James Harden is one of the best basketball players in history. That he has spent a good chunk of his career having scorn heaped upon him for being a bit of a foul-hunting goober does not change the fact that the man absolutely rules at playing basketball. So if you were hoping that the NBA’s recent rule changes, designed to eliminate many of the very fouls that goobers like Harden spent the last few seasons successfully hunting, were suddenly going to turn him into a sub-replacement level scrub, well, you are going to be sorely disappointed. Harden will figure out how to navigate the new rules, and he will score lots of points, because he’s really good.
However! Right now, Harden is struggling a bit. Through five games he is averaging just 16 points and shooting 35 percent from the field while attempting just—and this number is honestly jaw-dropping given his free-throw rate from years past—three free throws per game. When the season started, Harden and his head coach, Steve Nash, almost immediately started grumbling about how referees were using the new rules to overcorrect their treatment of Harden, and thus were perhaps denying him legitimate foul calls as a result. You can spend time watching a lot of film and engaging in spirited online debates in order to suss out the validity of that claim, or you can simply choose to do what I have done, which is watch a few clips like these and laugh:
Now that’s funny! Harden absolutely blew past his defender there—just completely dusted him!—and then, confronted with an open lane to the basket and the slightest of contact from the guy he’d just zipped by with ease, decided to halt all of his forward momentum and just kinda … fling the ball towards the rim. What you are seeing here is a guy being absolutely betrayed by his own brain and muscle memory, fighting against an instinct that he spent the last half decade or so reinforcing every single night.
And however you feel about the virtue of Harden’s game or the NBA’s quest to squelch some of it, you have to admit that watching this all play out on live TV is rather captivating. It’s like watching a leopard, taught how to survive by evolutionary instincts reinforced over thousands of years, successfully chasing down and tackling a gazelle only to discover that all gazelles are now poisonous.
Again, Harden is too good of a player not to eventually figure this out and successfully reprogram his brain back to thinking “Drive!” instead of “Foul!” every time he takes a step towards the rim. But there are going to be some funny lowlights to enjoy while he goes through that process, and you should enjoy them.