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Is James Harden’s Decline Real or Temporary?

What's behind Harden's inconsistency? Examining The Beard's complicated start to the season.

James Harden’s past two games demonstrate how erratic his 13th season has been. On Saturday night, Harden aimlessly wandered through a disappointing home loss against the Suns, generating the type of triple double that shows how useless a triple double can be: 12 points, 13 rebounds and 14 assists to go along with seven ugly turnovers, six missed threes and only two trips to the charity stripe off a drawn foul.

Afterward, as he sat with yet another performance that lacked all the poise and self-assurance Harden has accumulated throughout his first-ballot Hall of Fame career, the 32-year-old explained why he looked like a car spinning its wheels. "I'm trying to figure it out,” Harden said. “I'm trying to figure out when to score, when to be a playmaker, when to run the offense, when to do a little bit of everything."

Three days later we saw someone who found the cheat sheet he’d been looking for. Harden blasted through the Knicks with the same score-when-I-want confidence seen throughout his reign as a perennial MVP candidate, finishing with 34 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists. He went 9-for-10 from the free throw line and 11-for-20 from the floor, drilling several stepback threes, rumbling downhill off high screens, rummaging through his bag to humiliate everyone who stood in his path. There was even a putback dunk!

“Being aggressive. That’s the only thing every night is my aggressiveness. I’ve just got to continue that,” he said after the win. “That’s the mindset for four quarters.”

These two games live on opposite ends of the spectrum, but their contrast has been on display for the last six weeks, where vintage bearded greatness duels against a dejected, solemn silhouette of what that greatness used to be. The inconsistency isn’t hard to diagnose. A severely strained hamstring derailed Harden’s offseason and was still bothersome into November (though never bad enough to keep him out of the lineup). Meanwhile the NBA decided to reinterpret what is and is not a personal foul and the Nets suffered a sudden talent drain: Kyrie Irving hasn’t played a minute, Joe Harris just had ankle surgery, and Harden’s primary pick-and-roll partner is 36-year-old LaMarcus Aldridge because Blake Griffin played himself out of the rotation and Nic Claxton has been out since October 26th with a non-COVID illness.

It’s also hard to disentangle the contextual elements written above from what may be age-related decline by someone who’s played a lot of NBA basketball. Harden’s body should not be expected to perform as reliably as it did three years ago, but a tighter whistle, plus outside-shooting starved units, might have accelerated Father Time’s effect. Since he entered the league in 2010, the only player who’s logged more regular-season minutes than Harden is LeBron James. (For the playoffs, it’s just LeBron and Kevin Durant.) And over the past 10 years—aka since Harden was traded to the Rockets—only Damian Lillard, another superstar on the wrong side of 30 who’s struggling to dominate on a nightly basis, tops Harden.

Not all his numbers have plummeted, but several are low enough to ask what may be this season’s most urgent question: when it comes to Harden’s fluctuating play, how much is temporary and what is permanent?

In 2018 and '19, Harden finished first in estimated plus-minus, a catch-all metric that calculates a player’s impact while accounting for everyone else on the floor. In 2020 he was second. Last year he was 16th, and right now he’s 17th. His drives, pick-and-roll efficiency and scoring are all down to levels that should worry a team that, sans Irving, needs Harden to create as he did three years ago.

Harden is taking only 14.4 shots per game, over two fewer than a year ago and a whopping 10 below his career high. (Tallying fewer than 20 points in a game isn’t the sole mark of irreversible decline, but it’s a neat round number Harden once crossed in his sleep. This season he’s failed to reach it 11 times in 21 tries. Last year it was 13. The season before? Seven. The two seasons combined prior to that? Six.)

Thanks to the three-point line and some stellar work in isolation—albeit at half the volume of what it was just two seasons ago—Harden's true shooting percentage is more or less very good (62.3% over the last 10 games). And after a slow start, he’s beginning to draw fouls and get to the line like he used to. His free-throw rate is one of this season’s 15 best, and the percentage of his points earned at the line jumped from 22.5 in Brooklyn’s first 10 games to 36.5 in 11 through 20—a mark that’s high even for him.

But he’s still not on the attack as often as he has to be. In the five years heading into this season he averaged 17.8 drives per game. Right now he’s down to 14.3, while 46.7% of them end with a pass. He’s driven the ball more over the past 10 games, but that pass percentage hasn’t dropped to where it was when he pretty much lived at the rim in Houston.

Within the same minute, Harden will simultaneously concern and reassure those invested in his return to form. Take this sequence against the Cavaliers as an example. Instead of going right at Kevin Love, Harden slows down, waits for Ricky Rubio to recover, then goes out of his way to draw contact and miss the bunny.

On the next play, this time with Isaac Okoro on him, Harden flies off Aldridge’s screen and Eurosteps right by Love for the layup, totally unbothered by his original man, his screener’s man or any help defenders trying to clog the paint.

The hesitation seen in that first play is partially why his field goal percentage inside the three-point line is the lowest it's been since he was a rookie. Only 18.2% of his shots are coming from within three feet of the basket. Harden’s previous career low was 23.5%, and in 2020 it was 24.3%. (This is unlikely to remain so dramatic but also indicative of the talent that’s around him: Harden’s shooting splits in the restricted area with Durant on and off the floor are wild—he’s shooting 70.7% with Durant and 38.5% without.)

Harden’s turnover rate is also a career high, and in pick-and-rolls he’s coughing the ball up nearly a third of the time, according to Synergy Sports. That’s up 13% from last season. Every turnover isn’t the same, but a bunch are some variant of the one below, where Harden anticipates a double team or cuts his drive short because his teammates can’t quite create enough space for him to pick up steam. Harden doesn’t want to challenge JaVale McGee, and when you stop and note where Phoenix’s help defenders are, it’s hard to blame him.

In getting back to whether he’s in decline or simply working his way out of a physically impaired rut that’s compounded by a supporting cast that doesn't bring the same amount of gravity he normally enjoys, it’s possible both factors are to blame. That’s not to say Harden won’t ever recapture the strength and finesse that was apparent just a season ago, when he spent lengthy stretches as Brooklyn’s most valuable player. But even if he does bounce back this season and reasserts himself as an All-NBA force and bonafide top-10 player, these first 21 games will still exist as a glimpse for the Nets of what Harden will likely become.

And far too often, for a player who can sign one of the priciest contracts in NBA history this summer, it hasn’t been a pretty sight. 

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