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How defenses are dealing with James Harden

James Harden is an efficienct game plan in human form. Taking into account his ability to attack the rim, shoot with accuracy from anywhere on the court, live at the free-throw line (and make free-throws), and actuate an opposing defense with potent penetration and smart decisions, he excels at everything you want from a guard in today’s NBA.

The same people who’re unsatisfied with his offensive game would ask for more money after winning the lottery. It isn’t perfect because, well, he’s still technically a human being. But it’s damn near close.

 

Harden’s offense is genius in that the results are predictable, yet the defense is still helpless as he’s about to do what everyone in the gym already expects. Despite shooting an embarrassingly low 27.9% on three-pointers, defenses still have to treat his range honestly, knowing an early season shooting slump could melt away in a matter of seconds.

According to Hoopdata.com, only 4.1 of his 18.9 shots per game come from 3-23 feet, an absolutely astounding figure. All of his action either comes at the rim or behind the three-point line. Part of this is by design: Harden’s a smart player who—I’m guessing—understands the value of a three-pointer over an 18 foot jump shot, just as drawing contact at the hoop is more helpful than settling on a floater in the paint.

This isn’t to say Harden can’t shoot mid-range shots, it’s just that they aren’t a great component of his game. He’s smart enough to recognize that the value of this shot isn’t nearly as great as the other two options when extrapolated over the course of an entire season.

How do you guard James Harden? A fair answer might be “you don’t.” But let’s take a look at how opposing coaching staffs have tried, however futile they may currently be.

Defensive strategies can make dramatic swings based on who the opponent is and what situation the game’s in, but from what I’ve seen so far, if you want to “stop” Harden, a few tactics must be executed to perfection: Force the ball from his hands on all pick-and-roll situations, give him a cushion behind the three-point line (this could get ugly), and body him in the mid-range game.

The first option sounds simple enough until you realize Harden might be the best pick-and-roll passer in the universe. And the second option could be calling for a blowout of epic proportions if he gets rolling. This makes the third strategy crucial if you hope to at least slow him down. It allows no space for either a shot or a drive. And most importantly, it disallows enough room for Harden to operate in his most beloved offensive set: the pick-and-roll.

Here are a few examples of a defender choosing to fasten himself to Harden as soon as he gets the ball inside the three-point line.

The Rockets choose to isolate Harden on the wing, and Wade forces him into a step back jumper. Instead of utilizing his most dangerous asset (getting teammates involved with pin point passing), Harden engages in one-on-one basketball. Even if the shot goes in, Miami is a big fan of how this play develops. Same goes here:

This season the Rockets are averaging 1.03 PPP when Harden ends plays as a pick-and-roll ball-handler, which is tops in the entire league according to Synergy (although 23.7% of the time the play results in a turnover, which obviously isn’t good).

But Harden is averaging 2.1 assists at the rim per game, which is tops in the league among shooting guards, and he might be the NBA’s best at sliding a bounce pass in between an oncoming double team right at his rolling partner.

When Harden begins to initiate the pick-and-roll, the ears of opposing defenders pin up like a dobermans. As you saw from the clip above, most of the time a double team is in order. Here’s a screen shot example:

The second Omer Asik sets his screen on Wade, All five pairs of Miami’s eyes lock themselves on Harden. Even though the play takes place near the center of the court, the Heat attempt to trap him immediately, ignoring Asik on the wing (genius!) and closing off both Harden’s driving and passing lane.

As you can see in this screen shot, the Heat have once again opted to aggressively trap Harden as soon as he comes off Patrick Patterson’s screen. The only option that could possibly create a productive result would be a dangerous cross court pass to a wide open Carlos Delfino.

With LeBron James looming near the baseline like a lion in elephant grass, ready to pick off a long pass attempt, Harden’s best option might also be his worst. This is what smart defense looks like.

 

Twitter: @ShakyAnkles

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