The Whiteboard: Are the NBA’s new foul rules hurting James Harden?

Brooklyn Nets, The Whiteboard

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The Brooklyn Nets have gotten off to a rough 2-2 start, dropping games to both the Milwaukee Bucks and Charlotte Hornets in the first week of the season. There are several issues to iron out but the relative struggles of James Harden — 17.3 points per game on a 48.4 true shooting percentage, 8.3 assists to 4.8 turnovers per game — have been front and center. And of course, the number getting the most attention has been his free throw attempts.

Harden has attempted just 12 free throws across the first four games of the season, a number that is fairly striking when you consider that during the 2019-20 season when he was last fully healthy(ish) he racked up 12 or more free throws in 33 of his 68 games played.

Both Harden and his coach, Steve Nash, have addressed the free-throw decline in post-game press conferences, attributing the drop-off to the league’s new points of emphasis discouraging offensive players from leaning into defenders on shot attempts or trying to draw fouls with non-basketball moves.

Harden has been an outlier for years with his ability to draw fouls on jumpers, and 3-pointers specifically, and he is certainly one of the most visible and persistent examples of the kind of plays the league is trying to cut back on. But I’m not sure even the bulk of the decline can be attributed to the new rule changes.

Why isn’t James Harden getting to the free-throw line?

Leaguewide, the foul rate on 3-point attempts has been cut roughly in half, but that’s a difference between a shooting foul being drawn on 1.42 percent of 3-point attempts last season to 0.75 percent this season. Put another way — we’ve seen 28 3-point shooting fouls drawn across 96 games this season. At last year’s pace, we would have expected to see 53.

We see the same trend with James Harden on an individual level — big percentage changes that work out to fairly small functional differences. You could go through the video of every one of Harden’s 3-point attempts this season and critique the individual calls or non-calls but from a macro perspective, the decline in his 3-point fouls drawn rate (from 7.79 percent in 2019-20 to 3.23 percent this season) means we have ended up with one foul drawn on his 31 attempts, where we would have expected 2.5 in the past.

Clearly, that alone doesn’t explain the drop-off in free throw attempts for Harden. Most of the change can actually be traced to dribble penetration.

Looking at player tracking data from the NBA, we can see that Harden has been averaging slightly more frontcourt touches per 36 minutes this year than he has the past two seasons but he’s much less likely to drive on a frontcourt touch and the percentage of his drives which end with a shooting foul has been slashed by an enormous degree.

The NBA’s rule changes don’t only address fouls on jumpers and you can certainly find examples in the video of both obvious foul-hunting on drives that might have drawn a call before the changes and closer calls that might have gotten the benefit of the doubt based on reputation in the past.

But Harden also appears to have lost some explosiveness. Watch video of his drives and shots at the rim this season and you’ll see a lot of him creating an initial advantage with his handle and quickness that closes by the time he gets to the rim, leading to awkward shot attempts over, through and around defenders that are often in solid position.

The new rules have certainly played a part in his declining free throw attempts but changes in his aggressiveness and offensive tendencies, as well as an obvious drop-off in his athleticism, seem to have been a bigger part of the picture. Perhaps he’s working himself into shape, waiting for nagging injuries to resolve. Or it could be that accumulated injuries from the past few seasons have taken a permanent toll. But Harden is getting different results not just because the rules have changed, but because he’s a different player right now, even if it’s just temporarily.

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