James Harden is having one of the greatest scoring seasons we’ve ever seen.
In the 45-year history of Basketball Reference’s possession-tracking database, no player has piled up points this season.
His usage rate of 40.5 percent ranks second in recorded history, behind only Russell Westbrook’s indulgent 2016-17 campaign, but he’s used those possessions far more efficiently, with 61.6 percent true shooting. And he’s done it for a Houston Rockets team that’s been missing three of its four best offensive players for a combined 51 games but still owns the ninth-best offensive rating of all time.
Harden is an elite offense unto himself, with his mastery of footwork, ball handling, passing, and off-the-dribble shooting; his ability to hit impossible threes or set up easy ones for his teammates; and to juke or bully his way to the rim and draw fouls in every way imaginable.
Over the past few years, Harden’s become one of the most unique and fascinating riddles posed to NBA defenses. And while there’s no “solving” it, really, you can avoid being completely consumed by it if you can decipher its internal logic.
Here are a few of the ways teams have defended Harden this year, and some of the ways he’s countered those coverages.
Drop the big, force the drive
When scheming for Harden, the first thing you have to decide is what you’re willing to live with, because you can only take away so much. An increasingly popular pick-and-roll coverage, particularly for teams that rely on slow-footed bigs, involves dropping the screener’s defender deep into the paint to protect the basket, while the on-ball defender chases Harden over the screen and pursues him from behind.
The strategy isn’t so much about denying Harden scoring opportunities as it is about taking away the spots from which he generates his most efficient shots. The rearview pursuit should force Harden off the 3-point line and into the paint. From there, the goal is to bait him into no-man’s-land shots like mid-range pull-ups, which he’s reluctant to take and (relatively speaking) not that good at. By stationing a big body near the rim, teams can essentially sandwich him with shot contesters from both directions.
If executed well, this also allows the three defenders who aren’t involved in the central screening action to stay home on the shooters dotting the arc around the Harden pick-and-roll. That means avoiding the impulse to help once he gets into the middle of the floor and trusting your big to protect against a layup while staying attached to the roll man, all without fouling. The Spurs created the blueprint for this scheme in the 2017 Western Conference semis, and other teams like the Raptors and Trail Blazers have copied it as a way of both protecting and optimizing their hulking centers defensively.
This season, the Bucks took it a step further. Their on-ball defenders, particularly Eric Bledsoe, overplayed the hell out of Harden’s left hand, giving him a free lane to attack with his right. The tactic made it harder for Harden to dance into pull-up threes in isolation, and also limited the utility of a screen. For the offense: Why clutter an already clear driving lane? For the defense: When you’re shading Harden that aggressively, it’s easy enough to wedge yourself between him and the screener to force him away from the pick. The Bucks’ bigs were waiting for him at the rim every time.
He still managed 42 points, but turned it over nine times against six assists.
Harden’s counters: Against the drop coverage, Harden can basically get all the floaters his heart desires, and he’s responded to the popularization of the scheme by becoming better at hitting them. He’s shooting 43.2 percent from floater range (inside the paint, but outside the restricted area) compared to 35.3 percent over the previous four years combined.
On its own, that still represents a great percentage play for the defense. But it doesn’t account for the fact that Harden draws fouls on 11 percent of his drives, or that he still finds passing seams that lead to corner threes, or that getting the drop man to commit to stopping his drive opens up a lob or shovel pass to the roll man (usually Clint Capela). The Rockets can also set their screens higher to give Harden a longer runway, which allows him to gather speed and Euro-step around the backpedaling big man. Here, Harden exploits the Bucks and then the Nuggets:
Against the Bucks’ exaggerated version of the coverage, Harden also used his lethal side-step move to create enough space to get 3-pointers off going to his right. He wound up hoisting 16 threes in that game and hitting six.
