Imagine a world where drawing a foul was the coolest thing a basketball player could do. SportsCenter would lead every night with clips of driving players getting their arms thwacked by beaten defenders. Streetball games would come to screeching halts when defenders take out the legs of shooters after mistiming their contests. Air horns would blare at the exact moment defenders leave their feet in Twitter videos with 280 skull emojis as captions; the time Bruce Bowen kicked Wally Szczerbiak in the face would be more famous than the time Allen Iverson crossed over Michael Jordan. YouTube would be filled with videos entitled “NBA Craziest Fouls Mix.” And on the playground, when kids rip their hands upward through their friends’ arms to draw fouls on deep jumpers, the name they’d scream would be “HARDEN!”
James Harden is spectacular at drawing fouls, perhaps the greatest in the history of the sport. He has led the NBA in free throws attempted in each of the past four seasons and five of the past six. Only one guard, Jerry West, has ever had a season with more free throws attempted per minute than Harden’s 2016-17 season. Normally, the players who get fouled the most are big men whose roles lead to a lot of physical contact and who aren’t particularly good at foul shooting—Wilt Chamberlain and Shaquille O’Neal each led the league in free throws attempted more times than Harden has, but both shot lower percentages from the line than from the field over the course of their careers. For defenses, fouling those players was a good investment.
But that’s not true with Harden, a career 85.4 percent foul shooter. A Harden visit to the line is worth 1.71 points per possession. You’d need to shoot 57 percent from 3 to score that efficiently. The Rockets are famous for being the standard of basketball efficiency, but nothing they do is as efficient as getting Harden to the line.
Opponents know this; it doesn’t matter. Harden is a maestro. For him, every possession is a fencing match, except in this version of fencing, he wins when the opponent crashes their body into his. Even as defenders try to stay clear of him, he manages to coax their bodies into interfering with his path.
And yet, nobody celebrates his one-of-a-kind craft. ESPN cuts videos of big moments in every game—from Game 1 of the Rockets’ conference-semifinal win over the Jazz, they chose such plays as “Harden cooks Gobert for layup,” “Harden hits tough step-back 3 over Mitchell,” and “Harden feeds Capela for poster dunk”—but Harden’s drawn fouls are never included. NBA.com allows fans to sort through videos of every shot attempt, rebound, assist, block, and steal by every player, but does not feature videos of drawn fouls or free throws. Even when YouTubers cut exhaustive highlight reels of Harden, they leave out the fouls.
We will never live in that world where drawing fouls is fashionable. The rightful way to score is by throwing a ball into a basket. Free throws are interruptions in the regular course of play, although we accept them as a reward for players whose moves are so effective that nobody can guard them legally. Harden, however, often seeks to get fouled as a primary action, subverting the natural order of things. And of course, there are the flops. Harden’s game feels cynical, like he is exploiting a loophole.
But for a moment, let’s pretend we live in that world, where drawn fouls are considered cooler than monster dunks and killer crossovers. Here are Harden’s finest fouls of the 2018 postseason, and the names Harden’s adoring fans might give to his creations.
In the world where drawing fouls is considered as cool as dunking on somebody, this Dante Exum foul is a poster. Poor Exum gets brutalized: Harden wrenches Exum’s arm upward, slams a basketball into his face, and the force of Harden’s drive knocks him to the floor. It is a foul on Exum:
Harden often acts like a wrestler or UFC fighter, waiting for an opposing limb to stray someplace vulnerable, then seizing it. Here, Exum’s arm makes the slightest foray into forbidden territory, lightly touching him on the belly. Harden reacts instantly, jackknifing his arm around Exum’s, pinning it in between his biceps and forearm. When Harden lifts his arms up—ostensibly to shoot, although it would be one of the most awkward shots in basketball history—Exum cannot extract his arm. He has fouled Harden, even though Harden is the one inflicting pain on him.
