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How Does James Harden’s Prodigious Free Throw Rate Stack Up Historically?

Much of the discussion around James Harden isn’t about what a great scorer he is, but rather about how he gets his points. Many will bemoan, “All he does is shoot free throws,” as though that were a negative thing.

For any player who can knock down his freebies, it’s easily the most efficient area of the court. And for a man like Harden, it’s a veritable weapon of mass destruction. Last year, he sank 715 charity shots, which was 169 more than Russell Westbrook, who was second in the league. Only seven players even tallied half as many as the Houston Rockets bearded warrior.

The sheer volume of fouls he draws, and the manner in which he gets to the line, have earned him a reputation as a “flopper.” Though, in fairness to him, he’s just been tagged with that by the NBA twice, and both of those were in the first month of the 2013-14 season. Since then, he’s been “technically” unblemished.

After that, what constitutes a flop is subjective, and often in such cases, ugly is in the eye of the beholder. What’s not in question is that he’ll use his crossover to pull a defender off balance, drive into the staggering man like a charging boar and toss the ball in the general vicinity of the rim:

And this is perhaps more the issue fans have with. As much as they rail about him “snapping his head back and flailing his arms every single time,” it’s just not true. It’s true that he draws a lot of shooting fouls, though, and that might not make for the prettiest brand of basketball, but it does make him efficient.

By rule, an offensive player can initiate contact legally. If the defensive player is out of position, and the offensive player runs into him, it’s a shooting foul. Some might like to see that rule changed, but how do you change it? If you make that an offensive foul, then you compel the dribbler to pull up because he beat his defender. Do you want to punish good handles?

Using this as a strategy isn’t new to Harden. Adrian Dantley was one of the best and most efficient scorers in NBA history, and he employed these tactics and wasn’t ashamed to talk about it:

Many times you will encounter situations in a game when you have already picked up your dribble and your defensive man is standing right in front of you preventing you from getting off a shot or passing the ball. It is just for cases like this that you need to have some dead-ball moves in your repertoire. Naturally, you can use these moves away from the basket, but they are most effective when you make them not far from the hoop, either in or close to the lane.

To make the shot fake and jump shot move, start with a one-count stop. Bring the ball up toward your head to give the defensive man the impression that you are going to take a jump shot. He will lunge toward you at this moment. As he moves in, crouch down with your legs to gather your strength and then go up for the jump shot just as your defensive man moves into you. Go up strong and bump him a little with your shoulder or forearm to keep him from blocking your shot. Often your man will foul you, and you can get a three-point play out of the move.

Harden’s execution is different. He’s doing it off the drive, not a post move, but the principle is the same. Pull your man out of position, and then kill him with it.

And this is all the more intriguing because we’ve created a false history of the NBA where back in the day, players were above such trickeration. And by trickeration, I mean smart basketball.

I wanted to check which players were the best at getting to the line in history, and how Harden stacked up against them. Now, that said, there’s a difference between getting to the line and being sent to the line. Harden does the former, while DeAndre Jordan does the latter. There’s a statistic called “free throw rate” tracked at Basketball-Reference.com, but as that includes free throw attempts, it can’t distinguish between whose strategy it was to get the man there.

So I looked at every 25-point per game scorer in history, and what percentage of their points came at the stripe to see how Harden compared:

The top chart shows the percentage of points from free throws and free throws per game, and the second compares it with free throw percentage. As you can see immediately, Harden is among the most productive free throw shooters ever.

Now, if you take your mouse and hover over the dots that are in that vicinity, you’ll notice that most of the names around him are guys like Dantley, Jerry West and Oscar Robertson. And no, those guys aren’t currently in the NBA.

However, they’re some of the legends of the game; the champions of bygone eras. And this is the irony of Harden’s propensity for getting free points. It’s old school. Harden’s only crime is that he’s modernized a skill that some of the greatest players in history have employed. It’s hard to hate a man for that, even if it’s winning ugly.

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