CHICAGO - James Harden and Marco Polo have one thing in common. They both love to travel.
They do, however, differ in the fact that while the great explorer once traveled thousands of miles in search of civilization, Harden is taking just a few more steps than what is legal in the game of basketball.
In fairness to the reigning MVP, he isn't the only one who travels like a salesman. I just think he happens to be the most egregious violator.
Last Monday against the Jazz, for instance, Harden took a four-step, step-back jumper in the final 54.6 seconds of a close 97-94 contest. Instead of being whistled for traveling, Harden was rewarded with three free throws on a called foul against a flabbergasted Ricky Rubio.
The Rockets eventually won, 102-97, but Harden's misdemeanor - it was no lava walk, just a plain and simple walk - was the talk of the hoops world. And it traveled faster than gossip and bad news combined.
Asked if he planted illegal steps, Harden told The Houston Chronicle, "What do you want me to say? Tell on myself?"
Not the best answer, kind of like being dishonestly honest. But the 29-year old serial scorer was right. His job is to make baskets, not make calls.
But why has traveling become so rampant in the NBA?
"Players are too large, fast and skilled for the refs to see it," Jesse Washington of The Undefeated wrote in a February 15, 2018 piece.
The league is determined to flag down the violators but as explained by Joe Borgia, the NBA's vice-president of referees and replay operations, the task is anything but easy.
"It's supposed to be a real simple concept: A player has ended his dribble, has control of the ball and is driving toward the basket going for a shot. Now try to see that on a player running full speed with a defender or two next to him or behind him, you're looking for a push in the back or a reach-in, and you're seeing not a 6-foot player but this 7-foot player has gathered the ball and he's got a 45-inch leg and his foot is four feet behind where he has the ball. OK, which foot was on the floor when he brought the ball in. That's what we deal with."
Vince Carter, a 20-year veteran who admits he "gets away" with traveling sometimes, agrees that the speed of the game is simply too fast for the refs to see everything.
"Live action is tough," he told The Undefeated. "Guys are doing this Eurosteps, that's when it gets dicey."
The two main culprits of this traveling surge in the NBA is the Eurostep, a move where players zig zag their way to illegal steps, and the step-back jumper, a cool, deceptive maneuver in which many have taken a more liberal interpretation of the "gather rule" that allows two extra steps after ending a dribble.
Harden specializes on both. He's not being picked on. He's just being exposed.
But as someone who couldn't do neither a Eurostep or a step-back J, I must admit that those moves possess a degree of difficulty that makes the game more entertaining to watch. And it's no coincidence that the NBA's popularity and ratings have spiked tremendously around the globe.
Traveling in the NBA reminds me of a Bruce Willis movie. Logic tells you that there's no way a good guy without a nuclear bomb or a missile can kill 112 bad guys in less than two hours. But you let the thought slide because you're having fun as the buttered popcorn dances in your mouth.
So the next time you see James Harden blow up for 50 points, just enjoy the amazing feat and ignore that occasional happy, wandering feet.