At this very moment, James Harden is one of the most dangerous offensive players in NBA history. In turn, opponents have responded by essentially admitting that they’ve run out of ideas, running two defenders at him as soon as he starts to isolate.
The strategy is as delicate as it is strange, and has been happening all month at various points in just about every game. The most extreme, high profile, and telling case came last Friday night against the Los Angeles Clippers. With Kawhi Leonard as Harden’s primary defender, Doc Rivers repeatedly instructed Paul George to run at Harden and squeeze a pass. The Clippers won the game doing this on just about every single possession in the game’s final two minutes (the one time they played Harden straight up, he drove by Leonard and drew a foul).
Afterwards, Harden blustered through a description of the coverage in a way only he can: “The whole season they’re running double-teams at me. I’ve never seen that in an NBA game where you’ve got really good defenders and someone else running at the top of the key. Y’all let me know the last time you’ve seen that.”
The quote is mostly accurate and definitely immodest. Steph Curry stans caught wind of that last sentence and used it as an excuse to remind everyone that the two-time MVP and greatest shooter who ever lived had in fact also faced double-teams in his career. This is true, but with context Harden still has a point. To start, Curry rarely found himself in the exact type of situation Harden regularly is: absent a ball screen, having a second man race at him soon after he crossed halfcourt, before a switch, with an ideal defender already in place.
This is for several reasons, most of them having to do with Steve Kerr’s system, which was fueled by Curry not having the ball in his hands, allowing him to work away from the action until the play’s concluding shot. The Golden State Warriors ran him through split action, pin-downs, flairs, and an indefatigable flow that freed him up for countless catch-and-shoot opportunities. In each of the last four seasons, Curry ranked top five in possessions finished off a screen, never finishing below the 90th percentile. He was, and still is, preposterous.
Meanwhile, Harden’s labor off screens has been virtually non-existent with the Rockets. In 2015-16, those possessions accounted for 3.4 percent of his activity. One year later it was 2.3 percent. Then 1.0 percent. Last year it was 0.9 percent. He’s yet to qualify in the category this season.
It’s not that Harden can’t come off a screen and drill a three, but Mike D’Antoni has instead chosen to let one of the NBA’s smartest players dictate the action himself. Voluntarily taking the ball out of Harden’s hands — especially with no promise he will ever get it back with enough time on the shot clock for a quality look — is a disagreement with how the team was built, but other options are available.
In a situation like Friday night, Russell Westbrook could’ve brought the ball up, and then had Harden swing off a wide pindown, into a dribble hand off that catapults him towards the rim. They could also bring Clint Capela or P.J. Tucker up to set a flat screen near midcourt, but if Harden couldn’t dribble around the blitz, having either one as the release valve instead of Westbrook wouldn’t be ideal: It expands their role in ways that eliminate what they should be doing, which is finishing the play via either a corner three or dunk.
Instead, the Rockets let things play out, as they have all season. When the defense sent Westbrook’s man to double Harden, Harden passed Westbrook the ball and let him attack an advantageous 4-on-3 situation. For the most part, it worked.
More times than not, these conditions will work out in Houston’s favor, and defenses will push themselves even further towards the brink once Eric Gordon returns. But because Westbrook bricked a three on that particular game’s final play, the strategy has merit. It ostensibly stifled Houston’s offense, which is third best in the league and averaging 120.3 points per 100 possessions in the clutch. Technically, this isolated example did just that. But the Clippers (or any other team) should think twice about utilizing this exact strategy in a playoff series, where Houston would be thrilled to see George and Leonard — or any pair of paralyzing off-ball defenders — remove themselves from the possession.
The look isn’t terrible by any stretch, but above everything this was just a bad decision by Westbrook. Only down two, he either had a clear driving lane with Capela in the opposite dunker spot, Tucker in the strong-side corner, or, assuming Lou Williams would crash down, Austin Rivers open on the weakside.
George’s closing speed deserves respect and all this information must be processed in the blink of an eye, but Houston was still positioned to capitalize. It has no reason to worry. Defenders don’t spend a ton of time practicing this strategy because 1) it’s harder than it looks, and 2) it’s self-defeating. Timing is key, as George learned the hard way:
But teams would rather deploy it against this one player than rely on alterations of their base defense — be it switching and helping off shooters, trapping a pick-and-roll, or dropping the screener’s defender, staying home, and coaxing a confrontation at the rim — because forcing Harden to actually drill a step-back three or drive downhill and make the right play in a crowd is essentially asking him to shatter their coverage into a trillion pieces. Opponents are desperate, and this move reeks of self-doubt.
They’re also acting on basic probability, which is understandable. Harden generated 1.11 points per possession in isolation last season and is at 1.08 right now. That’s very efficient. But to invite open threes and good looks in the restricted area from dependable professionals is a remarkable testament to Harden’s all, all, all-time greatness. It isn’t a eureka solution. It’s a loose band-aid. And deep down the Rockets couldn’t be less concerned.