Is James Harden still a free-throw magnet?

Absent Kyrie, the Nets are only favorites if Harden’s still a superstar

BY DAVID THORPE

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If Kyrie Irving isn’t going to be in uniform, the Brooklyn Nets—the favorites to win this year’s title—are betting on the combined superpowers of Kevin Durant and James Harden. They proved just last season that they are super capable of leading an elite team. Over 301 minutes last season, those lineups outscored opponents by 11 points per 100 possessions, which is very good. (The Nets were elite last year, even though the three stars played together for only 202 minutes together.) Vegas seems to think a Harden/KD tandem is sufficient to be the favorites. Given the Nets’ improved depth—but with some concerns about the center position—I’m inclined to agree. In winning gold for Team USA at the Olympics, Durant appears to be fit and ready to make a run for his second MVP Trophy. 

Which raises an important question heading into preseason: Is Harden ready to be Durant’s wingman on a title team? 

After three meaningless preseason games, it’s too early to know. But the signs are worrisome. 

Two preseasons ago in Houston, Harden shot 14.2 free throws per 36 minutes; he shot 11.2 in the regular season. Last season as a Net, in a new offense with super-scorers alongside him, he was at 7.3. In three games of preseason this year, he’s taking 3.1 free throws per 36, 11th on the team. 

There’s a lot going on to make this a frustrating observation. The NBA has changed the rules about how scorers can draw fouls. Is that affecting him? At 32, is he literally slowing down? Is it something about the offense the Nets run? Is it because he’s not trying as hard in the preseason? Is he not yet in peak shape?

Yes to all that. 

There are many facets to Harden’s brilliance, none more important than his wizard-like ability to draw fouls. He has defined the craft, thanks to his incredible dribbling, his talent at starting and stopping instantly, and his pure craft at creating contact. 

Every team that has employed him over the last decade has assumed he would be a free-throw magnet. I don’t assume that anymore. 

On Monday, Harden faced the Sixers who played without either of their elite stoppers--Ben Simmons or Matisse Thybulle. Harden repeatedly got the ball isolated against the kinds of defenders he has long roasted, and managed just two free throws all night. He ended up making 8 of 14 from the floor. He was, in a word, guardable, as a driver. That’s new. And it’s not a good look. The same thing happened Thursday against the historically defenseless Timberwolves—31 minutes and two free throws. (This time he looked to mostly just be the team quarterback, amassing 14 assists and only six points.) 

There’s no question he isn’t in mid-season shape yet, evidenced by his ten turnovers over his last two games, neither of which was playing great defense. He will get better, I’m certain of that. How much better is the question, and a poignant one considering the uncertain state of Kyrie Irving. 

We can never discount elite players’ ability to grow their games—even at Harden’s age. One potential avenue: Harden’s 3-point shooting. Since leaving OKC years ago, Harden has never topped 36.8 percent, and he hit 36.6 percent last season. If he can get that number over 40 percent on a good number of attempts (he took 7.3 of them a game last season, an eight-year low), it will make up for a lot of missed free throw opportunities.

Today the Nets are still the title favorites in Vegas. Without a serious increase in Harden’s ability to get to the line, they will have trouble making it out of the East. Nets fans don’t need any reminders that Durant alone isn’t enough to beat the Bucks. The Heat will be challenging come springtime. The Sixers with Simmons, or his replacement, have the potential to knock off the Nets. The Hawks have the firepower to outscore any opponent that isn’t loaded on defense, which is a very fair way to categorize the Nets on that side of the court. 

Raptors rookie Scottie Barnes has some Ben Simmons to his game—he’s not in love with scoring, and he’s not a great shooter. But he has a trick from Magic Johnson’s playbook, a reliable way to get a bucket against a set defense. MARK BLINCH/GETTY IMAGES SPORT

Scottie Barnes has a playoff-ready way to get a bucket

You won’t find it on any highlight package (I know—I scoured them all), but in the second quarter of their game in Boston Saturday night, Raptors rookie Scottie Barnes made a play with playoff implications. 

He’s been one of the most impressive rookies to date, somehow leading Toronto in assists (at 5.6 a game, 13th in the NBA, just behind Ja Morant and Giannis Antetokounmpo) from a position—the dunk spot—where that’s unthinkable. On defense, that’s him hounding Shake Milton full court, chasing Bradley Beal around ball screens, defending Jayson Tatum in space and getting posted up by Al Horford. These are assignments where rookies fail as a rite of passage. Despite those impossible assignments, tangling with elite players doing elite things, Barnes’ defensive rating is better than veteran teammates OG Anunoby and Gary Trent Jr. He’s blocked six shots in five games, including a step-back 3 by long-armed 6-8 scoring machine Tatum. And he does it all with a Magic Johnson-level of unbridled joy which I believe absolutely makes his team better. My bet: Scottie Barnes will be a superstar. 

