James Harden is having one of many best scoring seasons we have ever seen. In the 45-year historical past of Basketball Reference’s possession-tracking database, no participant has piled up factors on the price Harden has this season.

His utilization price of 40.5 % ranks second in recorded historical past, behind solely Russell Westbrook’s indulgent 2016-17 marketing campaign, however he is used these possessions much more effectively, with 61.6 % true taking pictures. And he is executed it for a Houston Rockets workforce that is been lacking three of its 4 finest offensive gamers for a mixed 51 video games however nonetheless owns the ninth-best offensive score of all time.

Harden is an elite offense unto himself, together with his mastery of footwork, ball dealing with, passing, and off-the-dribble taking pictures; his means to hit not possible threes or arrange straightforward ones for his teammates; and to juke or bully his method to the rim and draw fouls in each manner possible.

Over the previous few years, Harden’s change into one of the crucial distinctive and engaging riddles posed to NBA defenses. And whereas there is not any “fixing” it, actually, you’ll be able to keep away from being fully consumed by it in the event you can decipher its inside logic.

Listed here are a couple of of the methods groups have defended Harden this 12 months, and a few of the methods he is countered these coverages.

Drop the large, pressure the drive

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When scheming for Harden, the very first thing you must resolve is what you are prepared to dwell with, as a result of you’ll be able to solely take away a lot. An more and more widespread pick-and-roll protection, significantly for groups that depend on slow-footed bigs, includes dropping the screener’s defender deep into the paint to guard the basket, whereas the on-ball defender chases Harden over the display screen and pursues him from behind.

The technique is not a lot about denying Harden scoring alternatives as it’s about taking away the spots from which he generates his most effective pictures. The rearview pursuit ought to pressure Harden off the 3-point line and into the paint. From there, the objective is to bait him into no-man’s-land pictures like mid-range pull-ups, which he is reluctant to take and (comparatively talking) not that good at. By stationing an enormous physique close to the rim, groups can basically sandwich him with shot contesters from each instructions.

If executed nicely, this additionally permits the three defenders who aren’t concerned within the central screening motion to remain residence on the shooters dotting the arc across the Harden pick-and-roll. Meaning avoiding the impulse to assist as soon as he will get into the center of the ground and trusting your large to guard towards a layup whereas staying connected to the roll man, all with out fouling. The Spurs created the blueprint for this scheme within the 2017 Western Convention semis, and different groups just like the Raptors and Path Blazers have copied it as a manner of each defending and optimizing their hulking facilities defensively.

This season, the Bucks took it a step additional. Their on-ball defenders, significantly Eric Bledsoe, overplayed the hell out of Harden’s left hand, giving him a free lane to assault together with his proper. The tactic made it tougher for Harden to bounce into pull-up threes in isolation, and likewise restricted the utility of a display screen. For the offense: Why litter an already clear driving lane? For the protection: If you’re shading Harden that aggressively, it is simple sufficient to wedge your self between him and the screener to pressure him away from the choose. The Bucks’ bigs have been ready for him on the rim each time.

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He nonetheless managed 42 factors, however turned it over 9 occasions towards six assists.

Harden’s counters: Towards the drop protection, Harden can principally get all of the floaters his coronary heart needs, and he is responded to the popularization of the scheme by changing into higher at hitting them. He is taking pictures 43.2 % from floater vary (contained in the paint, however outdoors the restricted space) in comparison with 35.Three % over the earlier 4 years mixed.

By itself, that also represents a fantastic share play for the protection. However it would not account for the truth that Harden attracts fouls on 11 % of his drives, or that he nonetheless finds passing seams that result in nook threes, or that getting the drop man to decide to stopping his drive opens up a lob or shovel move to the roll man (normally Clint Capela). The Rockets can even set their screens larger to offer Harden an extended runway, which permits him to collect velocity and Euro-step across the backpedaling large man. Right here, Harden exploits the Bucks after which the Nuggets:

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Towards the Bucks’ exaggerated model of the protection, Harden additionally used his deadly side-step transfer to create sufficient area to get 3-pointers off going to his proper. He wound up hoisting 16 threes in that sport and hitting six.

