HOUSTON — Sometimes, when he watches James Harden size up defenders with his hypnotic back-and-forth dribble showcase, the manifestation of a patient apex predator who knows his exact position atop the food chain, Luc Mbah a Moute wonders.
“If I were on another team,” Mbah a Moute asks, “how would I be able to guard him?”
Mbah a Moute knows how he would try, a method he won’t describe to me. That’s understandable; you never know what tidbit might get sent to, say, Jimmy Butler preparing for the first round. P.J. Tucker laughed and then also declined to answer the same question.
“Playoffs about to start, man!” he told me.
Both are premiere defenders, and they’ve matched up with Harden in past seasons with varying success. Playing next to him, though, has unlocked an even higher level of appreciation for the bearded maestro.
“He’s crafty,” Tucker said. “He knows all the angles. He knows how to draw fouls. He can really shoot the ball. He can really dribble the ball. He can really pass the ball. AKA, he can do everything.”
Harden won his first scoring title this season, and that will likely be accompanied by his first MVP. No one has scored more points than Harden since he arrived in Houston in 2012. Given his cerebral offensive talents, it’s no real surprise why.
A defender’s expectations when guarding Harden have become warped. No strategy works indefinitely, or with certainty. One Western Conference coach joked that the only good outcome while defending him was hoping he would get tired and play fewer minutes.
Worse, every player on opposing teams must prepare to guard Harden, because he’s an equal opportunity destroyer. When an overmatched big man gets isolated on Harden Island, it turns gruesome quicker than a tourist destination horror flick.
Those movies offer relief when the credits roll, but Harden isn’t so kind. Only 28 other players have averaged more than 30 points for an entire year, so Harden’s season puts him in an exclusive club. Houston’s offseason additions — Mbah a Moute, Tucker, and especially Chris Paul — are what made them a real contender for the Golden State Warriors. But Harden’s mastery of the offensive end is what fuels them.
In the words of those who watch and play against him most, this is the impossibility of guarding Harden.
When Harden backs up well behind the three-point line, dribble intact, it’s as if everything freezes. Basketball turns into a purgatory with no heavenly reward attached at the end. It would be pretentious as hell — he’s literally giving up forward progress because he has deemed his defender’s chances against him too futile to matter — if teams still weren’t too busy trying to stop it.
This happened in early April, late in the third quarter against the Washington Wizards. Harden saw Tomas Satoransky on him, and his great potential to be sautéed. Satoransky held steady once, then twice, before Harden took those backwards steps. He played with his prey, leaned left and then right, and ultimately hopped back into a simple 20-foot jump shot. Satoransky had no chance.
Fast forward to the fourth quarter, after the Houston announcers said Harden had been unusually quiet since halftime. Washington had aggressively trapped Harden on pick-and-rolls, a tactic that led to wide open shots from Houston players, but at least kept the ball out of Harden’s hands. But Harden grew bored of that. So, he took over.
“I was just trying to play,” Harden said afterwards.
The first make came against Bradley Beal, a stepback three-pointer on the left wing. On the next trip, Tim Frazier tried his luck, aggressively pushing into Harden 40 feet from the hoop. It was a noble effort, and Frazier briefly poked the ball away, only for Harden to recover, get him backpedaling, and hit another jumper that was a carbon copy of the previous play.
The third trip down the floor welcomed Harden’s old pal Satoransky back into the mix. He refused to die by the J, so the Rockets’ star slithered around him and finished with an and-one layup. Just like that, Harden had led an unanswered nine-point run all his own.
“He’s got a deceiving quickness to him,” Mbah a Moute said. “He goes from slow to fast, and as a defender, you’ve got to guard him so he can finish so well at the basket. So his crossover, with his crossover or his jab-and-go, you’ve got to honor it. Then you’re pretty much at his mercy.”
It has been detailed before that Harden’s most transcendent talent is his instant deceleration. The P3 Applied Sports Science group, a California-based athletic training facility that’s a favorite among professional athletes, says they’ve never encountered someone with Harden’s snap-of-a-finger ability to just ... stop.
”He has the best all-around NBA braking system we’ve ever measured,” Dr. Marcus Elliott, P3 founder, told ESPN in 2016.
Raw athleticism only matters to a point: bodies still must be functional and able to use their superior muscular advantages in ways that transfer to any chosen sport. Harden’s herky-jerk staredowns, with the ball yo-yoing side to side, constantly tricks defenders into thinking this moment will be the moment where he goes. No player baits opponents into wrong movements quite like Harden, and his instant deceleration means that he’ll be moving the other way before they can stop their momentum.
And, hey, if that doesn’t work, his thick-as-a-tree-trunk frame can bully through you, too.
Honor his jump shot, and you’ll get blown by. Anticipate his drive, and you won’t be in the same zip code when he springs back.
“Your computer has to be rebooted every time he scores,” Wizards head coach Scott Brooks said. “If you get frustrated after every time [he scores] you’re going to be frustrated all game.”
Harden’s mini-leap this season came from his stepback jumper, a shot that requires tremendous lower body strength to counteract the physics involved with leaping in the opposite direction. One Rockets executive described it like a favorite Madden play: when you need to be bailed out of a bad situation, you know that play will work.