Switch the small stuff
Harden is as good an isolation scorer as there is, and he can work basically any defender in the NBA. But he still prefers to operate in a controlled environment where he’s selecting his opponent. Most Harden coverages are just teams’ best attempts to avoid the terror of seeing their most vulnerable perimeter defender stranded on an island against him. That’s why so many of these game plans are geared toward protecting big men against a switch. Allowing Harden to isolate against a big with limited mobility is asking to get burned, either by a clean step-back three or a blow-by with a path to an unprotected rim.
But some teams have the personnel to avoid that fate, or at least mitigate the risk. The Warriors are one such team, thanks to their ability to downsize and play Draymond Green at the five for extended minutes. Even so, having Steph Curry on the floor still gives Harden a soft spot to attack. Golden State sometimes responds by trying to pre-switch and sub Curry out for Green or Andre Iguodala as the screen defender, snuffing out the targeted mismatch before the Rockets can adjust.
For the most part, though, switching one wing or guard for another – even when you lose some size – doesn’t pose the same risk as doing so with bigs. Harden can physically overwhelm guys, but he hardly ever posts up, and will often look for his step-back when he’s faced with a defender capable of sliding with him on drives. In other words, you can get away with not sending help after giving up size on a switch (though it makes contesting his jumper more difficult).
Obviously, there are some weak guard defenders that Harden can rip through like tissue paper. But for teams like the Raptors or Thunder, who are stocked with length and strength on the perimeter and quickness in the frontcourt, switching everyone one through four is manageable. Pascal Siakam handled himself beautifully on Harden switches Tuesday night.
The Thunder switch against Harden as liberally as anyone, as long as it isn’t center Steven Adams being drawn into the action. (They can get a bit quicker at that position with Nerlens Noel, or go small with Jerami Grant at the five.) They don’t protect Westbrook the same way the Warriors do Curry, and for that reason, the Rockets tend to target Westbrook most. They know the Thunder will concede that switch, and they know it’s a favorable matchup for Harden.
Harden’s counter: This one’s simple: Seek and destroy. As long as there’s an exploitable defender on the floor, the Rockets will target him relentlessly in an effort to get him isolated on Harden. Generating a switch is usually exactly what they want.
Some teams prefer to try force the ball out of Harden’s hands when they have the opportunity. They can do that by trapping or “blitzing” the pick-and-roll, sending two to the ball and trying to prevent him from turning the corner.
Plenty of teams have turned to the blitz at various times against Harden, but the Nuggets are among the few who’ve relied on it as a primary coverage plan. Where most teams try to protect their plodding bigs by stashing them as close as possible to the basket, the Nuggets use theirs, Nikola Jokic, to create traps 30 feet from the basket when he gets pulled into the high-screen action. It’s a gambit that toes the line between aggressive and reckless.
In a vacuum, the strategy makes sense. Even if it opens up rim runs for Capela or open threes for P.J. Tucker, Austin Rivers, and Gerald Green, isn’t it better to make those guys beat you than to let Harden do it? Statistically, a Rockets catch-and-shoot 3-pointer (35.9 percent) is a better outcome for a defense than a Harden pull-up three (36.4 percent).
A team’s willingness to sell out with traps varies depending on the time on the shot clock. Some are aggressive about doubling Harden with five seconds or fewer on the clock, when they don’t have to worry about making more than one or two subsequent rotations (more on that shortly).
Harden’s counters: Harden doesn’t really get spooked when faced with pressure (his turnover rate against the Nuggets is lower than his season-long mark), and he can comfortably thread passes through traps – whether it’s a pocket pass to the rolling big, a skip pass to the weak side, or a reversal to an open shooter out of the pick-and-pop. As soon as that pass is delivered, the defense is in scramble mode. This puts a huge strain on the shorthanded defenders on the back end, who risk giving up a dunk or an open three if their rotations aren’t perfect.
In a Jan. 7 game between the two teams, Harden racked up 14 assists, with nine of them going for 3-pointers. He contributed a whole bunch more secondary and tertiary assists when his passes out of traps led to swing-swing sequences that produced wide-open threes. Tucker hit seven of them.
