By Silas Alexander
I hate Rockets basketball.
All season long, we’ve heard advocates of the Houston Rockets’ analytics-fueled, three-point-addicted, Mike D’Antoni-led brand of basketball fall over themselves to lavish praise on James Harden. Leading NBA commentators and fans have referenced the notion that without Dwight Howard clogging the Rockets’ offensive attack, Harden has been free to become “the superstar he was meant to be.”
But the Rockets’ style of play is a squeeze-out-all-the-grease, take-advantage-of-the-loopholes type of approach that, while technically proficient and effective, is about as fun to watch as a particularly well-run DMV.
But that’s probably a mis-characterization. The Rockets are really more of…the tax audit accountants of the NBA. Predictably efficient. Depressingly mundane. Always correct. Rarely sexy.
James Harden, the quasi-urban-lumberjack beard-wearing ring-leader of this band of “never seen a mid-range J that they liked” shoot-around all-stars, takes the Rockets offensive philosophy a step further. Comically overacted flopping is his critical strategic weapon. Any team and player that relied on bail outs from refs to this extent would be entirely lacking in success in any other NBA era. But not this one. Not the beard.
“But he’s just playing the game as it’s called!”
“Don’t hate the player, hate the game.”
“He’s just SO talented at drawing fouls!”
Being talented at drawing fouls? At creating contact? At literally turning the ball over, unless there’s a whistle? It’s not smart basketball. It’s coercive tattling. Appealing to an authority figure to reprimand someone that did nothing wrong—Harden is more Randall Weems than he is Willis Reed.
All of the defenses listed above, which have been doled out ANY time Harden is questioned, don’t address the root of the problem:
Watching Harden play is a chore.
There is a great joy to watching beautiful basketball. The rhythmic flow of the game, combinations of ungodly athleticism with sharply-honed skill, prepared execution interweaving seamlessly with off-the-cuff improvisation. This is why I watch basketball. This is why I LOVE basketball.
Watching Harden play is an exercise in suppressing all these instincts and expectations. I don’t watch basketball to see the proper defensive play abused so a “superstar” can go to the stripe for two free throws. Even more than the pure boredom that comes with the endless onslaught of foul shots, the detriment to the game really comes when players emulate this behavior, when this type of approach is spread and (gulp) taught to the next generation.
Flailing ceaselessly. Flopping at the slightest contact.
All done to attract the attention of someone watching. None of these motions are self-reliant. All the ridiculous posturing and heaving is done purely to catch the eye of the referee—an observer. In this way, not only is this style of play ugly, it reiterates an externalized form of validation that is becoming ever more prevalent in our society. It’s a move towards the Kardashianization of the sport of basketball. Create minor conflict. Make a huge deal and crazy faces about it. Yell at people. Repeat. $$$$$.
It’s no surprise that James Harden took a shot at dating a member of the Kanye Kardashian Klan (while she was married…to a widely-loved former player…while he was in rehab and then in a coma). Harden’s so thirsty for fame that he’ll rock an endlessly meme-able rat’s nest on his chin and chase after one of the few reality TV stars more proficient than him at maximizing drama.
I sincerely hope that this Houston team’s failures cement the notion that in basketball, in the playoffs, grit and toughness matter. Getting a heavily contested bucket matters. Getting to the rim, forcing action, being SELF-reliant. Playing team basketball, and trusting yourself to make plays down the stretch. These are rewarded. As they should be.
I pray that the NBA competition committee reconsiders the perimeter ticky-tack shooting fouls that have bailed out James Harden all season. The tight calls on the perimeter, meant to allow stars to have more freedom to create eye-popping highlights and get-out-of-your-seat dunks, are now being abused to create a brand of basketball that goes against the core motivations of the game.