Here’s Harden doing the same thing to Royce O’Neale:
The Compliant Giant
When a big man posts up a smaller player unfortunate enough to find himself in the paint, it’s called a mouse in the house. When Harden sees a bigger defender in his sights on the perimeter, he is dealing with a compliant giant. Here, that defender is Taj Gibson:
Gibson knows he cannot defend Harden’s drive and his shot at the same time, and decides his best strategy is to hang back and hope his long arms can do some of the work. He stays a few feet away from Harden, holding one arm back to save his feet some work in case Harden tries to take him off the dribble, and one arm in Harden’s face. Unfortunately, his big arms are not fast. Harden rips his arm upward, shooting through Gibson’s arm. You know that game we played as kids where your friend laid their palms on top of your hands, and you had to flip your hands and slap theirs before they could pull their hands back? James Harden probably won that game, like, 100 percent of the time.
Harden is great at getting fouled on 3s. In fact, he was fouled while shooting 3s more times last year than any team in the NBA, which is how he managed to lead the league in free throws attempted by a significant margin despite finishing third in actual fouls drawn. (Harden took 727 free throws while getting fouled 505 times; Anthony Davis led the league with 558 fouls drawn but attempted only 598 free throws.)
And in 10 games this postseason, Harden has been fouled seven times on 3s, accounting for more than a quarter of his total free throws. Harden understands that getting fouled on a 3-pointer is basically more valuable than any other outcome that could occur on any part of the court—as an 85 percent free throw shooter, a foul on a 3-pointer is more valuable to Harden than an uncontested dunk.
The Pick and Troll
On this play, Donovan Mitchell is defending Harden when Clint Capela comes to set a pick on Mitchell’s right. Mitchell does what basketball players anticipating picks have done since the pick was invented: He tries to fight over the top of the screen, making sure Capela won’t get in between him and Harden. Most offensive players would cut back to the space their defender has just abandoned. But not Harden, who realizes that Mitchell has overplayed his position. He leans toward Mitchell and shoots, letting the entire left side of his body crash into Mitchell.
Harden did the same thing to Gibson:
I feel like Capela is somewhat complicit in the fouls—he kinda nudges Harden’s defenders into Harden’s path with his picks.
Most fouls are committed by players moving forward, but James Harden figured out a way to back his ass up into a foul:
The fact that this is called a foul seems absurd. Harden was 80 feet from the basket when he threw his body backward into Joe Ingles. This move had nothing to do with basketball. But, like, what is the official supposed to do? Just ignore a massive collision of two players? And while Harden definitely initiates the contact, he also reached the spot Ingles was running to before Ingles got there.
The Anatomy Lesson
Watching Harden, you learn all sorts of things about the human body. For example, who knew that the neck was connected to the bicep?
I do think that most NBA fans overestimate the amount of flopping that happens in the league. Players’ bodies often appear to contort in unexpected, seemingly exaggerated ways after fouls, but I bet your body would look pretty weird too if you watched slow-motion videos of yourself reacting to high-speed contact by very strong people.
I don’t, however, think that Mitchell slightly brushing Harden’s left arm during a shot should have led to Harden’s neck snapping backward. You can see the wheels turn in Harden’s head after the minuscule contact, and the wheels in Harden’s head are apparently connected to an elaborate pulley system that causes his head to jerk backward.
And there’s the annoying part of Harden’s game. Some of the fouls he draws are genuinely pieces of basketball art—weird, postmodernist basketball art, but basketball art still—where Harden craftily uses his opponents’ bodies against themselves, stealing points by acting in a way no defender would expect. And some of the fouls he draws are just him whipping his head around like the world’s hairiest crash test dummy. (Perhaps the beard even serves to draw attention to the disturbance of Harden’s head, like a flare made of hair.) I feel like even in the world where fouls are cool, Harden’s flops wouldn’t make his highlight reels.
The Angry Butler
Of all the fouls I’ve watched Harden take, two stood out to me—both by Jimmy Butler.
Twice in the waning moments of games, Butler chose to just shove Harden. After Harden spent nearly the entire game turning every arm gone slightly astray into a foul, Butler decided to finally get his damn money’s worth. These are the fouls that had the least to do with Harden’s ability to get fouled; another player is just letting their frustration loose and committing an obvious hack any referee on earth would call. But aren’t they kind of the fouls that tell us the most about Harden’s ability to get fouled?