Being a great scorer in the NBA has always been about creating space. From Mikan’s drop step to Kareem’s sky hook to MJ’s fadeaway to Hakeem’s Dream Shake, if a player has wanted to get a shot off, he has needed room to let it fly.
Those moves once created great position to score around the basket and in the midrange, but as the game has expanded outward, the need for moves to create looks from behind the 3-point line and at the rim has increased. As a result, the NBA’s go-to maneuvers now look more like something you’d seen on a playground, or a game featuring James Harden.
One player dribbling the air out of the ball as they size up their defender may not be the brand of hoops that James Naismith had in mind, but they have set up Harden’s groundbreaking game. Through an array of jab steps and herky-jerky fakes, Harden has unleashed a mix of hyperefficiency and prolificness unlike anything the NBA has seen before. The reigning MVP is so effective that some of his go-to shots would be considered “bad” in the hands of most players.
To catch up to Stephen Curry’s wizardry, Harden and the Houston Rockets have taken off-the-dribble 3-pointers to another level. The Rockets have built their offense around pull-up jumpers, with Harden leading the charge; the reigning MVP has taken 740 pull-up 3-point attempts this season, nearly twice as many as the next player. Of the 27 players who have taken at least 150 pull-up 3-pointers, Harden ranks sixth in percentage at 36.4. He scores 1.09 points per possession on those looks, nearly the same as he scores in the restricted area.
Harden’s stepback 3-pointer is the shot in his vast offensive arsenal that gets the most attention—even from fellow superstars—but another move has quietly also been creating open off-the-dribble 3s for him and players all over the league: the side step.
What’s a side step? It’s a quick separation move wherein the ball handler lunges to their right or left before lifting for a shot.
Like the stepback, the side step freezes defenders by quickly faking a drive. But rather than taking a hard dribble and pushing off their lead foot to go backward, the offensive player presses off their outside foot and jolts laterally.
It’s simple and effective, and it maximizes the 3-ball.
“It’s amazing to me that you have the best athletes in the world on him and then he, in one or two moves, can create enough space to get a wide-open 3,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said at a practice earlier this season. “People just don’t do that. It’s almost impossible. … Everything is kind of in slow motion to him.”
Players like Harden and Curry have stretched the definition of what is possible beyond the arc, and each has done so using his singular abilities to get his shot off. Curry’s deft handle and fluid motion allows him to dribble into shots more easily than anyone; Harden, meanwhile, built on what’s worked for so long in the NBA to create something new.
This is the story of how Harden got there, and why the league is following suit.
The origin of the side step can be traced back to the “zero step,” in which the pivot step after a player has discontinued their dribble isn’t counted as one of the two steps allotted before a stop, pass, or shot. According to Ronnie Nunn, a former NBA referee of 19 years and the league’s director of officials from 2003 to 2008, the zero step came about in the 1960s, and creativity bloomed from there.
“Now comes the one-two in any direction you want to go,” Nunn said in a phone interview. “Kind of like a Gale Sayers being able to go right and left. Like a crossover but without a dribble.”
With the zero step, players could take two steps in any direction they wanted. Mostly, it was forward or backward. The latter gave birth to the stepback, which is when a player springs away to avoid a defender’s reach.
“Walt Frazier had a stepback move where he could step back right or left,” Nunn said. “He didn’t do it a lot, but he did it.”
Next came the Eurostep, a side-to-side motion often unleashed when attacking the basket. After the gather, the offensive player will take a hard step one way to get the defender to commit to that direction, then take a hard step in the other direction to create an open look at the rim. Similar to the spread of the stepback, the Eurostep took off in the NBA around 2010, when dynamic athletes such as Dwyane Wade and Manu Ginobili gave it a modern flare.
“Everybody been using side-step, stepback moves,” Kevin Durant told me before a game. “I remember Kobe using them, T-Mac using them. We’re all students. I don’t think anybody in 2019 is creating anything in basketball. They’re just making everything their own. They’re just adding their own flavor and style to it.”
But it’s not all ballet. A more brutish relative of the stepback is the bump-off. That’s when a player springs off direct contact with a defender into a shot. The goal is to create more separation by sending the defender’s momentum forward while the offensive player leans back or to the side.
“It’s really a different variation of the stepback,” said Paul Fabritz, Harden’s performance enhancement trainer. “Same footwork, same timing, same everything.”
Harden often generates his 3-point looks out of isolations, which requires him to create separation from defenders in close quarters. The Warriors, however, famously use ball movement and motion to get their shooters open. So instead of physical contact, they use deception. Enter the side step.
