James Harden has become an occupational hazard for referees. Earlier this month, the Jazz were up seven on the Rockets with just over a minute to play, and Utah players were at their wit’s end with the officials. Following a signal that the Jazz had committed yet another foul, Joe Johnson threw his right hand up in disgust. Rudy Gobert shook his head in disbelief. Rodney Hood, who was charged with the foul, looked for a ref with whom he could plead. Joe Ingles had both palms out, confused as to how so little contact could prompt a call.
The whistle marked the fourth time that night that Utah had been charged with fouling Harden in the act of shooting a 3-pointer. And while that might sound unbelievable, it wasn’t even the first time this season that the MVP frontrunner had drawn four shooting fouls from the arc in a game.1
Harden has long been great at drawing fouls no matter where he is on the court, but he has taken the art form to new heights on his 3-point attempts this season. After drawing 27 fouls while trying to shoot a triple in 2014-15 and inducing 46 such fouls last season,2 Harden has drawn a whopping 108 shooting fouls from distance this year with 11 games left to play. For context, consider that, outside of the Rockets, no team has garnered more than 73 of those calls.3
If you subtract Harden’s numbers from the rest of the league’s, the average NBA player has drawn fouls on 1.6 percent of his 3-pointers this season, according to BigDataBall, which tracks the league’s play-by-play logs. Harden is drawing 3-point shooting fouls at a 16.7 percent clip, or more than 10 times as often. How is he so good at this?
|PLAYER||TEAM||3PT ATTEMPTS||3PT FOULS DRAWN||3PT FOUL RATE|
The Rockets star has a couple patterns he uses to consistently get these calls. Unlike Jamal Crawford, who has drawn dozens of perimeter shooting fouls as players barrel into his legs during close-outs, Harden would seem to be the one initiating contact on many of his fouls.
In particular, Harden has found a way to turn even solid, respectable defenders into victims. He generally waits until his man puts a hand up to defend, then locks arms with him and jumps to begin a shot, making the defender appear guilty. Harden basically forces perimeter defenders to play with their hands down along the 3-point line.
Back on New Year’s Eve, Knicks coach Jeff Hornacek vented about this after a loss in Houston, saying it’s impossible to defend Harden given his ability to trick officials. “He grabs with his left arm, has the ball in the right hand and wraps his left arm with your hand,” said Hornacek, whose team fouled Harden from 3-point range four times4 that night while Harden racked up a 53 points, 16 rebounds and 17 assists. “To me, that’s an offensive foul. But he does it fast, quick — it’s hard to see.”
The other thing Harden does well: Stop on a dime and pop jumpers just as he’s navigating around screens. That trick makes life hell for the defenders who are sprinting to go over the pick to stay with him. Harden’s world-class ability to stop abruptly means that defenders frequently can’t hit the brakes as quickly as he can, which leads to players running into him from behind, prompting 3-shot fouls. This has been especially true this season, as defenders have tried to stay on Harden’s hip more than usual5 to prevent him from spraying the ball wherever he wants in Houston’s spacious offense.
|PLAYER/TEAM||SHOOTING FOULS DRAWN ON 3-POINT ATTEMPTS|
“As an opponent, no, I don’t admire it,” Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony told reporters when asked about Harden’s tactics. “As a fan, [I] admire it. Because we as offensive guys, guys who like to score, always try to find tricks that can work in our favor. He found something that’s working for him. So no, as an opponent, I hate it.” (I asked a league spokesman about this issue as it relates to Harden — particularly since the NBA stopped awarding shooting fouls for a similar rip-through move years ago — but he said it’s against league policy to discuss how a particular player is officiated.)
Harden isn’t oblivious to the perception that he draws more shooting fouls than he probably should. But the crafty guard makes no apologies, either, saying a defender making contact on a jump shot should merit a foul just like someone bumping a shooter near the basket would. “A foul is a foul no matter how it’s committed,” he told Time in a Q&A this season.
Sometimes Harden’s strategy backfires in embarrassing fashion, as he’ll incorrectly anticipate contact and throw up a wild shot in hopes of drawing a foul that never comes.
But more often than not, it’s been a worthwhile gamble for Harden and the Rockets to go for the foul. That’s become even more true in the past month, since Houston traded for Lou Williams, the player who’s drawn the second-most 3-point shooting fouls in the NBA this season — trailing, of course, only Harden. I asked Houston general manager Daryl Morey about having both of the league’s top two guys in such an odd category, and he said he and others in the Rockets’ front office had noticed Williams’s unusual ability to draw contact from the perimeter, but that it wasn’t the overriding reason they made the swap with the Lakers.
“We knew that both Lou and James are extremely good shooters that are hard to guard. So, going over the screen and being physical with them is one of the only ways to guard them, which causes them to get fouled more than others,” Morey said. “That said, we focused more on their overall efficiency than how people have to foul them to stop them.”
Teams will do their best to stop Harden from using the trick once the postseason starts. But if last year’s playoffs are any indication, that may not work, either: Harden drew five whistles on just 42 3-point attempts. Three of those fouls came in one half, in a game against the Warriors.
Neil Paine assisted with research for this story.
Check out our latest NBA predictions.