Nearly two months ago, the most insane scoring streak of the last several decades began. James Harden put up a 50-piece on the Los Angeles Lakers via only twenty-six shots. The win jump-started a Houston Rockets squad that had lost seven of their last ten and served as a reminder for what a special scorer Harden is.
He hasn’t looked back since.
In 27 games from then until this writing, Harden’s averaged 42 points, eight rebounds, eight assists, 2.3 steals, one block and 44 percent shooting, 36.8 percent from three, and just under 14 free throw attempts.
Harden essentially is the Rockets offense at this point, and so many of his scores are of the unassisted variety.
At one point during his scoring spree, he scored 298 consecutive points without a teammate setting him up. Whether you view this as sickening towards team basketball, an indictment on his teammates’ abilities, or the ultimate sign of scorer panache, there is no denying how amazing Harden has been.
From a strategic standpoint, opposing coaches have to make adjustments when they battle the Rockets. They cannot play one-on-one defense with Harden. But is double-teaming him even a prudent defensive strategy either?
Not to get wrapped up in the “elevating sports to war” cliche, but think of defense like battle formations: The most effective attacks exploit weaknesses, catch the enemy by surprise, or use a show of force to prevent them from reaching their desired destination. The second element is crucial to a certain degree, as it prevents you from walking into a trap: If the enemy knows the move you are about to make, it’s easy for them to defeat it.
The same goes for double-teams in basketball.
When a player has their back to the basket on the blocks, a double provides some element of surprise. When teams doubled Shaquille O’Neal down low, he would have to physically turn to see the open player, so he would not always see the trap coming.
Because James Harden is a face-up isolation player that operates from behind the three-point line, teams that send double-teams towards him do so head-on. He sees the entire action developing, and the element of surprise is usually gone. That allows Harden, an elite passer and high-IQ player, to pick apart defenses that jump him.
Despite his passing acumen, a trap might still sound palatable. After all, it does mean that someone other than The Beard is taking a shot, and you don’t have to worry about that borderline-illegal step-back three. You may give up an uncontested jump shot elsewhere, but as long as it’s not a layup and it’s not Harden, could this be the optimal defensive strategy?
First, we have to look at the best ways to defend Harden without sending a trap. NBA Hall-of-Famer and defensive legend Scottie Pippen was asked about defending Harden a few weeks ago. His answer is unique, but does provide some solid pointers for throwing a little bit of the kitchen sink at such a player:
The first of Pippen’s assessments: guard Harden in the full-court and for a complete 94 feet. A tactic not seen frequently at the professional level, this could exhaust Harden if done over the course of 48 minutes. Of course, only certain situations lend themselves to full-court pressure. Made baskets and dead balls are almost required; full-court pressing after misses is transition defense suicide.
Picking up Harden for 94 feet when he brings the ball up does not produce many turnovers in the backcourt, however. All it accomplishes is slowing the game and wasting clock. At no point does it solve the dilemma of how to guard him in the half-court.
Furthermore, forcing someone else to bring up the ball and face-guarding Harden is incredibly difficult. This Rockets squad is adept at forcing switches and getting at the defender they want—even if their superstar doesn’t start the possession with the ball in his hands.
Harden pops to get open a lot on his own but using him as a screener to force switches has been the Rockets’ bread and butter. Here’s a unique double ball screen: Harden is the second screener and gets himself an ideal matchup with J.J. Redick:
Pippen also mentioned “attacking his left hand” and forcing Harden to drive right. Or playing him from behind to try and guard against the step-back. By sitting on his right shoulder, the hope would be that Harden struggles to create enough separation on his step-back because his defender is not positioned between him and the basket. This would, in effect, funnel Harden towards the right side of the rim for a right-handed layup while encountering basic help defense coverage.
Even if he scores, there’s help on rebounds and near the rim. Two points is less than three, the rate he’s getting frequently on his step-backs.
There might be merit to this type of coverage; Harden’s advanced Synergy metrics would back up such a claim. Check out the difference in his isolation efficiencies when driving to his left and to his right:
Professional teams frequently use pick-and-roll or isolation coverage called “weak”, which forces the ball handler to his weak hand. For Harden, that would be to his right. But a player of his caliber requires even more drastic coverage.
