Five games into the new season, and the Brooklyn Nets - who engineered the most efficient offense in NBA history in 2020-21 - rank 28th in the league in offensive rating.
While that obviously has something to do with Kyrie Irving's self-imposed exile and some poor role-player performances, the Nets have no business languishing near the league's basement on that side of the ball when they still have Kevin Durant and James Harden in the fold. This team scored like crazy last season, even when one of its vaunted Big Three was missing. And because Durant has been outstanding, the microscope has naturally honed in on his superstar running mate.
Harden's start has disappointed in myriad ways, but the steep decline in his free-throw rate has been particularly glaring. He's virtually unmatched in the annals of league history for his ability to draw fouls from the guard position, but he's averaging just 3.0 free-throw attempts per game and only 4.2 per 100 possessions so far this season. That's nearly four times lower than the high-water mark (14.9) he established two years ago and well below his previous single-season low (7.1), which he set as a rookie.
James Harden's free-throw attempts have plummeted this season. Peak Harden came in the 2019-20 season when he averaged 11.8 free throws per game and 14.9 per 100 possessions.
Perhaps we shouldn't be all that surprised. TrueHoop's David Thorpe, for one, sounded the alarm on this during the preseason. We're coming off another abbreviated offseason, which meant less time for Harden to recover from the hamstring strain that hobbled him in the playoffs a few months ago. And, of course, the NBA has implemented a set of new rule interpretations designed to curb foul-baiting on "unnatural shooting motions," which has so far helped produce the league's lowest collective free-throw rate ever.