James Harden has become synonymous with 3-point shots. He’s the NBA’s top scorer and most innovative but he does have his signature shot, the step-back three-point shot. It is becoming the most reliable scoring move in the league and there is no way to defend against it.
Over the last few years, Harden has taken what was an unknown shot to one of the most watched shots in the league. It is now by far one of the most terrifying moves and it is in his arsenal.
In 2013/14, Steph Curry led the league for attempted step-back 3s with 69. Just five years later in 2018/19, Harden led the league by attempting 613. The numbers aren’t even comparable, Harden has mastered the technique. James has started a trend as the step-back fever is taking the sweeping through the league, it has changed offensive plays forever.
The Houston Rockets side love efficiency no matter where it is on the court. This is why Daryl Morey and Mike D’Antoni build the Rockets offense around Harden as he is one of the most efficient one-on-one scorers. In 2018/19, James Harden averaged 19.8 isolation player per game, to put this into perspective that is just shy of double of the next best player in the league. In fact, since the league started tracking isolation plays (2013/14) only three teams have topped that figure, two of which are Rockets teams that Harden played for.
With NBA defences switching more often, this makes it easier for Harden to take advantage of a mismatch. This is why 70% of his isolations plays end in him shooting. However, its all about choreography. His favourite place to shot is at the top of the ark, this is where 42% of his step-back shots are attempted. Harden also likes to shoot from that right-wing position but very rarely from the corners, this is probably due to the lack of space for a step-back. One question still remains, how does he do it?
James will dribble and move until there is the slighted imbalance of his defender. This is why he was the only player to dribble over 500 times a game last season with James dribbling at least 10 times in around 40% of his step-backs before taking the shot. Most players use their dribblers to get to a certain position, Harden uses his to destroy his defender. As soon as the defender leans just a little too much, Harden surges past him to the rim or he steps back and shoots as he has created enough space.
One of the best examples of Harden’s game was against Kevin Durant, former teammate, with the Rockets down by three with 48 seconds remaining. James Harden is dribbling down the left and Durant calls of Iguodala as he wants to guard his old teammate. With James about 35 feets away from the bucket, Durant raises his arm tin an attempt to block any shot that he might attempt. However, Harden is look at Durant’s shoes. He uses his left arm to dribble a bit closer to the 3-point line.
With 45.9 seconds left, the ball has just bounced back up into his hand, he’s done dribbling however, there is still no sign that he’s about to shoot. Harden launches his left foot forward and jerks his body that way as if he’s about to dribble that way but his right foot doesn’t move. Durant shifts his balance to cover that dribble, but this gives Harden space to shift onto his right foot and shoot. With enough time and space, Harden ties the game up. He looks for that slight imbalance in the defender where their weight is shifted towards the hoop and then he steps back to shoot.
On average, his step-back creates about six feet of space for a shot per second spectrum data. This means as he’s shooting and the defender goes to block it, it’s already too late. This is what makes it so dangerous, he can create space in such a short space of time despite there being no sign he’s about to do it.
It only takes one second for Harden to break the defender’s balance, step-back to create the shooting space and release the shot. This makes it the most dangerous second in the NBA. The defenders know it is coming but they don’t know when. It is 12.5% more efficient than the average 3-point shot, a significant difference.
Harden draws a foul on the stap-back about 6% of the time, the efficiency increases monumentally, as he then averages over three points per attempt. Players like Luka Dončić are watching and taking notes but Harden’s numbers are like a cheat code.
You may know what he is going to do, but you don’t know when. It only takes a second for James Harden to flip an NBA game in the Rockets favour.