James Harden’s been a topic of many conversations in the NBA. The 2018 MVP is playing the most iso heavy game we’ve seen in a long time, and putting up monster numbers while doing so. For a majority of this season, Harden flirted with averaging 40 points per game, and that’s with Russell Westbrook joining the team. But, he can’t seem to get the approval rating you’d expect with such numbers.
The Rockets broke down the game analytically and determined three-pointers, layups and free throws are the kind of shots they are interested in. So when you have a player with a practically unguardable step-back three, that’s where you start. Harden slowly dribbles his way up to the three-point line, four of his teammates go in the corners, and he goes to work. It is as unwatchable as it is efficient. He either shoots a three or if the defender commits to taking it away, he then blows by an goes in for a layup. The free throws are earned with some fouling, and mostly flopping like there’s no tomorrow.
It’s no secret Harden is very sensitive to his flopping reputation, we even saw his snap at a fan this year. For a period of time after that game, his free throw rate went down. The same goes for his iso style of play. Many consider it to be contrary to the nature of basketball as a team sport. In an interview with GQ, this is how Harden explained his game.
“So you look at Shaquille O’Neal, Tim Duncan, Michael Jordan…they ISO’d, right? Tim Duncan and Shaq were big men, so they ISO’d in the post. It’s the same thing as ISO’ing on the wing. The object is to draw a double team, create an opportunity for your teammates, and get them an open shot. Well, my ISO’s at the top of the floor. And now we get double teams, triple teams. And all different types of defenses to be able to try to guard us. Well, it’s the same thing. We’re at the top of the floor for the ISO, and I get a double team and I swing it, we get an open shot. When Tim Duncan posted up, they double-teamed him, he kicked it out, swing, open three to his teammate. “Oh, that’s good offense.” Well, it’s the same thing.”James Harden, GQ
For a moment there, I was buying the argument. Harden is correct, drawing a double team is a good result for an offense – it means somebody is open and the defense is scrambling. But as with everything else, the Rockets have taken it to such an extreme that ball movement is practically non-existent in their approach. Yes, Duncan, Shaq, and MJ all played iso at times and drew double teams. But the Spurs, Lakers, and Bulls didn’t predicate their entire game on that single play. All those teams, coached by Pop and Jackson, believed in ball movement, making sure everyone consistently touches the ball and moves without it.
In that same interview, Harden and Westbrook said they feel the team has all the players they need to win the title. As they explained it, they had bad injury luck all season, and “once we get a full roster, we don’t have to do as much.” Both Harden and Westbrook had teammates in the past that could contribute more and were reduced to rebounding and catch-and-shoot three-pointers.
The way the Rockets play can’t be compared to the Spurs, Lakers and Bulls. That doesn’t mean they can’t win, but it’s delusional to pretend there’s a comparison to be made.
P.S. Harden and Westbrook also talked about fashion. If for nothing else, check out the article for some hilarious photos.