The Athletic’s Ethan Sherwood Strauss first noticed Curry and Klay Thompson shuffling to their left or right in the 2014-15 season to avoid defenders’ hard closeouts, which were meant to force the Golden State sharpshooters to step inside the arc for a long 2. They would pump-fake, take one dribble to move from the defender’s reach, and then let the 3-pointer fly. Strauss dubbed it the “Side Steph.”
Harden took it one step further—he integrated it as a face-up move.
Some of these moves have been around since the early days of basketball, and over time they have advanced, merged, and transformed. The central motion to the side step has existed in various forms for decades, but Harden did what few others before him could: He made it his own.
Harden didn’t have a “Eureka!” moment when he suddenly realized the power of the side step. It was more of an evolution of one of his best skills, deceleration.
“Nothing was premeditated,” said Fabritz, who works on Harden’s athleticism and strength. “He was probably more trying to step back. Sometimes it’s really hard to decelerate and go backward; it just makes more biomechanical sense to decelerate and go to the side. I think it started to happen as an accident on those bump-offs, and people started realizing that if you go to the side you can get just as much space on those bump-offs.”
In 2012-13, Harden’s first season with the Rockets and the first season that NBA.com logged video for every stepback jumper, you can see the 2-guard already laying the groundwork for the side step. I reviewed the tape on all of them, and it appears that Harden tried the side step four times that season and missed badly on all but one of the 3-point attempts that sprang from the move.
Harden was still working on calibrating his footwork in 2013-14, and he really started to let the side step fly in the 2015-16 season, Fabritz said.
Irv Roland, a Rockets assistant coach and head of player development, remembers the move becoming a staple of Harden’s game after Chris Paul arrived in the summer of 2017. That season, the stepback became the featured aspect of his repertoire: He went from 70 attempts in 2016 to 175 in 2017.
“I think that move has evolved from both of those guys playing pickup so much [together],” Roland, who has trained Harden since he was 19, told me by phone. “James and Chris,” whom Roland worked with on the then–New Orleans Hornets, “are two of the best isolation players in the league, and that comes from them playing so much in the offseason and down time. So it wasn’t so much one day, ‘Let’s do this.’ It just came from them playing so much. And over the years they both perfected it.”
Harden won the MVP award in 2017-18, Paul’s first season in Houston, by leveraging his isolation mastery into a league-leading 30.4 points per game (with more than a third of those points coming from behind the arc). Now, he’s the all-time leader in unassisted 3s. This season, by my count, Harden is on pace to take more stepbacks than the rest of his career combined. In just a few years, he’s gone from an All-Star to an MVP to the verge of one of the best scoring seasons in recent history.
Harden has taken 411 stepback 3-pointers this season, according to NBA.com/Stats. A close analysis of the tape on all of them reveals that Harden has whipped out the side step 123 times—which would correlate to 15 percent of his total 3-pointers on the season and about two attempts per game. He’s shooting 36.6 percent on those 3-point shots, and he most often launches toward his right to get the attempt off.
Just the threat of the side step unlocks the other variations Harden can unleash. Off one jab step, Harden can then jolt right or left for a side step, backward for a stepback, or forward and attempt to draw a foul. If he’s attacking downhill, he can also step around the defender for a Eurostep. And there may be more to come.
“He’s got a couple variations of that move that he hasn’t brought out,” Roland said.
Roland’s role in the creative process is to be Harden’s executive producer. Roland said he’ll come to the gym with an idea for a move and Harden will start tinkering with ways to execute it. Sometimes, it will lead to a different maneuver. That’s the process that led to the behind-the-back side step that Harden ripped off in the preseason against the Shanghai Sharks.
Did Harden travel? pic.twitter.com/lvDULxmETi— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) October 10, 2018
Of course, anytime he whips out a never-before-seen move, there’s risk of being called for a travel, or feeding the internet its latest viral video.
“It’s funny,” Harden told me, laughing. “It’s the internet. It’s undefeated.”
Selling a move can be more difficult than executing it. No one in the league should know that better than Harden, whose ability to manufacture fouls earns him a league-best 11.5 free throws every game. In addition to timing and footwork, one of the keys is confidence.
“I’m not scared to test [things] out in the game,” Harden said. “It might look awkward in the beginning, but eventually people start catching on, people start doing it and using it.”
Or, in the wise words of the Phoenix Suns’ Jamal Crawford: “They’re not calling it, so you’re good.”
That conviction can also throw refs for a loop, to the point where an official might blow a whistle when they shouldn’t, or vice versa. Referees are constantly studying the game and breaking down tape to determine the legality of these new moves, Nunn said, but officiating is by nature reactionary to what the players are attempting in games. Officials are always playing catch-up.
