James Harden is playing his way into history — whether you like it or not

Vincent Goodwill

Our weekly look at four topics — players, issues, numbers, trends — that are impacting and, in some cases, changing the game.

First Quarter: An appreciation of James Harden

There’s been a lot of space dedicated to James Harden. Some of it fawning, but plenty of it has been derisive, pointing out his failures in the postseason and that his style is less than pleasing to the eye.

And while there appears to be a level he can’t yet reach in the playoffs — and he’ll be judged accordingly until that changes — there’s still more than enough to point out that he belongs to history.

However you put it, there’s a holy quaternity of shooting guards: Michael Jordan at the head of the table, followed by Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade and Jerry West, in whichever order you prefer.

We haven’t considered anyone else to be near that class, but Harden is trying to crack the conversation. Of course, those four have jewelry and unassailable Finals moments, too.

Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) hits the court after he was fouled during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the San Antonio Spurs, in San Antonio, Tuesday, Dec. 3, 2019. San Antonio won 135-133 in double overtime. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
Yes, James Harden spends a lot of time on the ground and trying to draw fouls. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

Harden’s got an MVP — he should probably have two — and owns eight of the 10 highest-scoring games this calendar year, with Damian Lillard and Devin Booker holding the other two. He’s on pace to lead the league in scoring for the third straight year and is close to averaging 40 a night.

It’s clearly hard to evaluate him, which makes him so damn polarizing.

It’s not pretty. It’s hard for his teammates to get in rhythm because they don’t get many opportunities. When Harden is off the ball, he doesn’t move or make himself a threat.

He missed 27 of 38 shots on the way to scoring 50 in a double-overtime loss to the Spurs on Tuesday night after dropping an easy 60 a few nights before in just three quarters.

(Yahoo Sports illustration)
(Yahoo Sports illustration)

He campaigns for calls, then complains he’s the only player to get doubled at the top of the key even when our eyes tell us otherwise. He takes so many threes and bends the rules to his will, while also doing what the public asks — making himself available to play every night and trying to give fans their money’s worth.

Like everything with Harden, it’s a double-edged sword. The more stats he accumulates, the more they’ll be dismissed because they’ll be accompanied by higher postseason expectations — that he likely won’t be able to fulfill.

He looks more and more like a victim to history as much as he belongs to it, running into classic teams and not making the most of his opportunities. The Rockets don’t look good enough to beat the Lakers or Clippers, and it’s hard to say how much of that is Harden’s fault.

But in the meantime, he should be appreciated.

Second Quarter: The Boylen Blues

The coaching situation in Chicago appears to be a mess — again.

Just when you start to believe in the Chicago Bulls, the regular season starts and reality sets in.

And when the losses pile up, head coach Jim Boylen points the finger everywhere — except in the mirror.

Routinely throwing his players under the bus with the media or embarrassing them with tactics unbefitting of his professional setting, it would be nice for him to come out and take the bullet for his players following an underwhelming performance (and there are plenty to choose from).

Instead, it looks like he’s saying his players aren’t good enough or dedicated enough to compete when the team’s talent level says it should be in contention for a playoff spot.

They Bulls are 7-14, one of two teams without a win against a team .500 or better (with injury-ravaged Golden State being the other). Otto Porter has been out, but teams are missing players across the league this year.

When watching the Bulls, what do you expect to see? What can they hang their hat on nightly?

Some of that is on the players, sure, but Boylen can’t be exempt from that.

Boylen is a dedicated coach and by all accounts, including personal experiences, a good human being. He’s worked his tail off to become an NBA head coach, grinding until he got his break a little over a year ago when Fred Hoiberg was fired early last season.

The Bulls, holding all the cards, didn’t give him the “interim” tag and instead gave him the keys. The skepticism hasn’t stopped since he took over — aided by the fact the Bulls didn’t conduct an actual coaching search over the summer. Maybe they would’ve been impressed by Monty Williams, who’s doing work in Phoenix for a similarly youthful team trying to take the next step.

Even if the search resulted in settling on Boylen, the whispers wouldn’t be so loud. Besides, what would’ve been the harm?