Swap the small stuff

Harden is pretty much as good an isolation scorer as there’s, and he can work principally any defender within the NBA. However he nonetheless prefers to function in a managed surroundings the place he is choosing his opponent. Most Harden coverages are simply groups’ finest makes an attempt to keep away from the fear of seeing their most susceptible perimeter defender stranded on an island towards him. That is why so many of those sport plans are geared towards defending large males towards a change. Permitting Harden to isolate towards an enormous with restricted mobility is asking to get burned, both by a clear step-back three or a blow-by with a path to an unprotected rim.

However some groups have the personnel to keep away from that destiny, or a minimum of mitigate the danger. The Warriors are one such workforce, due to their means to downsize and play Draymond Inexperienced on the 5 for prolonged minutes. Even so, having Steph Curry on the ground nonetheless provides Harden a gentle spot to assault. Golden State generally responds by making an attempt to pre-switch and sub Curry out for Inexperienced or Andre Iguodala because the display screen defender, snuffing out the focused mismatch earlier than the Rockets can modify.

For probably the most half, although, switching one wing or guard for one more – even once you lose some dimension – would not pose the identical danger as doing so with bigs. Harden can bodily overwhelm guys, however he rarely posts up, and can typically search for his step-back when he is confronted with a defender able to sliding with him on drives. In different phrases, you will get away with not sending assist after giving up dimension on a change (although it makes contesting his jumper tougher).

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Clearly, there are some weak guard defenders that Harden can rip by means of like tissue paper. However for groups just like the Raptors or Thunder, who’re stocked with size and power on the perimeter and quickness within the frontcourt, switching everybody one by means of 4 is manageable. Pascal Siakam dealt with himself fantastically on Harden switches Tuesday night time.

The Thunder change towards Harden as liberally as anybody, so long as it is not heart Steven Adams being drawn into the motion. (They’ll get a bit faster at that place with Nerlens Noel, or go small with Jerami Grant on the 5.) They do not shield Westbrook the identical manner the Warriors do Curry, and for that cause, the Rockets have a tendency to focus on Westbrook most. They know the Thunder will concede that change, they usually know it is a favorable matchup for Harden.

Harden’s counter: This one’s easy: Search and destroy. So long as there’s an exploitable defender on the ground, the Rockets will goal him relentlessly in an effort to get him remoted on Harden. Producing a change is normally precisely what they need.

Blitz

Some groups choose to strive pressure the ball out of Harden’s palms once they have the chance. They’ll do this by trapping or “blitzing” the pick-and-roll, sending two to the ball and making an attempt to forestall him from turning the nook.

Loads of groups have turned to the blitz at numerous occasions towards Harden, however the Nuggets are among the many few who’ve relied on it as a main protection plan. The place most groups attempt to shield their plodding bigs by stashing them as shut as attainable to the basket, the Nuggets use theirs, Nikola Jokic, to create traps 30 ft from the basket when he will get pulled into the high-screen motion. It is a gambit that toes the road between aggressive and reckless.

In a vacuum, the technique is smart. Even when it opens up rim runs for Capela or open threes for P.J. Tucker, Austin Rivers, and Gerald Inexperienced, is not it higher to make these guys beat you than to let Harden do it? Statistically, a Rockets catch-and-shoot 3-pointer (35.9 %) is a greater consequence for a protection than a Harden pull-up three (36.four %).

A workforce’s willingness to promote out with traps varies relying on the time on the shot clock. Some are aggressive about doubling Harden with 5 seconds or fewer on the clock, once they do not have to fret about making multiple or two subsequent rotations (extra on that shortly).

Harden’s counters: Harden would not actually get spooked when confronted with stress (his turnover price towards the Nuggets is decrease than his season-long mark), and he can comfortably thread passes by means of traps – whether or not it is a pocket move to the rolling large, a skip move to the weak facet, or a reversal to an open shooter out of the pick-and-pop. As quickly as that move is delivered, the protection is in scramble mode. This places an enormous pressure on the shorthanded defenders on the again finish, who danger giving up a dunk or an open three if their rotations aren’t excellent.

In a Jan. 7 sport between the 2 groups, Harden racked up 14 assists, with 9 of them going for 3-pointers. He contributed an entire bunch extra 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.

