Harden masters the modern pick and roll


HOUSTON – James Harden has had one of the most consistent careers on the court for the Houston Rockets. He has improved his offensive output every season since joining the team. But the rhetoric and perception of him by those off the court has been anything but consistent.

Harden went from being the runner-up MVP and players-selected MVP two years ago, to not even being selected to an all-NBA team last year. This was despite having the best numbers of his career (until this season).

James Harden can ball, no doubt about it. But his seemingly lackadaisical approach lends itself to criticism when the losses are stacking up. Like last season, when the team suffered through two big egos with conflicting personalities. Harden and Dwight Howard were rarely on the same page.

Having a big like Howard who refuses to utilize the pick and roll more than a couple times a game is disappointing to a guard who prospers when the defense is ever so slightly disrupted. That split-second of open space provided by a high screen gives effective guards enough time to read and dissect the defense.

This season, under new coach Mike D’Antoni, the Rockets have built their offense around the pick and roll. They employ bigs who embrace the system and outside shooters eager to launch from beyond the arc.

In D’Antoni’s offense surrounded by ideal personnel, Harden is the perfect weapon against modern defenses.

The modern NBA defense consists of many varying schemes with one underlying constant, the anticipation of the modern offense that will utilize advanced statistics.

NBA fans have largely placed themselves in one of two groups:

  1. Those who support the use of advanced statistics and advanced analytics
  2. Those who don’t.

Wherever you stand on the subject, one thing is clear: people in the NBA are paying more and more attention to these analytics. One rule prevails:

Contested Long Twos are the most inefficient shot in pro basketball.

It thus makes sense that any NBA defense now will try to force an opposing offense to take these inefficient long twos.

The defense against the pick and roll features one pattern: The defender of the ball handler will fight over the screen, and the defender of the screener (usually the team’s C or PF) will sag back to around the free-throw line.

This set-up is supposed to entice the offense into a semi-contested long two. However, players like Harden have adapted to such tactics.

Let’s break down his tool set:

If the help defender sags off too much, Harden can take it to the rim with ease.

As the league began to respect his driving abilities, defenses learned to collapse around him to prevent a layup. This is when his court vision is showcased. He’ll either lob to a soaring roller or make a kick-out pass for an open three.

Probably the most effective tool in Harden’s repertoire is his ability to draw a foul. He holds the NBA record of 3PA fouls. On a high screen, if his defender fights over the pick to restrict an open three, Harden simply goes up through the defender’s outstretched arms for the foul.

His ability to get to the line has made Harden one of the most consistent scorers in the league. Even when his shots aren’t falling, he finds a way to get his team points. That males him a matchup nightmare for almost every team in the league. Whichever way a defense comes at him, he has an answer.

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