James Harden hears everything. He hears how some fans and media dismiss his prolific scoring by pointing to his inordinate volume of shots per game. He hears about how all of his offensive skills fail to produce when it matters most in the playoffs. And he hears the complaints about his penchant for drawing fouls that slow down the game.
“No one wants to see a free throw shooting contest!” one fan in San Antonio whined on Dec. 3, as Harden was in the midst of an NBA record 24-for-24 performance at the line. “Nobody wanna see fouls, either!” Harden yelled back.
Despite Harden’s 50-point effort (doesn’t it feel like he’s scoring 50 every night?), the Rockets lost that game in double overtime. But clearly what the fan said stuck with him. Since that night in San Antonio, going into this weekend, Harden is still putting up prolific scoring numbers. But he’s not doing it from the line nearly as much.
Consider this, including that Dec. 3 game, Harden was averaging 14.9 free throw attempts per game in his first 20 games of the season. In the six games since then, he’s attempted 8.5 foul shots per game. And in five of the six games, he hasn’t taken more than 8. The lone outlier was a 15 for 18 effort in a win over the Suns.
There’s no question Harden is the game’s greatest scorer right now, especially in the absence of Kevin Durant. Harden can score in a variety of ways and even when you clamp down the defense on him, he has incredible hand quickness and body control to draw fouls. Harden plays the game like it’s martial arts, with counters and defenses to just about every attack.
He’s averaging almost 40 points per game (39.3) well over a quarter into the season and yet his eternal search for universal appreciation and MVP status — one his most loyal fans and media defend — will fall short once again because of the seasons we are seeing from LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo and even Luka Doncic. Harden is the best and most versatile scorer in the game, but it can be argued that the aforementioned players are far more entertaining to watch.
So while the amount of 50-point performances Harden can stack in a season (he has 5 so far this season) is eye-catching on a stat sheet, the manner in which he gets them doesn’t do much for ratings. He’s not a breathtaking player in the way LeBron or Giannis is on the screen.
If he’s aware of the complaints about how many free throws he takes per game, you know he’s aware of this, too. And maybe that’s the problem. If he was simply aware of just doing whatever it takes to win games, especially when it matters most in series clinching moments, and not about fan appreciation, he might get the respect he seems to beg for every year.
As we discussed in the previous column, the NBA Trade Season officially opened on Sunday (Dec. 15). According to ESPN’s Bobby Marks, about 90% of the NBA is now eligible to be traded. There are still a handful of players — signed by their Bird Rights while exceeding the salary cap — who are still protected until Jan. 15.
While there’s already rampant speculation about who will make the first move and what big name — Kevin Love, Andre Iguodala, Danilo Gallinari, Chris Paul — will be first, Marks warns us that there hasn’t been much action on the trade front between Dec. 15 and Jan. 15 in recent years. In fact, there have been three or fewer trades made in this time period in six of the last seven years. There were none made in 2017-18, but a whopping 10 went down in 2014-15.
A reason to think this will be an active trade season in the NBA is because for the first time in many years, there is no clear-cut favorite in either conference and definitely no runaway favorite for the championship. Several teams — Lakers, Clippers, Bucks, Celtics, Sixers, Nuggets, Heat, Rockets and defending champion Raptors — have reason to believe they can contend, which means you may see those teams look to load up by the Feb. 6, 2020 trade deadline.
Another reason for a bull market has to do with what is setting up to be a relatively uneventful free agency season next summer. Anthony Davis would be the biggest prize, but the Lakers are assumed to have the upper hand in retaining him. After that, you’re talking about Brandon Ingram, DeMar DeRozan, Gordon Hayward and Andre Drummond.
So if you’re a team with assets looking to make a significant upgrade to your roster, free agency doesn’t appear to be the way to do it. One thing to keep in mind, the 2020 NBA Draft is setting up to be a good one, so first round picks will come at a premium.
Trades aren’t the only way to add to your team. The Portland Trail Blazers proved that with the signing of Carmelo Anthony earlier this month. Melo, who hadn’t played an NBA game in over a calendar year, has put some energy into a struggling team with 16.3 points per game so far in 12 games.
There are two others — both, worth noting, former Knicks — who are still hoping to get back into the league. One is 39 year old Jamal Crawford, who last season played 64 games with the Phoenix Suns. The other is 37 year old Amar’e Stoudemire, who hasn’t played in the NBA since the 2015-16 season but just recently returned after dominating the Chinese Basketball Association.
Stoudemire has been looking for an NBA opportunity since the summer, when he left the Big 3 circuit because it was, essentially, too easy for him. We interviewed STAT on the MSG 150 show in the summer and he said he had a workout in Las Vegas in front of 15 teams and was hoping one would give him an offer. None did.
Stoudemire went to the CBA to continue to show that his body (and knees) were still healthy. In 11 games for the Sturgeons, he averaged 19.8 points and 8.3 rebounds in 27.9 minutes per game while shooting 51% from the field. He came back to the US recently to be with his family and hoped he put enough games on tape for NBA teams to show interest.
No one would expect Stoudemire to play big minutes in the NBA at this point in his career, but he felt he has a lot to offer not just as a player, but as a veteran to guide young players “to know how to train, how to be a great basketball player.”
Crawford, who turns 40 in March, also has that perspective in mind. He recently tweeted, “At a certain point, it should be less about what you’ve done and more about what you can do to help someone else.” Crawford proved, at times last season, he still has some game left but he clearly isn’t going to step in and be a Sixth Man of the Year candidate as he was earlier in his career.
But he is still very active in following the league and is quick to promote and encourage young players. Crawford is one of the most universally liked and respected players in the league. And he loves basketball. He’s made enough money in his career to simply retire and enjoy life, but Crawford clearly misses the game. He may not be someone who can help a championship contender, but he could be a valuable locker room and practice presence for a young, rebuilding team that needs mentors. I’ve often felt he would be of great value to a player like Allonzo Trier of the Knicks.
Right now, the oldest player in the league is Vince Carter, who, at 43 in his NBA-record 22nd season, plays 15.5 minutes per game with the rebuilding Hawks. Why does he keep playing? He doesn’t want to stop and he’s one of the lucky ones who at his age, is still physically able to do it. Also, he enjoys playing the role of mentor to players literally half his age.
“It’s not like I’m trying to be a coach,” Carter told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in September. “I don’t want to be a coach, but I want to help these guys. I want to be a mentor, I want to be a leader of the team, even though I’m not the face of the team. I’d love to still be a leader. And these guys can rely on me, good and bad.”
The NBA is the youngest it’s been since the early 1980s, with an average age of 26.1 years old. There’s only three players in the league who are older than 35 years of age: Carter, Udonis Haslem (39, Heat), Kyle Korver (38, Bucks) and Tyson Chandler (37, Rockets).
For certain, it’s a young man’s game. But there is still a need for experience, especially if those vets are willing to play a mentoring role.