The specter of Kyrie Irving’s extended absence from the Brooklyn Nets was always going to put a heavier burden of shot creation on the shoulders of James Harden. For the last decade, there has been perhaps no player in the NBA better suited to handle it.
When the Nets cashed in all their future assets to rescue Harden from the Houston Rockets a few weeks into last season, he was supposed to be Brooklyn’s third superstar and the final piece of a team that had the talent to become a dynasty. This should have been his basketball nirvana: flanked by two of the greatest shooters ever in Kevin Durant and Irving, plus one of the best shooting specialists in today’s game in Joe Harris, Harden had an ocean of room to saunter into the lane and do what he does best. Namely: generate layups and free throws for himself, and wide open three-pointers for his teammates.
Harden carried Brooklyn up the Eastern Conference standings last season while Durant and Irving missed significant time. The Nets put up the most efficient offense in league history even with their big three barely sharing the court together in the regular season. It wasn’t a stretch to think a healthy Nets team with Durant, Harden, and Irving would roll through the playoffs on the way to a championship.
Unfortunately for the Nets, they weren’t healthy. Harden went down with a hamstring injury in the first minute of the first game of Brooklyn’s second round series against the Milwaukee Bucks. He would return for the last three games of the series, but he clearly wasn’t himself. By the time he came back, Irving was also hurt, and not even Durant’s historic individual scoring run could save the season. Maybe it would have been different if Durant wore slightly smaller shoes, but it wasn’t meant to be.
Brooklyn entered this season as the overwhelming favorite to win the championship. That was before Irving took himself out of action by refusing to take the Covid-19 vaccine. While the absence of Irving limited just how explosive Brooklyn could be, they still had enough weapons to be considered the favorite even without him. That’s because Harden could be counted on to carry the offensive shot creation just as he had done throughout his career.
At the start of the new season, it’s clear it’s not working yet. The Nets lost at home to the Miami Heat, 106-93, on Wednesday night to fall to 2-3 on the season. Somehow, Brooklyn has the third worst offense in the NBA.
The biggest reason for Brooklyn’s slow start, other than Irving’s absence, has been Harden’s uncharacteristically sluggish play. Harden’s numbers are brutal for his standards through the first five games: He’s averaging 16.6 points, eight assists, and 4.6 turnovers per game on paltry 49.1 percent true shooting. He’s among the NBA leaders in turnovers, too.
Harden is failing to score efficiently for a variety of reasons, but it’s easy to point to his lack of free throws as the main culprit. Harden has been the league’s most reliable free throw generator for years, but this season he’s only getting to the line three times per game. As recently as the 2019-2020 season, Harden was drawing 11.8 free throw attempts per game.
This isn’t exactly a coincidence: the NBA made it a point of emphasis over the offseason to no longer reward offensive players who grift their way into shooting fouls. Harden was always the biggest poster child for this type of free throw production. For a decade, Harden went up for a shot as soon as he fooled defenders into reaching for the ball on his drives. Add in a snap of the head, and it was two free throws from the officials almost every time.
NBA refs are no longer giving free throws in those situations. Suddenly, Harden isn’t getting the calls he’s used to, and his offensive efficiency is plummeting in part because of it.
Not this year James. Love it. pic.twitter.com/Q2yCG5wVeI— Nate Duncan (@NateDuncanNBA) October 27, 2021
"And no call of any sort. He just loses the ball out of bounds." pic.twitter.com/OvFgZWvjVR— Nate Duncan (@NateDuncanNBA) October 28, 2021
Harden has Bam beat, tries to draw the foul instead of making a play. Refs ain't biting. At least the 4th time tonight. pic.twitter.com/c6gtIK4mF1— Nate Duncan (@NateDuncanNBA) October 28, 2021
Harden is the NBA’s biggest offender when it came to baiting the refs into calling shooting fouls. The league changed its rules, and now Harden lost his effectiveness. It’s easy, right?
Of course not. Harden, at 32 years old, almost certainly isn’t completely washed right now. His slow start comes down to a variety of factors, and the rule change is one of them. The bigger issue may be the lingering effects of the hamstring injury he suffered in the playoffs back in June.
Harden spoke about his early season problems after the loss to Miami, and said he spent most of his summer rehabbing his injury. The time Harden usually spends in the gym coming up with some new absurd tricks to dominate his peers was replaced by doing boring strength building exercises with his injured leg.
James Harden: "As much as I want to get back to 30s and 40s points, I can't do that. As much as I want to, as much as I would love to, I didn't have any opportunities to play pickup. It was all rehab."— Matt Brooks (@MattBrooksNBA) October 28, 2021
James Harden: "My career, I've been blessed just not having any surgeries. That process last year (dealing with injury) was really draining... I'm finally slowly getting back to it. You've gotta just keep fighting for it, and I will."— Matt Brooks (@MattBrooksNBA) October 28, 2021
Harden has been one of the game’s most durable superstars since he began his rise in Houston. Now he’s 32 years old. He basically self-sabotaged the start of last season as a way to get out of Houston, showing up obviously out of shape and disinterested. He eventually played his way back into shape and was excellent for the Nets before the injury in the playoffs. The injury impacted him throughout the offseason when he’d normally be fine-tuning his game.
The rule changes are playing a part, too. Offensive efficiency is down throughout the league to start this season, and Harden isn’t the only player adjusting to how the game is now being called. Most believe this was a positive change by the NBA to create fewer free throws and better game flow, but the players who were accustomed to things being called a certain way for so long will need a little time to recalibrate. Harden is no different.
Harden is still looking to regain his explosiveness. He isn’t dusting defenders off the dribble for blow-bys as regularly as he usually does. He isn’t getting as much lift around the basket, either. Add in his old foul hunting tricks no longer working, and it’s been a tough start to the season.
Don’t call Harden washed yet. This is truly one of the greatest scorers in league history. Few players have ever been so creative with the ball in their hands. Harden will likely figure it out as he always does. It just isn’t happening immediately thanks in large part to his lingering hamstring injury from last year.
Harden will get healthier as the season goes on, and he will adjust to how the game is being called. There’s a chance Irving will get back on the floor eventually this season too if New York changes its laws around vaccination. This is certainly a rough start for Brooklyn, but there is too much season left to write off Harden or the Nets right now.