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NBA Fact or Fiction: James Harden, Russell Westbrook and their vulnerable title favorites

·8 min read
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Each week during the 2021-22 NBA season, we will take a deeper dive into some of the league’s biggest storylines in an attempt to determine whether the trends are based more in fact or fiction moving forward.

[ Last week: The Celtics, an airing of grievances and a players-only meeting ]

James Harden is vulnerable, so the Nets are, too

Or James Harden is just out of shape again.

The 32-year-old spent the shortened offseason rehabbing a hamstring injury that cost him 21 of the Brooklyn Nets' final 24 regular-season games last season and severely limited him in the playoffs. He declared himself "100%" at the start of training camp, blaming last season's injury on poor conditioning.

Only, he's been far worse to start this season than he was when he walked in from partying in Las Vegas and a preseason holdout to drop 44 points and 17 assists in his 2020-21 season debut. He has scored 16 or fewer points in six of Brooklyn's first 12 games, something he did only six times all of last season. His 18.2 points per game are his worst average since he left the Oklahoma City Thunder a decade ago and a precipitous drop-off from his 33.7 points per game from 2017-20 en route to three straight scoring titles.

Harden's usage rate has steadily fallen from a career-high 40.5% three seasons ago to 26.7% this season, and his production has dipped along with it. His ability to get to the rim from the guard position, where he shot better than 60% on five-plus attempts per game in five of the last six years, was once unparalleled. That figure has dipped below 50% on fewer than three attempts per game in the early going of this season.

Likewise, Harden attempted double-digit free throws per game at an 86.2% clip six seasons straight before joining the Nets in January, when his nightly attempts dipped to an average of 7.3. His free-throw attempts are down to 4.7 per game this season. Where once he scored 16.7 points per game either at the rim or the free-throw line — his two most efficient spots on the floor — he is now scoring 6.8, and that is a problem.

A lot has been made about the impact of the new rules on Harden. Over the past two seasons, he has drawn an average of one foul per game on a 3-point attempt. Since the league voted to eradicate non-basketball moves aimed at drawing fouls during the summer, Harden's three freebies per game have been cut in half. 

That decrease in foul drawing may have had some impact on Harden's dip in production, but of far greater concern is his inability or unwillingness to get to the rim, combined with his inefficiency once he gets there.

It has not helped Harden that the Nets are often forced to play two non-shooting threats around him and Kevin Durant, even if Durant tilts the axis of a defense more than most. The absence of Kyrie Irving, who is sitting out the season in favor of being unvaccinated, is having an impact beyond the zeroes in the box score. Brooklyn's most-used lineup features Blake Griffin and Bruce Brown, who are shooting a combined 25% from distance over the first 11 games, and spacing is worse when LaMarcus Aldridge is on the floor.

Durant can only carry so great a burden.

Harden is chronically out of shape. He can't manufacture whistles the way he wants to anymore. He is a step slower trying to maneuver through faster-closing spaces. And it all could be worse if he was not shooting 40% from distance for the first time in his career. Yet, he has a far greater sample size from which he can argue he is merely playing his way back to perennial MVP-caliber form after the hamstring injury. 

"As much as I want to get back to just [scoring] 30 and 40 points, I can’t do that [right now]," Harden said a handful of games into this campaign. “I had no opportunities to play pickup or nothing this summer. Everything was rehab for three months from a Grade 2 injury that happened three times in one season."

This is months after he declared at his charity softball game in August, when asked by KPRC-TV reporter Ari Alexander what Nets fans can expect this season, "Healthy James Harden. It's scary — scary hours."

When Harden suffered a Grade 1 hamstring strain in October 2018, he returned three games later to average a career-high 36.1 points per game, playing all but one of his remaining 75 outings. It is possible three high-usage seasons and a worse hamstring injury later that it takes six months to return to form. It is also possible that two straight offseasons of minimal commitment to conditioning have compounded to turn a player who never missed more than 10 games in a season in his 20s into one more prone to injury. 