Instead, the Bulls look like a scattered outfit on defense and a team playing to the numbers instead of to their personnel on offense. They’ve taken the ninth-most threes and are 23rd in percentage. Ever hear of the phrase “take shots you can make”?

Lauri Markkanen looks lost, and Zach LaVine has just begun to shake out of an early season malaise when many of us expected him to become an All-Star. Mind you, LaVine was the one bearing the brunt of Boylen’s ire when he was benched early in a game against Miami almost three weeks ago.

Boylen has to wear some of that, and so far it doesn’t seem like he’s appearing to wear any of it.

Third Quarter: The art of tanking

Allow me to look across the way for a second …

The NFL season has five regular-season weeks remaining, and at least six teams are trying to position themselves for better spots in next year’s draft.

For a long time, we’ve been fed and regurgitated the line that NBA teams tank for better draft picks and it’s a stain on the game, compared to other sports that are competitive all the way through. It’s completely false — and totally understandable.

Tanking for an entire season, or years at a time? That’s despicable, and no guarantee for a championship (looking at you guys in Philly).

But assessing the season to date, evaluating the players you have and proceeding forward with the best interests toward the future?

Nobody should have a qualm with that after 60 NBA games or so. But it looks different and feels different in the NFL. Quarterbacks and impact players who are banged up are sent to IR, and hardly anybody bats an eye.

But looking to the future can happen in the NBA, too, especially with so many high-impact, NBA-ready youngsters ready to jump to the league. The talent influx is nearing an all-time high, and rebuilding teams want to fast-forward the process.

It’s not pretty, but sometimes it’s a necessary part of sports — and especially in the NBA.

Season-ticket holders invest in the NBA the same way they do in the NFL, and those franchises have the same responsibilities to each. But “tanking” is much easier to point out in the NBA because the rosters are smaller and it’s obvious which players drive the fans through the turnstiles.

But because there are far more NBA games, it’s harder for some fans to stomach because of the financial investment. The NBA’s reshaping of the lottery doesn’t eliminate tanking, and tries to keep things as level as possible for as long as possible.

There’s no such instrument in the NFL, and no edict to keep the best players on the field. Of course, the sports are different, as well as the demands on each athlete, physically and mentally.

But try to remember this in March, when some teams start ramping up for the playoff push and others take the last quarter to assess the future.

Fourth Quarter: It’s a different game

In case you haven’t noticed, scoring is up.

Way up.

Some of these astronomical numbers look like we’re in another world, as the rules have loosened play by unclogging the lane and allowing for more drives, and, more pointedly, more shooters on the floor at once.

Teams still have to defend to win, but the thought that high-scoring teams are an anomaly is a foreign notion. The league-leading Milwaukee Bucks are putting up an astounding 121 points per game and look unstoppable for the second straight year on that end.

It’s not just the raw numbers. Remember the spellbinding Phoenix Suns, who played so fast they inspired a book, “Seven Seconds or Less”? Their league-leading 2005 pace of 95.9 would rank last today, behind the Sacramento Kings (97.6).

The spike hasn’t been quite as gradual and progressive, but overall it’s been steady. In 2009-10, 12 teams didn’t average 100 points per game. Five years later, the first championship run for the Golden State Warriors, exactly half of the league’s teams (15) scored fewer than 100 points per night.

But now, every single team — even the New York Knicks — are scoring over 100. Half the league is putting up 110 a night.

More shooters have entered the league and coaches have certainly altered their game plans to allow for quicker shots. It’s been a more exciting, aesthetically pleasing brand of basketball as the league heads into the next 10 years as encouraged about the game as it has been at any turn of a decade in modern history.

In 1990, the league was preparing for the end of the Magic and Larry era.

In 2000, it was reeling from the loss of Michael Jordan and recovering from a devastating lockout. (Wizards Jordan, although underrated, doesn’t count.)

In 2010, the NBA was trying to figure out which superstar would take the mantle — and make the game easier to digest.

It’s been accomplished.

So in the interest of fairness in this here space …

How about a little defense?

Just a little?

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