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James Harden has only 9 free throws in 3 games as Steve Nash says he's become 'poster boy' for rule changes

CBS Sports logo CBS Sports 10/25/2021 Jack Maloney
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This offseason, the NBA implemented new rule changes aimed at limiting the amount of foul calls. In particular, referees were advised not to call fouls on non-basketball moves such as when offensive players jump into defenders at an abnormal angle or use their off hand/arm to hook a defender.

The decision was met with widespread praise from those inside and outside the league. Fewer whistles would help improve the flow of the game, and defenders would no longer be left at such a disadvantage. But after the first week of games, not everyone has been pleased with the results.

Both Steve Nash and James Harden voiced their displeasure on Sunday following the Brooklyn Nets' loss to the Charlotte Hornets, which dropped them to 1-2 on the season. Harden, whose crafty offensive maneuvers were one of the driving forces behind the rule changes, finished with just 15 points on 6-of-16 from the field to continue a disappointing start. 

Most notably, Harden shot just one free throw in 33 minutes against the Hornets, and for the season has been to the line just nine times combined in the Nets' first three games. For comparison, he's averaged over nine free throws per game in eight of the past nine seasons. 

"I feel like he's unfairly become the poster boy of not calling these fouls," Nash said. "Some of them could definitely be fouls still but they're so alert and aware and he's the poster child of these new decisions. I get it, there's a line, but some of them are still fouls. He's just gotta stick with it. He's gotta keep going to the basket and do what he does because a large portion of them are still fouls."

Harden agreed, and then broke out the classic move of saying he didn't want to complain about the issue before doing exactly that. 

"I'm not the type to complain about it," Harden said. "I ask every official if they see a foul just call a foul. Sometimes I feel like coming into a game it's already predetermined or I already have the stigma of getting fouls calls. I just ask for officials to call what they see... I can't stop playing basketball. A foul is a foul no matter what league it is. But it's bigger than that. I gotta just keep playing. I gotta play better, obviously. That's it."

To some extent, Harden is right that the main issue is he just needs to play better. He dealt with a pesky hamstring issue at the end of last season, played limited minutes in the preseason and is still working his way back into a rhythm. Rule changes aren't the only reason he's averaging 18.3 points and 5.7 turnovers on 38.8 percent shooting from the field. But what about those foul calls? Is there any validity to Nash and Harden's complaints? 

So far this season, Harden has 70 offensive possessions that have led to either a shot attempt, foul or turnover. On about 8-12 of those, give or take a few depending on your point of view, there's been contact that possibly could have been called a foul -- or, at least, likely would have been in the past. That's somewhere between 10-17 percent of his possessions where he might have been expecting a whistle, so it's not hard to understand why he feels frustrated. 

This drive, from the first quarter against the Hornets, was a perfect example. It's a classic Harden move where he sizes up his defender with a series of dribbling moves, then puts his head down and barrels into the lane. Jalen McDaniels puts his hand on Harden's arm and Cody Martin swipes in as well. In years past this would have been called a foul every time, especially once Harden tosses his head back. This season? No dice. 

Here's another play from the Nets' win over the Philadelphia 76ers. Out in transition, Harden tries to get downhill into the pain and runs into Tyrese Maxey. The Sixers' young guard puts his hand right into Harden's chest to slow him down, and then may or may not have gotten part of his arm on the way up. Harden muscles his way through the contact for a layup anyway, but doesn't get the call. 

These type of drives are the plays that bother Nash the most. 

"I think it's on the drive," Nash said. "They're hyper aware of him reaching for guys' arms. But guys aren't set and they're getting caught not in a legal guarding position, bumping him. That's a foul. That has nothing to do with the hands. Those are the ones that I take a little exception to."

Here, Nash certainly has a point. As does Harden, who added, "No matter how much of a big deal we try to make it, a foul is a foul. It's pretty simple. I feel like we're putting too much emphasis on rules or not even rules, just certain people to where you look at it it's clear fouls."

On both of these possessions, Harden's defender made illegal contact to try and slow him down but he didn't get the call -- in part because he's so strong and in part because the refs have changed how they call the game. But neither of these examples are supposed to be part of the rule changes. These are not non-basketball plays where Harden is searching for a call. 

Harden is supremely talented, and there's no question he's going to improve as the season goes along, regardless of what the refs or are not calling. Still, it will be interesting to see how both he and the refs adapt. Will they maintain this level of scrutiny all season long? Or, as Nash suggested, will they find a middle ground?

"James will get there," Nash said. "He'll get there. He's gonna round into his shape and rhythm. Like I said he's had a long, long layoff and they're hypersensitive to some of these things right now and it usually goes back to the middle. We'll find a nice balance."

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