January 18, 2018

By Brian Sampson

Isolation basketball bad. Passing and ball movement good. That’s the new age of basketball and what’s been hammered into our heads for close to half a decade now. And 99 percent of the time, the rule is completely accurate. But James Harden is the exception.

Harden’s style of play smashes against the modern thinking of what illustrates a good offense in the NBA. His disgustingly difficult step-back threes, drives to the lane with little separation, or, my personal favorite, his stare-the-defender-directly-in-the-face before calmly splashing an outside shot scream rebel without a cause. Fortunately, Mike D’Antoni and the Houston Rockets have tailored their spread-the-floor, threes or layups offense perfectly toward their superstar, allowing him maximum space to take his man one-on-one off the bounce.

Harden leads the NBA in the number of possessions that end in isolation and it’s really not even close. An astronomical 8.9 times per game, or 30.2 percent of the time, he attacks in an iso situation. The second highest belongs to LeBron James and happens 6.5 possessions per game, or 25.4 percent of the time.

Harden thoroughly enjoys this mano-a-mano aspect of the offense, maybe a little too much, as he often toys with his man on the perimeter:

The Beard brings the ball up the floor, shading the top of the key to the left. As his teammates find their spots along the perimeter, he calmly crosses over left-to-right, then back, and once more a little quicker this time,-almost daring the defender to take a foolish lunge toward the ball. He then crosses over between his legs, causing the defender to take an abrupt hop back toward the hoop. One more left-to-right dribble and then back through his legs forces his man to take another hop away from him, giving him all the space he needs to pull-up and drain the shot from downtown.

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This is a bad shot for most players, but Harden isn’t most players. He has incredible efficiency to go along with his high isolation usage. His 59.9 percent effective field goal rate is second in the league among players who run at least two isolation possessions per game, only behind his teammate Chris Paul.

The Rockets in general love to run a lot of this one-on-one basketball, as they lead the NBA in isolation frequency at 13.0 percent of the time. Typically, this style of play is incredibly inefficient, with the average points per possession (PPP) being around 0.875-third-lowest among all play types. However, Houston is averaging 1.15 PPP thanks to the gravity of their plethora of outside shooters.

In a typical isolation possession, four guys are standing around the perimeter, watching the ball. This lack of movement allows the defense to get set and hone in on the ball-handler in order to prevent him from getting easy looks at the rim:

As Russell Westbrook attacks the rim, the Philadelphia 76ers have no respect for their perimeter shooters and have all five guys within a foot of the paint in order to stop any penetration. This makes it extremely difficult for Westbrook to finish around the rim and leads to a wild shot and a 76ers rebound.

In contrast, Houston’s offense has been built to complement Harden’s elite iso ability by placing great shooters all around him. This forces the off-ball defenders to remain in proximity to their man for fear of giving up an open shot from downtown:

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After Harden gets done toying with his man, he drives toward the lane and doesn’t meet any resistance until it’s way too late. And it’s a perfect storm. The guys guarding Trevor Ariza (38.2 percent three-point shooter) and Ryan Anderson (39.6percent) actually move closer to the perimeter instead of helping in the paint. Clint Capela, the only non-shooter on the floor for Houston, is also perfectly placed in the short corner. This means DeMarcus Cousins isn’t able to fully step up and cut off the drive for fear of a lob getting thrown over his head for a slam. He also can’t rely on his teammates to slide down and help, as they are stuck with their men on the perimeter. Unfair.

It doesn’t matter who’s guarding him, as he can have his way off the dribble with point guards, wings, or big men alike thanks to his amazing handles. His ability to mess with the defender with jabs, slow crosses and step-backs ensure his man is constantly in fear of what’s coming next.

His step-back off the dribble pushes the rules to the limit and is the nastiest move in the world:

As he’s dribbling up the court, he lowers into a ready position and hits Lonzo Ball with a couple of basic crossovers as he gets into his scoring zone. Ball, unsure of which way Harden will attack, opens up his stance just a little too much toward the baseline, shifting his weight onto his back leg. As he’s doing so, Harden pushes off the left foot, gathers the ball and hops into his shot to launch the ball toward the rim. This all happens while Ball is guarding the possession perfectly, but there’s nothing else to be done as the ball goes through the hoop. This isn’t uncommon either, as Harden knocks down 57.4 percent of these step-back three’s, making him nearly impossible to guard.

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When you combine his insane skillset along with the construction of the team, it allows Harden to average a league-high 1.28 points per possession when iso’ing against his man. If the opposition chooses to help off the dribble, Houston will surely knock down the open shots for three. If they don’t help, however, Harden will fill up on barbecue chicken. It’s Houston’s recipe for success.

There’s little doubt Harden is the NBA’s isolation MVP. However, both the city of Houston and The Beard want more than a made-up title. They want the real hardware. And because Harden is the exception to the isolation rule, they’ll get their wish this season.

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Brian Sampson

Brian Sampson writes about the NBA for BBALLBREAKDOWN, NBA Math and The Step Back. As he shoots to get hot and shoots to stay hot you can follow him @BrianSampsonNBA.

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