The 1881 oil painting entitled The Thin Red Line depicts the stoic resolve of 500 Scottish infantryman against five times that many of advancing Russian cavalryman during the Crimean War. A couple decades later, Rudyard Kipling wrote of the “thin red line of ‘eros’” in his colloquial poem, Tommy, about the same subject (Tommy was a generic way of describing a British soldier). The detached cool of the soldiers extolled in the painting, poem, and later in the novel and movie of the same name about America’s Guadalcanal campaign in World War II, could pass for the indifferent visage of Rockets star James Harden. Yet, no player in MVP consideration has so divided fans, reporters, pundits, and refs since Allen Iverson was shirking NBA norms at the turn of the millennium.
Harden’s trademark beard, chef nickname, and stir-the-pot celebration (we’re gonna ignore his silly nosebleed move after a dunk) may not come close to AI’s cultural significance, but his style of play does. His on-court approach overlaps multiple disagreements about the contemporary game. It acts as a proxy for the analytics vs. eye test split, which traffics heavily in Basketball-Reference’s play index and recriminations about actually watching the games. Even among League Pass fanatics, Harden can quickly fluctuate between gobs of delight and the boredom of a baseball game (the most stinging pejorative to hoop heads). But it’s not just the fans suffering whiplash by the the thin red line of Harden’s style. The NBA’s zebra-clad overseers walk that line multiple times a game.
When Houston’s scoring savant throws up his hands in despair on a drive to the basket, or a well-defended jumper beyond the arc, it forces the refs to make a choice between blowing their whistle or not. That thin red line enrages fans and puts the NBA on the defensive, like when he admittedly took an extra step on his step-back against the Warriors. Or, when he looks like he was gunned down by a sniper after a touch foul in the lane.
The ref’s balancing act along Harden’s thin red line was remarked upon with a few minutes left in the first half of Monday night’s 125-113 Rockets win over the Western Conference-leading Nuggets in Houston. After Gary Harris drew a debatable foul on P.J. Tucker, the dialogue between long-time Rockets play-by-play man Bill Worrell and analyst Matt Bullard was a microcosm of the conversation many have about the fairness of Harden’s play:
Worrell: The smart offensive players always create contact on shots like that.
Worrell: And so I guess you gotta credit Gary Harris for taking advantage of the rules. When you’re one-on-one in the open court—I know that Harden does it, Chris Paul does it—they create contact.
Bullard: Yeah, the rules are set up for the offensive player to have a bit of an advantage over the defensive player, so you gotta take advantage of the way the rules are written.
Worrell: Everything favors the offense now.
Bullard: And I like it. I like seeing—you know the other game when the Rockets defeated the Warriors, 135-134, those are the types of scores that I like to see.
While the notorious home announcers were lauding Harden’s smarts, Houston’s star was drawing another trio of foul shots. He took a hand-off from Clint Capela and went right up for a 3-pointer while his defender, Torrey Craig, had his hand on his hip. In this instance, the refs did not side with the thin red line of Harden’s Rockets, but the Nuggets were already in the penalty and he got two free throws.
the james harden experience pic.twitter.com/F1QoslmD83— Spencer Lund (@SpencerTyrel) January 9, 2019
Harden drew a foul on the very next possession and later hit back-to-back step-back threes, one of which he drew a foul for a four-point play. What had been a one-possession game at the time of that foul, turned into a 10-point halftime Houston lead that would have been even larger were it not for a last-second Gary Harris triple before the buzzer. Harden would finish with 32 points on just seven baskets. That sort of efficiency isn’t an outlier, though.
In Houston’s New Year’s Eve win over the Grizzlies, Harden scored 43 points on just eight baskets. That’s because he attempted 27 free throws and six of his eight buckets came from downtown. Harden attempts more free throws (and makes more free throws) than anyone else in the NBA. Nos. 2-6 in free throw attempts so far this season are all big men, highlighting Harden’s uniqueness as a playmaker. He’s taken basketball to the brink of the excel spreadsheet. Fans and OG analysts can barely stomach his game, but on the opposite side of the thin red line, Houston’s general manager—Daryl Morey, the co-chair and founder of MIT’s annual Sloan Sports Analytics Conference—couldn’t be happier. Harden’s all free throws, threes or layups, the best shots in basketball, according to math.
Math wins, too. That’s why the perception of Morey and basketball analytics has shifted so dramatically since the Rockets first promoted him to GM in 2007. However, Harden’s adeptness at drawing fouls and an offensive game sandpapered down to only the most efficient shots, forgets to mention what else he can do. He finished with 13 assists and 10 rebounds in the win over the Grizz, and he had 14 dimes in the win over the Nuggets, too. His five consecutive 40-plus point outings over the last week of 2018 and into the new year—ever since Chris Paul went down—are the biggest reason Houston’s in the crowded company competing for a Western Conference playoff berth. The utility of Harden in the regular season can’t be questioned anymore, so any hostility along the thin red line resides with the aesthetics of what we’re watching.
While Houston’s isolation-heavy offense—where James dribbles a bunch at the top of the key with three, and sometimes four, shooters splayed out along the arc, before he shoots a step-back jumper or drives to draw a foul—can feel monotonous, it also produces moments like these:
James Harden is disrespectful for dropping these defenders like this 🤣 pic.twitter.com/9bI8GzS8Fl— Complex Sports (@ComplexSports) January 8, 2019
When Harden savages a defender like that, boredom crosses the thin red line into entertaining-as-hell territory. Few can send Twitter timelines into a stream of shocked, keyboard-smashing onomatopoeias like James Harden. It’s not just scoring, or devastating dribble moves that can delight even the most traditional NBA stalwarts. Harden’s lobs to Clint Capela, his cross-court passes to P.J. Tucker in the corner after beating his man off the dribble, or the darts to Gerald Green’s shooting pocket on a well-timed pin-down captivate like few others in the league. Harden’s offensive game inspires adulation while never straying far from the thin red line.
That thin red line lurches away from Harden in the playoffs, when refs are less apt to blow the whistle and defenders are more scrupulous about keeping their hands off his hip or any other part of him. That’s when the great bluff many call Harden’s game gets called. He’s shot under 30 percent from 3-point range the last two postseasons, and his three throw attempts per minute drop as well. The thin red line narrows in the spring and hurts Houston’s chances, but no player in the Western Conference has put the Warriors closer to brink of elimination than Harden. So, for all the hand-wringing about his style, or the morality of explicitly trying to draw a foul, at least fans can agree it’s all worth it if Harden can knock off the juggernaut in the Bay.