Harden will draw help from anywhere, regardless of which direction he goes. By staying on his back shoulder, like Pippen suggested, another defender must help on the action near the rim. Harden is too good a passer, even when going to his right. His turnover rate of 11.4 percent out of isolations is also fairly low.
The Phoenix Suns took Pippen’s strategy on full-court coverage and forcing Harden right, then combined it with a double-team. Harden was not only ready to read the double as soon as it came, but he was a willing passer. The Rockets’ spacing made it impossible for the Suns to give up anything other than an uncontested three-pointer:
By design, general manager Daryl Morey has built a team filled with corner three-point shooters, longer wings and quicker bigs. That provides more options to stand around the perimeter and make a simple read if Harden draws as much attention as he’s capable.
This year, P.J. Tucker has taken over 130 corner threes as the stretch-4 and even stretch-5. If we’ve learned anything about Mike D’Antoni’s offensive preferences, it’s that the corner three is perhaps his favorite shot. It’s the shortest distance three-pointer, the one most frequently left open from standard defensive rotations, and provides that bonus point that mid-range jumpers do not.
D’Antoni is no dummy. Every time he sees teams start to double Harden on the bounce, he puts two guards in the spots closest to him and spreads the floor to 5-out. This way, Harden is trapped by two smaller defenders, shorter bodies and wingspans to pass over while hitting the open man.
So what about the big man? There’s always one center on the floor for the Rockets that does not shoot the three. Can’t opponents just leave him on the perimeter and load up on the corner shooters?
Not exactly. Even when shots don’t fall from those open corner jumpers, teams are forced to rotate and will send their big to do so. Kenneth Faried, who has been an absolute blessing for the Rockets since signing a few weeks ago, is then free to crash the glass, now going one-on-one with a smaller guard (usually one that rotates off the guard on the opposite wing) for an offensive rebound:
Forcing Harden right is a bold strategy because the lack of payoff is so glaring. Fail to keep him going right, however, and the entire focus of the defensive coverage falls apart.
The Toronto Raptors also instructed their players to aggressively sit on his right shoulder. An ever-patient dribbler, Harden remained calm, snaked his way into the lane and forced help regardless. The results are uncontested dunks or wide-open threes:
Harden is too effective at reading late-arriving help and traps. You either have to be early or pray someone else misses an open one. The latter is a tough thing to stomach for a coach.
Looking back at this streak, Harden’s worst game might have come against the Philadelphia 76ers on January 21st: The Rockets got blitzed, losing by 28. And while Harden scored a crisp 37 points, he was a minus-23 and had six turnovers. Philly changed up their coverages throughout the night but did find a way to counter most of Harden’s strengths against traps within the structure of D’Antoni’s system.
The Sixers blanketed Harden and face-guarded him all game, making him expend energy pre-catch. Once he found an opening, Philly would send seven-footer Joel Embiid to blitz before Harden could get into his move. Such a strategy prevented late help and essentially allowed the Sixers to call the play for the Rockets.
Embiid’s length prevented Harden from zipping passes over the top of the trap as it arrived:
Credit the Sixers coaching staff for this adjustment, something they started utilizing in the second-half. Harden had only two field goals and ten points during that span.
Late-clock double-teams might be my other favorite strategy, however. As the clock gets under eight seconds, flying at Harden and forcing him to pass encourages the hot potato. Scramble around like madmen for only a few seconds and bank on either a rushed shot to beat the clock or a turnover first.
The Denver Nuggets tried to execute the late trap and had some success. They too handed the Rockets their other twenty-point loss during Harden’s scoring streak. Late traps are high-risk, high-reward:
“To trap, or not to trap” might be too simple a question. Each form of sending an extra defender at Harden has its pros and cons. Keep one thing in mind: all the clips shown in this article are of Harden passing. As dangerous of a passer as he is, this sure beats watching him drill step-back after step-back, living at the free throw line and also making perfect passes against traditional coverage.
I’m all in on blitzing James Harden and forcing someone else on the Rockets to make winning plays.
Unless otherwise noted, all statistics are courtesy of basketball-reference, NBA.com stats, or Synergy Sports Tech, and are current as of February 6, 2019.
Adam is a TBW staff writer and college basketball coach at Dickinson College. He loves watching for offensive schemes while specializing in individual skill development, shooting technique and coach-speak. Born in New Hampshire, Adam grew up as a Celtics fan but now claims to just love “good basketball”, which does not include mid-range jumpers.