takes all types to be the competitive, entertaining league that it is. The stop-and-go nature of Harden on offense is merely another wrinkle on the face of the league, a superstar who’s content with the most mundane play on the court in order to be effective. It might not be entirely pleasing, but it works. And that counts for something — usually one point at a time.