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Harden Week: Jump Back

US Presswire

US Presswire

Welcome to Harden Week, a celebration of all things James Harden!

Jim Cavan, published author, is a regular contributor at Knickerblogger, The Classical, and the New York Times basketball blog, Off The Dribble. He’s also one of the brains behind We’ll Always Have Linsanity: Strange Takes on the Strangest Season in Knicks History, and can be found on Twitter – @JPCavan. Today he stops by to offer his take on the step-back jumper, an increasingly less-secret weapon for Harden and the Rockets. 

It was less a move than a singular motion – a glimpse of grace that would easily be lost on NBA diehard and novice alike, if you weren’t able to watch it 25 times in a row on YouTube.

Watch it. Then watch it again. And again. James Harden’s Game Five-clinching triple in last year’s Western Conference Finals will be remembered as many things–timely, cold-blooded, momentum-swinging. Insert superlative here. But rewind and replay a few more times, you start to see the pure poetry of human motion at play; the instantaneous, gilding grace of a player with a game as distinct as the Clash’s sound or Van Gogh’s colors, and a star just now starting to spit a fire trail.

It’s easy to pass it off as just another hammer in the Harden shed. For all the in-out dribble-drives, Euro-steps, transition slams, and face-up bombs that have helped propel the fourth-year guard into superstar terra, the step-back’s true value exists beyond the highlight reel spotlights. To the untrained eye – and the eyes of most advanced stat-tracking sites – it looks like little more than a different kind of jump shot.

That’s not even the half of it.

So I have this theory – an eyeball theory, to be sure. I have no reason to believe that it’s true, or that evidence even exists to bare it out. But I’ll lay it on you anyway: Left-handed shooters have a more uniform stroke than do their righty counterparts.

Again, I have absolutely no statistical evidence to back this up. It just seems like basketball southpaws tend to do a better job of keeping their forearms straight, and the 90-degree elbow intact, more consistently. Derek Fisher, Thad Young, Ginobili, Valanciunas – the variables in their respective strokes might differ by degrees, but not nearly as much as, say, Marcus Camby and Ray Allen. Most good right-handed shooters (those not named Rajon Rondo) will end up with a straight right elbow, but often not without the occasional geometric variance. Lefties, on the other hand (those not named Tayshaun Prince), will hold the straight elbow from set-up to follow through with more consistency.

Another thing you might notice in watching lefties shoot is how much further forward their left foot tends to be when spotting up than your typical righty. Which can make getting one’s feet effectively set for a quick catch-and-shoot three slightly more problematic.

Unless you’re James Harden, that is.Few would argue that Houston’s newly minted cornerstone exhibits anything less than a picture perfect southpaw stroke. The lift, the extension, the release – all are textbook tailored and ought to be required consumption for any lefty cager looking to hone their craft. But there’s something particularly devastating about the step-back, and Harden’s brand in particular. As far as efficiency of movement, it’s hard to think of a more compact split second – from initial dribble or jab to release, it’s not more than an eye’s blink. Coupled with the defender’s complete inability to recover, the potential devastation becomes twofold.

According to, step-backs account for 5.6% of Harden’s shot attempts. That’s tops on the Rockets by a pretty fair margin (we’re not counting Patrick Beverley’s 5.4%), even at just one per game, roughly speaking. This necessarily invites a critical question: How can basketball skill so seldom used qualify as a weapon? As with most things along the stats-savvy NBA landscape, it’s all about contextA shade below six percent might not seem like a lot, but compared to most players (and most teams), it’s off the charts. For example, only three Heat players have registered a step-back jumper this season (LeBron’s 1.7% is tops for Miami). The Knicks? Only six players have attempted step-backs (J.R. Smith, a kind of “poor man’s Harden,” registers at 4.5%). The Thunder? Just five, with Kevin Durant leading the pack at a whopping 3.3%. The Rockets, meanwhile, boast nine players who’ve tried their hand at the Harden Special.

This stuff is mostly anecdotal. Mostly. But a cursory look at Harden’s shot chart gives you a pretty good idea of the strategy at play here. Whether or not the Houston coaching staff or front office is explicitly lobbying for more step-backs may not be clear. A few things, however, are: 1) a disproportionately large number of Rockets attempt step-backs; 2) their best player takes a lot of them; and 3) Houston exhibits an almost pathological disdain for inefficient shots (they’re 26th in the league in attempts from 5-9 feet, 30th in attempts from 10-14 feet, 30th from 15-19 feet 3rd from five feet and in, and 4th from 20-24 feet).

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Not surprisingly, Harden himself has become the poster child of Houston’s spread pick and roll attack, which puts a premium on drives, kicks, and getting easy buckets – be it at the rim, in transition, or from the stripe. In this context, we start to see the step-back jumper less as a particular weapon in a particular player’s arsenal – although it most certainly is that vis-à-vis Harden– and more as microcosm of the NBA’s analytics revolution writ large. Ever since (and probably well before) Rick Pitino started benching dudes for hoisting 21-footers, the basketball intelligentsia has used contested long twos as a sort of baseline demarcation for what constitutes good and bad shots. Harden’s step- back – to the extent that he always gets it off without much foe interference – is a good shot, particularly when compared to the approach taken by, say, J.R. Smith, which is to step-back from 20-22 feet, rather than 22 to 24. (“The Harden Gap”?)

The efficacy of the step-back jumper is one whose surface is just starting to be scratched, and James Harden has a hell of a lot to do with it. If you were looking for a signature move to impart on a budding cager, you’d be hard-pressed to pick one higher on the risk-reward ledger than this one – particularly if the player happens to be left-handed and blessed with a quick trigger. Done correctly, it provides air space where none existed a split second before, and is virtually impossible to defend. Reason being that it’s much easier to stay with a defender laterally – or even going towards the rim – than it is to guess the precise moment at which he’s going to reverse direction completely, and back out of your sphere of influence altogether. It’s a mind game within a mind game, and James Harden might very well be the best at it.

In an NBA world fast becoming a statistical arms race, it remains to be seen how long the step-back jumper can retain its inherent efficiency. As teams become better at scouting the spatial-temporal strengths and weaknesses of opponents, defenders may well come to wield strategic gambits capable of better neutralizing Harden – a more honest, angled defensive stance designed to funnel them into specific help scenarios, perhaps. Then, it will be Harden’s turn to adapt; to quicken the back-step, heighten the release, or more easily find the shifting teammate.

Until that check happens – until he becomes the one forced to adjust – Harden’s step- back remains a rocket wholly immune to radar: You know it’s there, and you know he’s bound to let fly. Which would be scary enough, if it weren’t for the terror of when.

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