The Mazzola Minute: James Harden
LeBron James stands in front of him, arms spread, feet shuffling. Harden dictates tempo as always, taking a few slow dribbles with his right hand before crossing over through his legs. Usually, a few more crossovers follow. Imitating the steady flow of ocean waves, Harden lulls his defender to sleep. But then, Harden quickly steps back to right above the logo, and he hucks up a shot. Caught in indecision, the ball takes a few seconds to jaunt around the rim before, like seemingly all of Harden’s shots that night, falling through the net. With 3:11 left, the Houston Rockets are up by 12 over the L.A. Lakers. Dagger.
Harden put up a 50-point triple-double on only 26 shots in the Rockets’ victory that night, making a miraculous 18 out of 19 free throws. Harden’s foul-drawing prowess essentially led the Lakers to attempt defense with their hands behind their backs. That day, the Lakers looked more like middle schoolers completing an early practice warm-up drill than professional basketball players. To make matters more embarrassing, this strategy proved a fruitless endeavor, and the Lakers were forced to fully abandon it by the fourth quarter.
It’s only fitting that Harden would bury the dagger on his signature shot: the step-back three-pointer. In many ways, the step-back three-pointer symbolizes Harden as a player. It’s a virtually unguardable shot, yet many question the ethics of its use. With Harden’s otherworldly ability to create separation from his defender, contesting a step-back is a fool’s errand. Allow him to complete the maneuver, and he may sink a virtually uncontested three at your expense. Stick a hand in his face, and he will find a way to create contact, sending him to the free throw line for a more efficient opportunity to make a three- (or four-) point play.
Many view the step-back as an outright traveling violation. According to NBA rules, Harden is allotted the extra step while gathering, so the move is technically legal. Harden’s manner of gathering, however, may not be in the spirit of the rule, and some, including San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich, believe it should be outlawed.
Like the step-back three-pointer, Harden’s eurostep is bait. In a eurostep, a player heavily exposes the ball after gathering, quickly taking a long lateral step in the opposite direction as the player’s first step. Harden banks on players swiping for the ball on that first step, so he can rip his arms in the opposite direction, flailing at the slightest bit of contact. At times, a poorly executed (or well executed, depending on your perspective) eurostep constitutes a rip-through and a travel, yet offensive fouls are rarely called. With these two deadly, virtually unguardable moves in his arsenal, Harden is an offensive weapon, perhaps the most efficient high-volume isolation scorer in league history. Harden is currently riding the third longest 30-point game streak in league history at 29 in a row, behind Wilt Chamberlain’s 65- and 31-game streaks. He’s greatly exceeding 30 on most nights, averaging 41.8 points per game.
Before you start accusing him of stat-padding for no additional purpose, the Rockets are 20-9 in that time, fourth-best in the NBA during that stretch. Harden is using an astronomical 41.1 percent of his team’s possessions when he’s on the floor, comparable only to Russell Westbrook’s 41.7 percent NBA record during his 2016-17 MVP season. Unlike Westbrook, however, Harden’s efficiency is elite, and his 63.1 percent true-shooting, a formula that takes into account the increased worth of three-pointers and value of free throws to create a superior version of field goal percentage, is the highest in league history for a player with a usage rate higher than 35 percent.
Chris Paul, Houston’s only other All-Star and high-usage player, missed 18 games during that stretch. To say that Harden’s usage during games Paul misses is necessary is an understatement. Houston lacks many capable ball-handlers and facilitators, with Eric Gordon and Austin Rivers being the only other combo guards proficient in running an offense. Houston is heavy on catch-and-shoot players, excellent shooters who need others to create quality chances for them. These role players do play an important part in Harden’s isolations, as they facilitate pick-and-roll-esque switches, where Houston gives Harden more favorable defensive matchups.
Still, Harden, already tasked with being the team’s primary playmaker, has to create his own shots as well. A baffling 89.3 percent of Harden’s field goals are unassisted. Excellent isolation players, think Kevin Durant or Kobe Bryant, tend to work in the midrange, using superior length and elite footwork to rise up over or fade away from their defenders. By contrast, an obscene amount of Harden’s isolations occur beyond the three-point line. 87.4 percent of Harden’s three-pointers are unassisted. For comparison, Trae Young is second in the league among qualified players at 64.2 percent. Even Steph Curry, the master of the pull-up jumper, takes the bulk of his threes off of the catch.
A great amount of criticism regarding Harden’s game revolves around his “over-reliance” on free throws and three-pointers. Let’s complete a simple exercise using statistics from Harden’s 29-game 30-point scoring streak. Harden is averaging 41.8 points per game during that stretch. First, take out his 12.1-made free throws per game. Harden is now averaging 29.7 points per game, the highest among players not accounting for free throws. Now, take his 5.7-made three-pointers and pretend they were all twos. At this point, we have reduced the points-per-game statistic to being two times field goals made. On account of his league-high 12.0 field goals made per game, Harden would still lead the league in scoring at 24.0 points per game. Important to note, Harden has been far from just a scorer during this stretch. Serving as his team’s primary playmaker and one of the most accurate passers in the league — , he’s averaged 7.7 assists per game during this stretch. Between full-court outlet passes in transition to kick-out passes from the lane in the half court set, he is a master distributor. Harden is also an above average rebounder at his possession, collecting 7.9 rebounds per game during this stretch. As a primary ball-handler, his ability to collect rebounds facilitates a better flowing offense, as an offense is at its most efficient when the person who collects the rebound also brings the ball up the court.
Evaluating Harden as a defender can be a touchy subject. Compilations of Harden’s absent-minded defense from as recent as a couple of seasons ago flood video-streaming services. The image of Harden lazily swiping at the ball as an opponent blows by is hard to shake. This indifference on the less glamorous end of the court has provided fuel for detractors his whole career. Worse, it has undermined Harden’s ability to be a leader on the court, as any critique of his teammates’ defensive effort would be inherently hypocritical. This whole season, Harden stepped up on the defensive end. Even during the 30-point game stretch, when Harden has been given the largest offensive load of his career, he has remained an active defender, averaging 2.3 steals per game. Steals can be a bit of an incomplete statistic, as they only credit a defender for change of possession. Deflections offer a more complete statistic, as they account for the value in actions like disrupting passes and tapping the ball out of bounds. The NBA labels deflections a “hustle” statistic for a reason: it’s an unglamorous but incredibly important action. Harden is averaging a league-high 4.5 deflections per game during this stretch.
Any statistic like steals or deflections incentivizes somewhat risky defense. Harden’s on-ball defensive instincts aren’t yet top-tier. Neither is his team defense, as exhibited in numerous lapses in communication among the Rockets. Importantly, however, he is at least trying on the defensive end of the floor, and it is yielding positive results. ESPN’s Real-Plus Minus, a statistic that isolates a player’s individual impact from those of his teammates, grades Harden’s defense as a net-positive, well above replacement level. In spite of his historical dominance, Harden’s performances were met with a lukewarm reception from All-Star fan voters, with fans ranking Harden third among guards in the Western Conference. Adding insult to insult, during the NBA All-Star Game’s first televised draft, Harden was selected seventh out of the eight starters. He remains the favorite to take home the regular-season Most Valuable Player award, according to Vegas betting markets, currently at a -250 on BetOnline.
Perhaps people and players dislike his propensity to get to the free-throw line. Perhaps they don’t respect perimeter-oriented players. Perhaps they haven’t forgotten his defensive lapses in prior seasons. It’s time everyone tuned in. Harden has scored more than 30 points per game in 29 straight games, and he shows no signs of slowing down. His form of dominance is a work of art, and it’s only getting more refined.