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James Harden's free throws, put in historical context

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Historic Perspective: Making 700 free throws in a single season puts James Harden on his way to a Hall of Fame career, but not an NBA title this season.

One of Harden's 800+ free throw attempts
One of Harden's 800+ free throw attempts
Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

James Harden supporters and detractors, let's pour some fuel on your fire by talking about James Harden's historic 2014-2015 season at the free throw line.

This season James Harden became the 11th player to make 700 free throws in an NBA season. And we can all say it together: That's a lot of fouls and free throws.

All nine retired players to have made 700 free throws in a season are in the Hall of Fame, and Kevin Durant appears well on his way. Sixteen out of the 17 times a player has achieved 700 FTM in a season, they've made the All-NBA First Team, and that includes three MVP awards.

Sorry, Adrian Dantley.

Here's the list of players: Jerry West, Wilt Chamberlain, Michael Jordan, Adrian Dantley, Oscar Robertson, Kevin Durant, Rick Barry, Moses Malone, Charles Barkley, Karl Malone and James Harden.

That's one heck of a list of guys who "sphere bounce," to quote Spuran Spuran.

Isolating the playoff results of each season paints a much more negative picture: A 700 FTM season has never produced an NBA title.

Six of the 17 700 free-throw seasons ended in the first round of the playoffs. Only three of the 17 seasons even made it to the NBA Finals. Five of the players to produce these seasons have never won an NBA title: Adrian Dantley, Kevin Durant, Charles Barkley, Karl Malone and James Harden.

If you're a Rockets fan or an analytics geek:

You believe no one in the NBA is craftier and smarter than James Harden. He uses his speed, agility and guile to create contact and finish strong and get the highest percentage shot of all, a cool free throw. That's if he's not being ripped down by an over-zealous defender swiping at his "tray of hors-d'oeuvres." If that's what you believe, this statistic is for you.

Looking at this list of players, James Harden appears on his way to a Hall of Fame career and an eventual (if not immediate) MVP award. He's a lock for the All-NBA first team again and is set to prove he's the NBA's most efficient player.

Harden's historic season also validates the success of Moreyball, the theory of threes, layups and free throws. After all, it's impossible to measure a difference in "intent to get fouled" between James Harden and, say, Oscar Robertson. There's no measure of bona fides between Harden's season, Durant's MVP season and Wilt Chamberlain's 50 ppg 1962 performance. At the end of the day, with James Harden included, this is a list of 11 Hall of Famers.

And pump the breaks if you say James Harden gets every foul call or lives and dies at the free throw line. Kevin Durant's 2014 MVP award season is on this list and that guy once forced the NBA to change its rules because of his "rip-through" tactics.

If you despise James Harden:

You believe James Harden lives and dies by the whistle. Harden manipulates the NBA's rules to draw fouls and doesn't deserve a whistle when he holds the ball out or throws himself into a defender with reckless abandon. His dependency on fouls is what keeps him from closing out games and it doesn't hold up in the playoffs. If that's what you believe, this statistic is for you.

This list of players is the ultimate collection of hero ball seasons. Wilt scored 50 points per game in one of these seasons and Jordan didn't win anything when he spent the entire season at the foul line. Anyone notice Oscar Robertson never won a title until he found Abdul-Jabbar and stopped draining 700 free throws a year?

None of these seasons produced a title because you don't win a playoff series at the free throw line. You may win a playoff game at the free throw line, but not a series. You win a playoff game by making a shot, not by begging the referee for a call. Waltz to the foul line as many times as you want. It might bring you an MVP trophy and some statistical acumen, but it won't bring you an NBA title or make you a better team.

Free throws will help you with your playoff seeding, but nothing else:

With an average ranking of 8.3 in opponent free throws attempted, the title winners have used the regular season to dominate defensively, and win more games. That creates better seeding (home-court advantage), and ultimately an easier rainbow to the pot of gold.

Out of these 21 previous champions, only five have finished in the top 10 of average free throws made. Only 10 have finished in the top 10 of average free throws attempted. --

Shane Young, @YoungNBA 2014

Here's the chart --

Takeaways from the chart:

  • James Harden is the first person to make 700+ free throws since Kevin Durant all the way back in last season.
  • The best 700 FTM shooter was Kevin Durant in 2010 who made 90 percent of his attempts.
  • The worst 700 FTM shooter was Wilt Chamberlain in 1962 who made 61% percent of his attempts. He set the all-time record for attempts this season, with 1,363. He's the only player in history to take 1,000 free throws in a season, which he did four times.
  • These seasons have an average PER of 26.51, Harden's season is above that average.

It's also worth reflecting on this statistic as a trend. No one in the 70s, 90s or 00s places on this list and nine of the seasons overlap in the 60s and 80s.

The 1970s witnessed a faster tempo than previous decades and the competition of the ABA helped define the NBA. The league focus suddenly went from financial stability and victories to entertainment oriented higher scores and a watchable product.

The 1990s were the decade of hand checking, box outs and "hold me baaaack" fights. For James Harden and Vernon Maxwell a foul has a an entirely different meaning.

So for those who love James Harden: MVP or no MVP. James Harden has produced a season of historic achievements, put himself in Hall of Fame company and commands the attention of his peers and pundits. He's a great enough player to carry his team deep into the postseason.

For those who despise James Harden: Harden has to overcome historical precedent to carry the Houston Rockets to a championship.