Could James Harden’s Conditioning Be Holding Him Back? Recent Report Suggests So

james harden free throw struggles

Getty James Harden during a game against the Washington Wizards.

The last time James Harden averaged fewer than 20 points a game in an NBA season was exactly a decade ago, when the nine-time All-Star was an NBA newbie coming off the bench for the Oklahoma City Thunder.

A lot has changed since then, and Harden has vaulted himself into the NBA’s top 75 players of all-time.

He hasn’t quite looked like that caliber of player to begin the 2021-22 season, though.

Averaging only 18.3 points per game through Brooklyn’s first eight contests of the young season, the 32-year-old Nets star is missing the explosive quality that facilitated three straight seasons of scoring more than 30 points between 2017-20.

In a recent article for Bleacher Report, NBA writer Jake Fischer weighed in on Harden’s early struggles.

“Harden’s slow start has drawn the attention of skeptical league personnel who wonder whether this is the beginning of the perennial MVP candidate’s decline into more of a secondary All-Star,” Fischer wrote. “Other observers believe Harden’s conditioning is the main factor in his depressed stats. He did flash a bouncier performance in Sunday’s victory over the Pistons, hanging an easy 18-point triple-double on only nine shots, including 4-of-7 from distance. And on Wednesday, he knocked down five of his 11 attempts from deep against the Hawks.”

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Harden’s Trips to the Foul Line Have Dropped off Dramatically

Harden is a career 44.4 percent shooting from the field. This year, that number has dropped to 39.3 percent.

Still, shooting accuracy is only part of the direct issue that has resulted in Harden’s dip in scoring production. There’s also the massive drop in trips he takes to the foul line, thanks in large part to new NBA rules that were implemented this season to eliminate foul calls on non-basketball moves.

For his career, Harden has made 7.5 free throws per game on 8.7 trips to the foul line (85.8 percent shooting) over the course of 885 NBA games. This year, he’s making only 4.1 free throws on 4.8 trips to the line (86.8 percent shooting).

While Fischer wrote that the NBA community has viewed the rules change (and subsequent fewer foul calls) as “addition by subtraction,” it’s no doubt had something of a negative effect on Harden’s particular game.

“Sometimes I feel like coming into a game, it’s already predetermined,” Harden said of referees being over-aware of notorious foul-chasers, per Fischer. “Or I already have that stigma of getting foul calls.”

Fischer asked around and was able to corroborate Harden’s speculation.

“Many league insiders contacted by B/R agreed there’s truth to what Harden is saying—that officials are perhaps overcorrecting in the early stages of this season,” Fischer wrote. “Referees will likely find an equilibrium. There’s an expectation among analytics staffers that scorers’ free-throw numbers will likely improve over time.

“Still, Harden seems to be in need of a strategic makeover more than any other player in the NBA.”

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Harden Getting His Groove Back

Harden still isn’t exactly lighting up opposing defenses, but he’s certainly played much better over Brooklyn’s past three games, during which he has averaged 10.3 assists per contest. The Nets have won three straight after going 2-3 to begin the season.

“I think it’s just a feel for each other,” Harden said when asked to describe what has changed since the 2-3 start, per Newsday. “The first couple games, training camp, preseason, nobody’s really playing hard. So games count, they matter now. We get to figure out who’s great at what and how they can execute and what things guys aren’t great at.

“We’re finding that rhythm. We’re finding each other. This is getting a lot easier. Our second unit is playing extremely well.”

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