System Exploits: On the Watchability of James Harden and Floyd Mayweather Jr.

I don’t enjoy watching James Harden play basketball. I realize that he’s a great scorer. He’s a very good passer, well-sized for his position, rebounds well, and generally great to have on the offensive end. Hell, when he tries on defense, he can be pretty good at it. But I don’t think he’s fun to watch.

I don’t enjoy watching Floyd Mayweather, Jr. box. Granted, I don’t watch a ton of it, but I’ve seen fun fights and ones that bore me to tears. Mayweather’s typically fall into the latter category. He’s an all-time great boxer, and a ghost when the other guy tries to hit him. But I don’t think he’s fun to watch.

There are tons of differences between these two men. Floyd Mayweather is not a good person. Not at all. He’s a misogynist and a jerk. He’s cocky, and not in the fun way that people like to root for, even though he has the professional record to back it up. He’s just supremely unlikable. James Harden by comparison, seems alright. At the very least, he hasn’t smacked around any girlfriends. He seems like decent teammate and a pretty low-key guy. Good for him.

However, this isn’t about the differences between them as men, which are many. It’s about the single similarity they share as athletes. Mayweather and Harden win a lot. The former is undefeated, and the latter scores at will, while posting solid efficiency numbers and appearing perennially in MVP polls the last few years. However, neither of them pass the watchability test.

Mayweather has never lost a professional match, and for a boxer, he seems to not throw all that many punches when he fights. He tends towards quick strikes and defense in the form of dodges, backpedaling, and grappling. He holds a 53% KO rate, but an overwhelming amount of those occurred at featherweight and lightweight boxing, a weight class he hasn’t been part of since 2005. Since then, Mayweather has posted 2 KOs (1 TKO) in 14 fights. Since returning from “retirement” in 2009, he has posted 1 KO in 10 fights. He’s gotten 2 KOs on Pay-Per-View all-time. By comparison, there have been 5 other WBC welterweight champions since Mayweather moved into the weight class: Zab Judah, Carlos Manuel Baldomir, Andre Berto, Victor Ortiz, and Danny Garcia. Those five men have won a total of 96 bouts since Mayweather joined the weight class, and feature a collective KO victory rate of 67% (32/96). The lowest individual percentage among them is the plodding Baldomir’s at 38%(3 of 8 wins by KO).

Floyd Mayweather is one of the greatest boxers ever, but not one of the greatest fighters ever. There’s a difference. He knows that he can win matches by a couple hits and making his opponent miss, rather than mixing it up and taking them down. He wins by attrition. Is it smart? Yes. Does it work? Yes. But it’s boring. We can argue about the barbarism of boxing all we want, but at the end of the day, I always kinda thought that the point of the sport was to try to hit the other dude really hard and put him on the mat, not to get your points and play keep-away.

Consider the Pacquiao fight from last year. Panned by viewers after a massive billing and huge sales, it was a clinical boxing performance by Mayweather, and a valiant effort by Pacquiao. But it was a terrible fight. His next matchup against Andre Berto, fought in September of last year, posted the worst sales of any Mayweather fight since 2006 at 400,000-550,000 (per Showtime). You’d expect better from someone coming off of a win in a fight billed as “The Fight of the Century.”

James Harden is the antithesis of Mayweather in some ways. He wins games on the offensive end, putting in very selective effort on the defensive end. However, the worst thing about him is that he specifically looks for the opportunity to take the most efficient shot in basketball: the free throw. He aggressively looks for fouls, and leans into opponents who reach; watching, it’s clear there’s no honest attempt to actually make the shot. It’s all about getting to the line.

Harden’s an excellent free-throw shooter, sinking 86% of his attempts since joining the Houston Rockets. In that time, he’s consistently been one of the league leaders in free throw attempts per game at 10.2, often only led by big men that live in the paint and definitely don’t make even close to as many. In the 2015-16 season, he attempted 12+ shots from the charity stripe a whopping 27 separate times, converting 12 or more on 21 separate occasions. Of every single game played by every single player in the league, 12+ FTA occurred 303 times total, making 9% of those trips Harden’s. He gathered 30.3% of his points this season from free throws, tied with DeMar DeRozan for third in the league (among players playing 30+ minutes per game) behind Danilo Gallinari and Ricky Rubio.

James Harden is a prolific scorer, a legitimate MVP-caliber player, and a fantastic basketball player. But he isn’t all that enjoyable to watch.

Both have found exploits for the system they exist in. They do all this within the bounds of the rules, just like “Hack a Shaq”. The rub is that there’s nothing anyone can do about it. In boxing, without a KO, there’s not really any better way to pick a winner than who lands more hits; the general idea is that fighters will try to hit, rather than try to dodge to win that metric. Without free throws, players would get mauled every possession; they’re meant as a reward when a player is unfairly impeded from scoring when they beat their man. There’s no answer for someone who doesn’t try to beat their opponent, goading disallowed contact without an honest attempt at the basket. There is virtually no better way to do things with respect to these habits than the way they are currently done. At least, not without breaking the sport entirely or making it wildly unfair to everyone. They’re card counters at the table. They’re gaming the system. It’s smart, it works, and it gets them both wins at the peak of their respective sports. But as long as it’s all dodges and charity shots, I probably won’t be tuning in to watch.

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