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James Harden Has Become Unguardable

Don’t call it exploiting a loophole. Or a farce. The Rockets guard is taking away every option a defense has to stop him, and pushing the limits of the NBA record books in the process.

AP Images/Ringer illustration

The NBA court is a rather inhospitable place for a superstar. Those who make it to that level earn the full magnitude of an opponent’s attention. Coaches and scouts comb through game film for every possible weakness. There are reports written about a player’s shaky left hand, a reliance on spin moves, or a tendency to pick up their dribble too early—reports that will be given, with great detail, in a team walkthrough before the game. Help defenses in the NBA are as sophisticated as they’ve ever been, and they are generally oriented to take away the most valuable shots from the best players on the floor. Respect, in other words, is just another way to get exposed.

One of the triumphs of James Harden is that his game has been fully vetted but never really solved. Some opponents naturally give Harden more trouble than others. (And some playoff opponents, in particular.) Yet in all their collective attempts to stop him, the best defenders and strategists in the league—who put their theories to the test in full view of one another—have yet to come up with anything resembling a unified approach. Since being traded to Houston in 2012, Harden has scored more points than anyone in the NBA and outscored his closest competition (LeBron James) by over 2,500 and counting. No player in the past three years has had the ball in his hands more than Harden. All that trial and error, and the league at large seems as flummoxed by Harden as ever.

How is that even possible? It’s a common refrain directed at Harden, particularly in a season when he has trudged through cold shooting snaps to average 38.4 points per game. You don’t reach that level of production by exploiting a loophole or perpetuating some fraud. You do it by playing in a way that resists defensive scheming. Opponents have found that they have little to no bearing over how much Harden shoots, which is part of why he shoots so often. Some stars—fellow Rocket Russell Westbrook among them—can be stalled by a defense overloading one side of the floor. Others rely on the playmaking of teammates to the point that they can be denied, or on screens in a way that leaves them vulnerable to double-teams.

Harden doesn’t need any of it. The Rockets would love to run their pick-and-roll, but if bringing two defenders to the ball creates a bottleneck for the offense, they’ll cut out the screener and let Harden get right to it. This season, Harden is getting more points per possession on isolation plays than any half-court offense has mustered overall, according to Synergy Sports. Achieving efficient offense in Houston is as simple as getting out of the way.

When Harden has the ball in his hands, the 3-point line itself becomes a weapon. On this victimization of Lauri Markkanen, pay close attention to Harden’s footwork and the way he flirts with the arc:

The involvement of that line changes the power dynamics. If Harden crosses the arc to drive, a defender can at least hope for help from the back line—even if the unpredictability of Harden’s moves challenge the premise of a teammate rotating on time. As Harden drifts back over the line, however, he disconnects his defender from any larger system. No NBA player is so completely and fully alone. It does things to the brain; players perceive the game differently when they’ve been stripped of all support, and Harden understands that every feint is a jab step into their psyche. In a style befitting the player who stretched the NBA’s traveling rules to their fullest, Harden will literally toe the line. And even when he crosses it to drive into the paint, he may still retreat back out to the perimeter and start the entire dance from the top.

In crunch time, teams have historically defaulted to iso play as a means of mitigating risk. There is no preamble required, and only one real point of exchange: getting the ball into the hands of a creator. It’s the simplest way for a team to control who takes a decisive shot. During the past few years, the Rockets have treated the vast majority of their possessions as if they were just as critical. It’s the kind of luxury available to a team built around the most productive isolation player in the history of the sport. The best players force defenses to make difficult choices. By generating so much heat against a single defender—and from the space on the floor that is most logistically challenging to double-team—Harden tempts opponents toward self-destruction.

The only way to really limit Harden’s scoring attempts is to run a second defender his way, but doing so requires that defender to sprint across the court and leave his team fully exposed. Denver actually ran this gambit successfully in a game against Houston this week, in what turned out to be one of Harden’s worst performances of the season. He scored 27 points on 16 shots. It helped, in a sense, that the Nuggets were short on legitimate alternatives; having Nikola Jokic step up to contain Harden is so far from a tenable strategy that Denver had to get creative.

“Watching film of [Harden] is like watching a horror movie,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone confessed. Still, his players executed well, and some of the newer Rockets struggled to find their places and their rhythm when Harden attempted to pass out of sporadic doubles. It is an occurrence notable precisely because it is rare. More often, when teams try to double Harden, it ends up like this:

Or this:

Or this:

And that’s not even accounting for the ways that Harden will beat traps or doubles with the pass. The fact that Harden can step back into a 3 on command or accurately whip a pass to the far corner puts opponents in quite the bind. Eric Bledsoe—a first-team All-Defense guard last season—doesn’t end up trying something as radical as defending Harden entirely from the side by choice. It’s the desperate effort of a defender backed into a corner.

If teams had the means to limit Harden, they would. Instead, he takes more shots than any other player—more proof of his scoring prowess than it is the cause of it. Harden shoots as much as he does because he has the disposition for it, the endurance to manage it, and the organizational vision to support it. Moreover, he is the sport’s most accessible scorer; all it takes to unlock Harden is getting him the ball. And the only way to take the ball out of his hands is to openly concede shots elsewhere, invalidating the very purpose of what a defense is designed to do.

You really can’t separate Harden’s game from the scale of it. This isn’t one iso we’re talking about, but 14 a game executed to unprecedented levels. It’s not the highlight play that counts, but the fact that an NBA player could conceivably average 40 points a game for an entire season. No one commemorates their trip to the Grand Canyon by taking home a rock. There are some things in this world you can understand only in their full, sweeping entirety.