Lest you think the blitzes only opened up the long ball, Capela’s averaged 27.5 points in the season series against Denver. The trade-off for the Nuggets hasn’t really been worth it.
Hedge and recover
A more conservative way to defend a Harden pick-and-roll without switching is to hedge. It carries some of the same risks as blitzing, but it works toward a more sustainable outcome that should involve less scrambling and less stress on the back line.
The Thunder usually hedge with Adams when the Rockets use his man as the screener. They also do it sometimes with one of their weaker wing defenders. Dennis Schroder did a good job at this late in the teams’ Christmas Day game, buying Paul George enough time to loop under the screen and recover, and thus affording the Thunder more possessions with their best defender stapled to Harden:
Here’s an example of Curry doing a poorer job of it, but the rest of the Warriors covering for him (note Curry motioning for the pre-switch before his man, Rivers, goes to set the screen):
The Pelicans are another team that used hard hedges as a means of keeping their best perimeter defender, Jrue Holiday, attached to Harden.
Harden’s counters: Similar to what he can do to beat traps, Harden can bust a hedging defense by slinging a quick pass to the screener once he slips off. He can also make a quick move to the basket before his primary defender has a chance to recover. That effectively gives the Rockets a four-on-three, but with Harden running it instead of a secondary playmaker.
An increasingly common look against the Rockets is a zone, with the Nets and Heat using it most prominently. That might seem counterintuitive against such a prolific 3-point shooting team, but for the most part, it’s been effective, largely because it simplifies pick-and-roll coverage.
The Rockets’ offense plays outside-in, doesn’t really utilize back cuts, and doesn’t feature a playmaking big man. So, leaving the high post and baseline vulnerable is a perfectly acceptable trade-off for diverting Harden’s north-south drives. The scheme does put a ton of pressure on the perimeter defenders, however, particularly against someone who can shoot and make skip passes as well as Harden can.
In a Jan. 16 game against the zone-happy Nets, the Rockets got up an NBA record 70 threes. Harden took 19, hit five, and assisted on five others (he had 14 potential assists go for naught thanks to cold shooting from his supporting cast). The Nets did a good job of contesting those threes, though, and came away with the win because the Rockets hit fewer than a third of them.
Teams have typically set up in a 3-2 formation to account for Houston’s outside shooting, but the Heat often converted it into more of a 1-2-2, with one guy pressing up on Harden to guard against his pull-up from as far out as 35 feet. Their configuration also made it easy for them to trap Harden late in the shot clock, which worked some of the time.
Both teams mostly did a good job of executing the scheme, and Harden lit them both up for 58 points. Against Harden, good process often begets poor results. He did a lot of his damage versus the Heat in transition and semi-transition, off turnovers and offensive rebounds, and on contested pull-ups you really can’t do anything about.
Despite Harden’s individual numbers, it feels like we’ll keep seeing more zone schemes from Houston’s opponents.
Harden’s counters: Against the Heat, the Rockets frequently cleared out the strong side of the floor. The Heat left an extra defender on that side anyway, meaning an open shooter on the weak side was only one swing pass away. Harden’s vision and passing precision make that a dangerous proposition.
A lot of this stuff comes down to execution, and a lot of execution comes down to personnel. It takes strength, length, quick feet, and smarts to tackle the assignment, and some teams simply don’t have defenders capable of bothering Harden. Some teams do have the right personnel and a smart scheme that they execute to a T, and they get burned anyway.
Just about every team employs most of these approaches to defending Harden in some variation. Each scheme has nuances, and every team executes them a little bit differently. It’ll be interesting to watch how or if those coverages evolve, which ones stick, and whether any teams come up with an entirely new wrinkle, particularly since the Rockets could see one or more of the Nuggets, Thunder, Warriors, and (dare to dream) Bucks in the postseason.
Historically great players force the rest of the league to get creative in response. Few players are inspiring more creativity right now than Harden.
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