But he can’t really shoot, and isn’t all that interested in scoring. Anyone who has ever heard the name “Ben Simmons” knows to worry about that (in fact I told a veteran NBA agent that Barnes will, at least, be a more fun version of Simmons one day). The first problem remains, as he has missed all eight 3-point attempts (though his 71 percent from the line is an improvement from college and a good sign). But there’s no doubt he is thinking “score” more than what we saw in his only year at Florida State. We know a lot of ways he won’t get a lot of baskets this season: Beating his defender off the dribble in isolation, or with shots from the perimeter. That leaves transition baskets, rim-runs as a screen and roller or in the dunk spot, and … one other promising approach:

By using his size and playing bully-ball in the second box (the half of the paint below the free-throw line), or just outside of it. What we see here against Al Horford is beautiful for Raptors fans. What he did against Boston in that second quarter was even prettier. Isolated against Tatum, Barnes maneuvered into the paint using his handle and body to get to a slightly fading push-shot jumper that he made from about 12 feet in the middle of the paint. It looked perfect. And repeatable. It also looked like the kind of basket Magic Johnson used to make. Neither man is a textbook-perfect jump-shooter but both are super long 6-8 ball handlers with a knack for making buckets when they have to. It’s basketball’s equivalent of getting on base, and the precise kind of manufactured points the Raptors will need to make noise in the playoffs. 

Anthony Edwards plays a little like Dwyane Wade

I watched almost every minute of Dwyane Wade’s rookie season, and even saw him live in Los Angeles for the “Rookie Sensation” game, alongside LeBron James, Chris Bosh, and Carmelo Anthony during All-Star weekend. I don’t want to get into any old-man style bragging, but the fact is I have been lucky enough to be around a ton of elite athletes. On my own high school team I had a 6-1 guard who liked to do 360 dunks before and after practices. Ninth- and tenth-graders on our JV team held dunk contests often. I saw Vince Carter play at that age too. In other words, I am not easily impressed by athletic feats, which is why Wade blew my mind. He was making plays I just hadn’t seen. Wade’s rookie year remains the most athletically astounding in my memory banks.

This Anthony Edwards play might look ordinary, but to me it’s outrageous, and reminiscent of young Wade. Edwards doesn’t get a dunk, and he beats slow-footed Ivica Zubac to the rim after beating Justise Winslow on a hesitation dribble. It’s not like he smoked the defensive player of the year. But the way he created space, using an explosive burst, he could have. His athletic energy, coupled with perfect timing on that particular move, makes him very hard to defend. 

The challenge for Edwards, and every incredibly rare athlete, is to play with Wade’s relentless energy. Wade played most possessions as if it might be his last. It’s a cliche, but for anyone lucky enough to see Wade play starting day one in 2003, it’s also accurate. That’s a challenge.


David Thorpe, Fireside parent/coach

BY HENRY ABBOTT

Fireside is especially designed for highly interactive shows. (Tagline: “the future of entertainment is interactive.”) Improv comedians have been early successes. The right topic favors spontaneity, attuned to the audience. That, in my experience, really means total comfort with the area of expertise. Can you pivot to … whatever might happen? (Political candidates take audience questions when they’re ready for any topic; when they’re new and green it’s better to stick to the teleprompter.) So I asked myself what do we know so deeply we can speak off the cuff?

The obvious answer was David’s three-decade sideline job advising parents (myself totally included) about sports. He has a clear mission: to use sports to build a bridge to your kids’ hearts. He takes phone calls on this topic seven days a week.

And he has helpful ideas for everything. Many years ago I told him my toddler daughter had just learned to catch a grocery store bouncy ball. He immediately said “see if she can do it with just her hands, not trapping it against her body.” Not something I ever would have thought or said to her, but she worked on it for about a minute and then had it down. 

Later I heard him tell a coworker to horse around with his little kids in a pool in a way that expects them to be athletic. Throw a ball so they catch it diving in. Getting comfortable being coordinated and vigorous might make them feel a little more ready to jump in when someone asks if they want to play Capture the Flag or pickup basketball. Life is healthier and happier when games feel fun.

His brain has handy advice from the first time your kid catches a ball through how to get playing time on an NBA team. And it’s fun. Positive. Loving. Just like you’d expect from David.

He’s walking people through those steps and taking questions at noon Eastern every Tuesday. Please join us.


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