James Harden was downright awful at the start of the 2021-22 campaign, and fans ran wild with theories as to why. Was it the new foul rules that let the defense get a little more physical with players driving into the lane, effectively eliminating Harden's most consistent way of earning points? Was it his bum hammy that prevented him from practicing all summer? Was he just in an ice-cold drought that can plague even the best of players? Nobody could figure it out, but it remained bizarre that a former MVP could possibly look so bad for as long as Harden did.
The season is now past the quarter mark and Harden has gotten a little better. The Brooklyn Nets have the best record in the East and Harden is doing his part, averaging 20 points, eight rebounds, and nine assists per night. Kevin Durant is playing at an MVP-level and when he's on Harden doesn't need to take the load. But when Durant is off his game or even out, as he was last night against the Houston Rockets, Harden still hasn't been able to take control and dominate. It is a matter of great concern for Brooklyn.
Harden has more or less figured out the most popular theory for his woes. After averaging only 4.7 free throw attempts per game in the Nets' first 12 games of the year, he's averaged over 10 per contest in the last 13 games. It's not a coincidence that Brooklyn has found their groove in that stretch, going 9-4 since November 12. The most infamous foul-chaser in NBA history wasn't going to let some meager rule adjustments affect his game for long.
But he still hasn't returned to form. Not even close. In last night's game against a very bad Rockets team, without Durant, Harden went 4-of-16 from the floor and 3-of-12 from three. He had eight assists but turned the ball over a stunning eight times, including whatever the hell this was.
The Nets lost by 10. To the Rockets. Harden looked more like Russell Westbrook than he did James Harden out there. Brooklyn needs him to be a net positive on the floor, both during the regular season so Durant doesn't have to play 40 minutes a game and in the playoffs, when defenses will be so honed in on Harden's seven-foot teammate that they'll leave him to his own devices.
On the year, Harden is only averaging 40 percent shooting from the floor. He's hitting 34 percent of his threes, which seems weird on the surface since the guard has long been one of the league's premier deep threats, but it's actually on par for his career average. It's his two-point attempts that have gone completely down the drain. Bizarrely, he's making only 47 percent of his layups, a full 11 percent drop from 2019-20, his last fully healthy season. He's made 56 percent of his shots at the rim overall this year, which is fine, but a far cry from the 68 percent mark he posted in 2019-20.
This very well could be another ripple effect of the rule changes. Harden probably throws up two or three shots per game that clang wildly off the rim because he's expecting a whistle. Maybe it'll take more time for him to adjust. It's the only logical explanation, really. Elite players like Harden don't just fall off a cliff like that (especially in the restricted area) unless they suffer a serious injury (which he has not).
Harden has lost whatever it was that made him the NBA's most dangerous scorer as recently as two years ago. The Nets have to pray he finds it again. Because without a fully weaponized Harden, they go as far as Durant can take them. Which is far, but as last year's playoffs showed, it probably won't be far enough.