If that stepback is Harden’s “worse case scenario” on an average isolation play, then that’s a pretty damn good worst case. According to NBA.com, Harden has hit stepback jumpers at a 45 percent rate this season, a vast majority of them behind the arc. That number might be slightly high — shots are sometimes misclassified — but it certainly illustrates how deadly it is. Harden’s season is the best isolation scoring season of all time, and that stepback provides him a deadly baseline. He can always get that shot, and the rest of his scoring is built from there.
“Everybody wants to push him right, but a lot of times that goes against you because he still goes right, and that’s the way he likes to get to his stepback,” Tucker said. “He has a counter for pretty much everything.”
A contested stepback shot taken 25 feet away from the rim used to be a defensive win, but Harden’s success is changing even that.
Two days after the Washington win, before the Rockets faced the Portland Trail Blazers, I asked Evan Turner about the mental toll of guarding Harden.
“When he’s sitting there doing that, there’s only two or three guys that are allowed to do that,” Turner said. “You can do the petty thing, like, ‘If I got 28 dribbles, I could do it.’ You know what I’m saying? But at the same time, it is what it is.”
He elaborated: “Typically, when you dribble out a whole shot clock, it tends to be looked at as bad basketball. Especially in this day and age. So that’s definitely tough, and whether you stop him going left, or stop him again, he’s got three or four chances to really slice and dice you. And with the type of shooters they have, he has you on an island.”
Turner’s totally jealous, but he has a point. Only one qualified player (Tony Parker) has dribbled the ball more times per touch than Harden, who typically pounds the basketball into the floor 5.9 times for every instance that it reaches him. There’s a public perception of what Mike D’Antoni offenses look like, and this is the antithesis. But beyond D’Antoni’s core tenets — shooting and spacing, mostly — he really only cares about what works. This does.
“We don’t really pass that much,” D’Antoni said. “We don’t have to make a lot of passes to generate a shot. Usually, it’s one pass and a shot.”
All this leads to Houston having the second fewest passes in the league, along with the fifth fewest assists. But Harden averaged the most points out of isolations in league history — less than 10 percent of his two-point buckets are assisted, and there’s no need for that number to ever go higher. When Harden plays, he’s the alpha and omega behind Houston’s second-best offense, by design. And he’s always one step ahead, literally and mentally.
“If you got your muscles ready to fire instantly, you get crossed over. You’re waiting for his first move,” Mbah a Moute said. “That’s what makes it hard. [The slow-dribbling staredown] kind of lulls you to sleep, and then his quickness and his explosiveness, it makes you react one way or another.”
In one instance in the first quarter against Portland, Harden moved around a pick-and-roll with seven seconds left on the shot clock and skated back behind the three-point line anyway. Al-Farouq Aminu sprinted back, while Zach Collins hung in the lane, shading ever so slightly towards Harden. Collins had seen the highlights, after all. Even with the shot clock ticking down — 6, 5, 4.9, 4.8 — Collins thought he knew what’s coming next.
All that attention left Tucker, the man setting the pick, alone. Harden rotated the ball in an instant, and Tucker buried the shot. It splashed through with 2.4 left on the shot clock.
Harden’s so good that he’ll wait, and wait, and wait. An open shot with 22 seconds on the shot clock and an open shot with two seconds have one thing in common: they’re good shots. Houston general manager Daryl Morey’s preference would be that the team plays a little faster, but D’Antoni’s opinion is clear: they’ll play at Harden’s pace.
Those passing plays are the ones that complete Harden as an offensive player. He’ll find the player you leave open if you double team him, or push it ahead if the timing’s right.
That’s why you see hapless big men facing Harden on the perimeter so frequently. Teams think it’s better to switch than to expose their pick-and-roll defense to Harden’s gaze. If they do, he knows every pass and has the creativity to pull them off.
That explains why Clint Capela leads all qualified players by making 65 percent of his shots this year. And even Capela will admit it’s a cushy job.
“The trick [to those passes], you should ask him,” Capela said. “All I do is go up, get it, and dunk it.”
With so much space, Harden has thrown the widest range of passes towards the rim of anyone all year. During one moment of defensive disorientation, he fires off bullets, the only type of pass that will beat the defense.
In another, in the third and final game of a recent homestand against the Oklahoma City Thunder, Harden tossed up a rainbow over Steven Adams’s head that Capela still finished.
Coaches shake their head and devolve into cliches when asked how to guard him, saying things like “you just gotta focus on doing your job” and “you can’t give in.” There are unstoppable superstars who still have comparable weaknesses, but Harden isn’t that. Every team must make their own choice whether Harden’s jumper, pass, or drive will hurt them least.
“Some guys, you can force them into doing something that they’re not really comfortable at doing, or they’re not as good at doing other things,” Mbah a Moute said. “Steph [Curry], you want him to drive, you don’t want him to shoot. James, you can’t.”
We’ve made it here without mentioning how he draws fouls — shamelessly, sure, but always within the confines of the NBA rulebook. He shoots about one fewer free throw than he did a year ago after the league changed his three-point foul loophole, one that he exploited mercilessly. But see Harden long enough, and even his defenders appreciate the guile that he uses to tally up trips to the line.
“You can’t touch him,” Turner said. “That’s kind of a backhanded compliment.”
Harden’s postseason questions persist, especially after last year’s Game 6, and those are problems that can only be forgotten with superior playoff performances. These are the doubts that Harden will try to quench as the 2018 calendar rolls into May.
But Harden failing on his own is the only strategy that’ll work. He has all the defensive ones figured out.