“It’s sort of a dance,” Nunn said. “If you understand the beat of the dance, a step or just a drum beat … you begin to get it. … Rather than [looking] at each piece of it, you’ve got to see how this [whole] dance move looks.”
Nunn said that a double stepback Harden attempted against the Jazz in December is a travel. (The National Basketball Referees Association agrees.) But Harden’s usual repertoire all passes inspection.
“When Harden does what he does, he actually gathers the ball on the zero step,” Nunn said. “Now he takes one step whichever way he wants—back, which is mostly what he does, or to the side—and then the foot that joins the other foot becomes the second step. Then he launches. It’s a legal play.”
To gather at the right time, Harden has to delay picking up the ball during that zero step, which allows him to reset his feet before he takes his legal double step.
“If he were to be in a standing position dribbling the ball and then he picked it up with two hands and then went to the side step, then you could argue it’s a travel,” Fabritz said. “But he hangs it in one hand and keeps his hand on top of the ball, so it’s still a live dribble. It all comes down to the timing of when you picked up the ball.”
Through all the consternation over the legality and aesthetic value of his moves, Harden has been unflappable: “I don’t know if you can say you’ve seen a guy that’s done it like I have. I’m a trendsetter. So people can make memes and jokes about being travels here and there, but just look at the course of a game—people travel, people travel certain ways. I do a move. It’s different. The NBA hasn’t really seen it before, and they’re going to see a lot of people do it now.”
The Rockets’ funhouse-mirror version of the Warriors’ 3-point-heavy system draws plenty of critics, but now players all over the NBA are trying to copy Harden’s moves to get off a 3.
“Everybody values the 3 so much that some people would rather [attempt] a difficult 3 than a clean-looking in-between shot,” Crawford said. “People see [a move is] tough to guard. Once that happens, it’s a copycat league, so guys notice guys have success doing that or teams have success doing that and they follow suit.”
The influence has been particularly notable among younger players, all of whom have entered the league with a clear directive to shoot and shoot often. Devin Booker, the Phoenix Suns’ 22-year-old star guard, said he first started noticing the side step being used in high school.
“It looked like a travel,” Booker said. “But people like Harden, [Bradley] Beal mastered it, and it became a move that could help you get space.”
When Hawks rookie Trae Young got to the league, he went straight to the source.
“I was able to work with James Harden a few times throughout the summer,” Young said. “I asked him how he worked on it and how he did it and learned from him.”
Booker and Young aren’t anywhere near Harden’s level on offense yet, but they, like many young players, have made these moves integral parts of their games. But Fabritz says the key is to first lock down the basics—getting to the basket and making semicontested jumpers.
“If you don’t have other threats, there’s no way that move is going to work,” Fabritz said. “But if you already have your defender on their toes, and they’re worried you could blow straight by them or pull up, or you have multiple different options, then it becomes a threat. If you can’t hit shots, there’s no threat. So for most people, it’s not really a threat. You can blow by somebody, you can hit a stationary shot, you can hit a stepback and that’s that third dimension.”
Learning the footwork for the side step isn’t difficult. “It’s a really simple move. The average basketball player doesn’t need a whole lot of separation to get that shot off,” Roland said. It comes down to drilling the mechanics several times per week, sometimes using resistance bands to help develop an explosive step. From there, it’s just basketball.
“Basketball is a rhythm game,” Roland said. “You look at the top isolation players in our league, a lot of times you’ll see pregame clips of them listening to music and they’re dancing. All of that stuff goes hand-in-hand. Being able to have rhythm and put that into your game. You see [Harden], [Paul], [Russell Westbrook] and all these guys dancing and goofing off because it’s kind of a part of their game. James is literally dancing with the basketball.”
Harden doesn’t have the same quick release as Curry. (No one does.) Instead, he wills his way to efficient looks through creativity. In the process, he’s opened the floodgates for off-the-dribble 3s across the NBA.
“You gotta be creative, and I think James is always using his creativity in the right way, in an effective way,” Durant said. “That just shows he’s somebody that loves to play. He’s really playing pickup basketball in the NBA. That’s different, that’s new. It’s effective, and he’s mastered who he is as a player. Nothing but respect.”
For years, players invented moves, springboarding their ideas off each other to get an edge. Curry may have started the 3-point revolution, but Harden has taken it to an extreme.
“This is the best sport in the world,” Harden said. “And when you’re at the top of the top, you have to find ways to be great. You’ve got to find ways to distance and separate yourself from what everybody else is doing.
“I pave the way.”
Will Gottlieb covers the Warriors and NBA for Bleacher Report. Previously he was a contributor to The Athletic.