There is enough here to wonder if this could be the start of a permanent dip in Harden's production. It is too early to make that determination, but it is not too early to think any drop-off would be enough to lower Brooklyn's ceiling from a team that can win a title without Irving to one that needs Irving more than ever.

Determination: Fact

Russell Westbrook and James Harden did not work as a tandem, and they are struggling to make their latest partnerships work, too. (Toshifumi Kitamura/AFP via Getty Images)
Russell Westbrook and James Harden did not work as a tandem, and they are struggling to make their latest partnerships work, too. (Toshifumi Kitamura/AFP via Getty Images)

The Wizards won the Russell Westbrook trade in a blowout

Give Washington Wizards general manager Tommy Sheppard the Executive of the Year award already, because he fleeced Los Angeles Lakers counterpart Rob Pelinka in August's Russell Westbrook trade.

Three more teams eventually joined the deal, and Sheppard emerged with Spencer Dinwiddie, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Montrezl Harrell, Kyle Kuzma, Aaron Holiday, the No. 31 pick in the draft and some cash. All it cost the Wizards was Westbrook, Chandler Hutchison and a handful of extraneous second-round picks.

Even if we were to concede that Westbrook, four years removed from an MVP season, is the best player in the deal, Washington walked away with at least the second- through sixth-best players, pending the draft results. And who is to say this year's No. 31 pick, stretch big Isaiah Todd, will not be the best of the bunch.

Westbrook has not been the best player in the trade, either. He has been a detriment to the Lakers, who are 7.9 points per 100 non-garbage possessions better with him off the floor, according to Cleaning the Glass

He is averaging 19.3 points per game on 42/28/66 shooting splits. Only 12 players who have attempted at least 100 field goals this season own a worse true shooting percentage, and four of them are rookies. His league-leading 64 turnovers cast a shadow over his 8.9 assists per game. The Lakers sacrificed multiple quality defenders to get Westbrook, and their defense has dipped from league-best to middle of the pack.

Their 7-5 record is a mirage. They have a negative net rating against one of the league's easiest schedules. LeBron James has missed six games already. The Lakers acquired Westbrook to carry them for this type of rough patch. Only, his teammates had to win the 12 minutes he sat by 20, just to force overtime at home against the Charlotte Hornets. The Lakers won in spite of Westbrook, as has largely been the case all year.

This is unsustainable in the playoffs. James and Anthony Davis do not want to be working against the grain.

Before Westbrook pushed for a trade to L.A., the Lakers reportedly had a deal in place to send Kuzma and Harrell to the Sacramento Kings for Buddy Hield, who is off to another blistering start from 3-point range (39.1% on 10.7 attempts per game). They also would have retained Caldwell-Pope and a first-round pick.

Westbrook has surely run his course as an asset who could fetch much, if anything, of value after three trades in three seasons. The Lakers are on the hook for the $91.3 million he is owed this season and next. The best Pelinka might be able to do if his Westbrook experiment proves to be an utter disaster is trade the expiring contract at season's end for worse bit pieces than those the Lakers traded to get the 33-year-old.

Meanwhile, Dinwiddie, Caldwell-Pope, Harrell, Kuzma and Holiday have formed half of a 10-man rotation that has the Wizards off to an East-leading 8-3 record and owners of the NBA's fourth-rated defense. They average a combined 62.9 points (47/38/80 splits), 29 rebounds and 12.8 assists (against 6.9 turnovers) per game.

Sheppard turned John Wall, who is sitting on the Houston Rockets bench, unable to find a trade partner, into one season of Westbrook, which resulted in Washington's first playoff appearance in three years, and eventually the haul he got from the five-team trade. It is the Wizards who now have the flexibility to combine several quality mid-tier contracts, along with future draft picks, for another star to pair with Bradley Beal.

In essence, the Lakers bet the last two seasons of James' contract — and perhaps his prime — on Westbrook, only Sheppard is holding the full house, and Pelinka is still waiting for his third ace on the flop.

Determination: Fact

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Ben Rohrbach is a staff writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at rohrbach_ben@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter! Follow @brohrbach