James Harden is one of the most prolific scorers in the history of the modern NBA. There is no disputing that. In fact, with all the dominance on display in recent years by the Greek Freak, King James, and the Splash Brothers in Golden State, Harden, aka “The Beard” has been the league’s reigning scoring champion for the last four seasons. At 30.5 Points Per Game (PPG) through the first five games of this season, it’s more than plausible for that streak to reach five and beyond.
Here comes the real question: Who cares?
George Gervin won four scoring titles in five years, but zero championships. Some would say their “ball-centric” playing style was similar as well. However, there is one area where the players are vastly different. Gervin aka “The Iceman” was a more than respectable playoff performer. The same cannot be said for Harden.
A Playoff Fallacy
The moniker of “Big Game James” is just foolish. Actually, it’s absurd, a myth, fairy tale, a PR stunt, pure garbage. Call it whatever you want—just don’t say it’s accurate. How is it that a player can be such an aggressive shot-taker and maker during the regular season, yet morph into a bashful and unassuming non-factor in the playoffs?
On countless occasions, when his team has needed him most, “The Beard” has approached the basket like Bill Russell, Dikembe Mutombo, and Wilt Chamberlain in their primes were guarding it. Take a look at some of the individual performances of this player who is supposedly so sought after by some serious title contenders, courtesy of Basketball Reference.
First, let’s be real and discount his first three years in the league with OKC, since it seems unfair to hold such a young player to the standards required as the centerpiece of a championship-caliber team…especially when Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook were there as well.
- The 2015 Western Conference Finals versus Golden State: Harden bookends a 45-point show-stopper of a performance in Game 4 by going 3-16 in Game 3 and 2-11 in an elimination situation in Game 5.
- In 2016 Harden’s Rockets had the misfortune of facing Golden State again. This time in the first round. Harden’s 41% from the floor wasn’t too bad, but his total +/- for the series of -82 speaks volumes. We could chalk this and the previous up to running into a juggernaut like the Warriors, much the way Gervin’s Spurs had to face the Lakers more than once in his playoff career. The difference is that Gervin kept scoring, while Harden somehow took only 11 shots in a must-win game.
- In the 2017 Western Conference Semi-Finals against San Antonio, Harden went 3-17 in a Game 2 loss and 2-11 in a Game 6 elimination. At this point, I’d like to mention that Harden averaged almost 19 shots per game that season and took only 11 in a do-or-die situation…for the second time in three years. By the way, he was -28 for that game as well.
- In a first-round matchup with the Timberwolves in 2018, Harden’s Rockets emerged victorious in 5 games, including a Game 2 victory despite Harden shooting a shockingly bad 2-18 from the field.
The Rockets went on in that 2018 season to defeat Utah in the next round with Harden posting respectable numbers in each of the series’ 5 games. Then came those damned Warriors again…
This was a fun series and Harden wasn’t horrible, except for his shooting from beyond the arc (where he usually makes his living). Oddly enough Houston overcame Harden’s 3-15 in Game 2 and 3-12 in Game 4 from deep. The Rockets somehow even won Game 5 when Harden shot 0-11 from 3-point range. That victory gave the Rockets a 3-2 series edge until the roof caved in. The Rockets lost Game 6 by 29 points with Harden posting a plus/minus of -19 for the game and eventually faltered in Game 7 with Harden shooting 2-13 from 3-point land. At least it wasn’t 2-11.
Since then, Harden has had some decent playoff performances, but nothing mind-blowing or worthy of garnering all this attention about adding to a championship contender. In fact, there have been plenty of other stinkers that continued to mar his resume, like last year’s Game 4 in the bubble against the eventual champs, when he shot 2-11 from the field again. What the bleep is the deal with going 2-11? It’s a statistical oddity that just keeps showing up. Maybe he should change his number to 2 or 11 and see if that changes the karma somehow.
Contenders Stay Clear
The point is that contenders such as Philadelphia, Brooklyn, Miami, Milwaukee, or Boston who are on Harden’s list of acceptable destinations for him to be traded to, should indeed “Fear The Beard.” The fear should be based, however, in staying clear of this uniquely talented regular season performer who continuously melts down in the playoffs.
The Sixers should continue to nurture the talented trio of Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid with Tobias Harris. The Celtics have a young core in Jayson Tatum, Jalen Brown, and Marcus Smart that are getting more dangerous every game they play together. Miami has a clutch performer in Jimmy Butler, with Bam Adebayo and Tyler Herro as superb complementary pieces. Milwaukee has…well they have Giannis. Can someone get this man a legitimate second option? The point is Harden would only take shots away from Giannis and maybe even lull him to sleep with his non-stop dribbling at the top of the key.
Harden might fit in decently with the Sixers, but they need a guy who can actually take them to the next level in the playoffs, not keep them where they’re at. On the Celtics, he would take shots away from Jayson Tatum who is emerging as a scoring threat that could even surpass Harden soon. As far as Brooklyn goes, they already have Kyrie, so can they really afford another guy who demands the ball all the time?
Not only is Harden seemingly allergic to playoff success, does anybody really enjoy his game? How many times can we really watch someone dribble at the top of the key for 14 seconds to hoist a step-back three? It’s effective to the point of being deadly in the regular season, but it’s painfully boring to watch for anyone who loves basketball.
If you’re old enough to remember watching the “Show Time” Lakers of the 80s, Steve Nash, Jason Kidd, or John Stockton in their primes, watching James Harden‘s version of basketball is like watching a grammar school production of Cats…or even worse, the movie.
Most importantly, If you’re a fan of a contending team, you should “Fear the Beard,” and hope your team doesn’t trade its young talent or mistakenly go “all-in” for him.
Overall, Harden would do nothing to add to those teams. Rather, he would take away from the chemistry they have created without him, except maybe the Nets. No team with Kyrie on it can have chemistry that doesn’t involve a Hollywood-blockbuster worthy explosion at some point. General managers of contending teams need to remember one of the most basic rules when it comes to deal-making, which is that “Sometimes, the best deals are the ones you don’t make.” Fans of contending teams should definitely “Fear the Beard” and hope he stays in Houston.