The NBA court is a finite space, measuring 94 feet by 50 feet, and much of what sets the best players apart is their ability to manipulate that space. They analyze what lies before and around them, then reshape it to fit their particular skill set, so they can get a clear shot or find a passing lane that sets up a teammate for one.
Once the defense is set, and the offense crosses half court, the court shrinks to about a third of its actual size, with ten bodies crammed into an area where space is at a premium. Much of the playmaker’s task is then devoted to finding gaps, well-hidden flaws in the defense that can be brought out into the open. One must play the angles intelligently and quickly, knowing that as soon as they open up, they may just as immediately close, precluding the shot or pass that just moments ago appeared to be a brilliant move. It may not be immediately evident, but this is a piece about James Harden, a player who manipulates this space as well as anyone ever has.
James Harden sees the angles that lie before him, the defender who is guarding him and all those potential help defenders lying between him and the basket. As he dribbles between his legs, or leans forward holding the basketball, jab stepping to create distance, he is analyzing, trying to figure out both when and how to make his move. Harden then makes a series of other decisions after that initial move — whether to pass or not in the pick and roll, whether he should pull up for a jumper or drive past his defender, whether he should try to draw a foul or try to evade the help defense.
There are innumerable minute deliberations that he has made so many times that this thoughtful way of playing has come to appear innate. This skill has always been there, but Mike D’Antoni’s system has fine tuned it to the point where it is even more seamless than ever before, as the Rockets are built to complement Harden — both his skills and disposition. Each player the Rockets have signed in the last two years appears to have been assessed solely on how well they mesh with him, meaning that the team has created its own universe in miniature, a world where Harden reigns supreme, able to achieve his ends in the most exacting way.
In spite of how much Harden’s strategy aligns with that propagated by Rockets GM Daryl Morey, Harden was not a player create by Morey, but sought out by him because he already captured what Morey was looking for in a star player. In 2011-12, Harden’s last year with Oklahoma City, already nearly eighty percent of his field goal attempts were either from the restricted area or beyond the 3-point line. The primary difference between then and now is that Harden is now the primary ball-handler so that while 86 percent of his 3-pointers were assisted that year, this year, barely a quarter are. Also, Harden was already drawing fouls at a prodigious rate, drawing more than a free throw every other field goal attempt.
Yet if Harden’s style of play is the practical endpoint of the theoretical move towards analytics, and the prizing of 3-pointers, shots in the paint, and free throws above all else, he also shows us that this future is nothing to fear. Many have worried that such a stylistic and strategic shift would sterilize the game, leading to a homogeneity that drives out unique and idiosyncratic players. Harden, however, shows this anxiety to be unfounded. Yes, the vast majority of his shots this year were either 3-pointers or shots in the restricted area (77.1 percent, to be precise) but the way in which he frees himself to take and make these shots is thrilling, the furthest thing from clinical.
There is a palpable joy in watching Harden. It comes as we watch him deliberate, waiting to see what he will try, and if it will work. It often happens like this: Harden is faced by a defender who crowds him. Harden appears unfazed, simply dribbling the ball between his legs, waiting for a moment when the defender’s attention lags just a tiny bit. It is when the defender has been lulled into a false sense of safety, being a little less alert than they should be, that Harden will make his move — pulling up or stepping back for a 3-point shot, or dribbling past the defender, changing speeds in a heartbeat, blowing past them for a lay-up, or, just as often, getting fouled by a defender who is desperately trying to recover.
Harden appears to barely be trying much of the time, although it is not apathy on display, but effortlessness. Few NBA players have ever been able to score this easily, this consistently. There is a decided coolness to his game, a methodical nature that sets him apart from many others whose games are distinguished by their all out effort, their constant striving and hustle.
For example, if one watches a match up between Russell Westbrook and Harden, it is hard to believe they both excel at the same sport considering how disparate their respective ways of achieving their ends are. Both are great at scoring and creating for their teammates, but go about it it in such different ways that they seem to be playing entirely different games. Harden is the basketball player as geometer, the guard as dispassionate philosopher, letting the tides of the defense ebb and flow over him until an opening presents itself, which he then capitalizes upon with efficient decisiveness.
He is not what analysts speak of when they talk about how athletic NBA players are either; he does not have blazing speed in the open court nor is his vertical leap staggering. Yet he is nevertheless one of the most athletic players in the NBA, although in a counterintuitive way, relying on his perplexing ability to stop and start with seemingly no warning, changing speeds so quickly that no defender can react quickly enough to cut off his drive or provide a worthwhile contest to his patented step back jumper.
Harden will almost certainly win MVP this year, an award that has eluded him the past few years as he finished a very close second in both 2015 and 2017, arguably deserving to win more than both Stephen Curry and Russell Westbrook those respective years. Due to the delayed nature of his winning the MVP, this year has felt like a coronation, the year that Harden finally earns the universal acclaim and canonization that is overdue. And with his Rockets having the best record in the NBA, looking like the team most likely to keep the Warriors from repeating as champions, his detractors have less to argue against as few things help a player’s reputation more than team success.
Regardless of the Rockets’ achievements this postseason though, Harden has established himself as one of the greatest offensive forces the NBA has ever seen. His offensive game is one that has no apparent weaknesses. The best defense against him is to just try to avoid making any major mistakes, while also pressuring him, hoping that he misses his shots, but really that’s all any defender can do when isolated against Harden: hope.