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Lest you assume the blitzes solely opened up the lengthy ball, Capela’s averaged 27.5 factors within the season collection towards Denver. The trade-off for the Nuggets hasn’t actually been value it.

Hedge and get better

A extra conservative method to defend a Harden pick-and-roll with out switching is to hedge. It carries a few of the similar dangers as blitzing, however it works towards a extra sustainable consequence that ought to contain much less scrambling and fewer stress on the again line.

The Thunder normally hedge with Adams when the Rockets use his man because the screener. Additionally they do it generally with considered one of their weaker wing defenders. Dennis Schroder did a great job at this late within the groups’ Christmas Day sport, shopping for Paul George sufficient time to loop beneath the display screen and get better, and thus affording the Thunder extra possessions with their finest defender stapled to Harden:

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This is an instance of Curry doing a poorer job of it, however the remainder of the Warriors overlaying for him (be aware Curry motioning for the pre-switch earlier than his man, Rivers, goes to set the display screen):

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The Pelicans are one other workforce that used laborious hedges as a method of holding their finest perimeter defender, Jrue Vacation, connected to Harden.

Harden’s counters: Just like what he can do to beat traps, Harden can bust a hedging protection by slinging a fast move to the screener as soon as he slips off. He can even make a fast transfer to the basket earlier than his main defender has an opportunity to get better. That successfully provides the Rockets a four-on-three, however with Harden working it as a substitute of a secondary playmaker.

Go zone

An more and more widespread look towards the Rockets is a zone, with the Nets and Warmth utilizing it most prominently. Which may appear counterintuitive towards such a prolific 3-point taking pictures workforce, however for probably the most half, it has been efficient, largely as a result of it simplifies pick-and-roll protection.

The Rockets’ offense performs outside-in, would not actually make the most of again cuts, and would not characteristic a playmaking large man. So, leaving the excessive put up and baseline susceptible is a wonderfully acceptable trade-off for diverting Harden’s north-south drives. The scheme does put a ton of stress on the perimeter defenders, nevertheless, significantly towards somebody who can shoot and make skip passes in addition to Harden can.

In a Jan. 16 sport towards the zone-happy Nets, the Rockets acquired up an NBA report 70 threes. Harden took 19, hit 5, and assisted on 5 others (he had 14 potential assists go for naught due to chilly taking pictures from his supporting solid). The Nets did a great job of contesting these threes, although, and got here away with the win as a result of the Rockets hit fewer than a 3rd of them.

Groups have sometimes arrange in a 3-2 formation to account for Houston’s outdoors taking pictures, however the Warmth typically transformed it into extra of a 1-2-2, with one man urgent up on Harden to protect towards his pull-up from as far out as 35 ft. Their configuration additionally made it straightforward for them to entice Harden late within the shot clock, which labored a few of the time.

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Each groups principally did a great job of executing the scheme, and Harden lit them each up for 58 factors. Towards Harden, good course of typically begets poor outcomes. He did plenty of his injury versus the Warmth in transition and semi-transition, off turnovers and offensive rebounds, and on contested pull-ups you actually cannot do something about.

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Regardless of Harden’s particular person numbers, it seems like we’ll preserve seeing extra zone schemes from Houston’s opponents.

Harden’s counters: Towards the Warmth, the Rockets steadily cleared out the robust facet of the ground. The Warmth left an additional defender on that facet anyway, that means an open shooter on the weak facet was just one swing move away. Harden’s imaginative and prescient and passing precision make {that a} harmful proposition.

What’s subsequent?

A number of these items comes right down to execution, and plenty of execution comes right down to personnel. It takes power, size, fast ft, and smarts to deal with the task, and a few groups merely do not have defenders able to bothering Harden. Some groups do have the fitting personnel and a wise scheme that they execute to a T, they usually get burned anyway.

Nearly each workforce employs most of those approaches to defending Harden in some variation. Every scheme has nuances, and each workforce executes them a bit bit otherwise. It will be attention-grabbing to observe how or if these coverages evolve, which of them stick, and whether or not any groups give you a wholly new wrinkle, significantly because the Rockets may see a number of of the Nuggets, Thunder, Warriors, and (dare to dream) Bucks within the postseason.

Traditionally nice gamers pressure the remainder of the league to get inventive in response. Few gamers are inspiring extra creativity proper now than Harden.

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