Sports

There Is Something Terribly Wrong About James Harden’s New Move

James Harden with the ball against Mo Harkless
Rockets guard James Harden does whatever he wants against Clippers forward Maurice Harkless at Stan Sheriff Center in Honolulu on Thursday.
Steven Erler/USA Today Sports

The Houston Rockets played an exhibition game against the Los Angeles Clippers on Thursday in Hawaii. Don’t worry, you didn’t miss much. It was a largely forgettable affair save for one moment in the third quarter, when James Harden drifted into the corner and tried out a newfangled move: the one-legged 3-pointer. The crowd lost their ever-loving minds, and even though he missed (the referee ruled that he was fouled on the attempt), the brick earned the biggest reaction of the night.

Harden had been working on the shot over the summer. “This year, I’m going to come up with something more creative, and it’s gonna look like a travel, but it’s not,” he told reporters in July. That could mean anything! We got a better idea of this move when trainer Chris Brickley posted an Instagram video of Harden practicing. (The new move is the second shot in the clip.)

Included in the post is this Harden quote:

The moves that I do and create aren’t travels, or the referees who are paid a lot of money and are the best at what they do would call a travel, just because it looks awkward or different from what the world is used to. That’s called being a creator. It’s called changing the game. So live with it, and hopefully your favorite players start doing it, too.

Buttering up the referees weeks before the season starts? That truly is innovative. The new move, meanwhile, is a hodgepodge of existing gambits, a sort of hop-step-crossover into a Dirk Nowitzki one-legged jumper from deep. To prove that it’s not just for empty gyms, Harden first displayed his new toy during an exhibition game against the Shanghai Sharks on Monday.

That display was nasty enough to make Russell Westbrook do a glitchy dance near the Rockets’ bench, even though Harden missed. It would not prove costly: Houston managed to squeak out a narrow 140–71 victory over the Sharks.

Harden doesn’t need any help scoring. Literally. The Houston Rockets’ offense relies on giving him the ball and getting out of his way. As ESPN’s Kirk Goldsberry points out, Harden plays in isolation more than any other player in the league, and it’s not even close. Last season he averaged 19.8 isolated possessions per game, which is more than every other team’s average. For reference, the Oklahoma City Thunder were No. 2 in the NBA and their players only managed 10.5 iso possessions a game. Combined.

Things get tough when defenders know you’re on an island, but Harden nevertheless manages to put the ball in the basket at will. He has been the NBA’s scoring champion two years running, and he credits much of this prolific streak to innovation. Harden frequently invents ways to get open, like a teleportastic step-back 3-pointer that elicits “oohs” and traveling accusations in equal measure. (Warriors head coach Steve Kerr called the move an “embarrassment” in a since-deleted tweet from 2018.) The one-legged 3-pointer is the star’s newest example of this.

It’s a nifty shot, but I had to watch the highlights at least a dozen times before I realized the shocking truth. It’s difficult to discern because Harden moves so fluidly, but pay close attention to his feet and it becomes clear: This move isn’t new at all. It’s what people who are terrible at basketball do when we’re playing pickup and can’t get any room off for a shot. I’ve been doing it for decades.

Harden is a thief.

A professional basketball player’s jump shot is a thing of beauty. They set their feet, square to the basket, and, in a split second, rise with balletic grace to the apex of their release. It takes God-given talent and years of repetition to achieve this kind of movement. Taking a wild runner off one foot, meanwhile, requires almost no ability or practice whatsoever. I should know. I can’t dribble to my left, and if I accidentally head in that direction I’ll usually skip into the air and chuck the ball somewhere in the general direction of the hoop. It’s a classic schmuck move on the court, and I won’t stand idly by while Harden uses it for his Thomas Edison cosplay.

Even worse is that Harden admits the move is totally superfluous. “I don’t need it,” he said after the Sharks game. “I can create shots and shoot shots whenever I want. … Whether it’s the step-back or the one-legged shot, I’ll be able to get my shot off. I’m able to create enough space to shoot over the defender. So I don’t need it.”

Guess who does need it, James? Winded guys who get trapped in the corner and don’t have the luxury of passing because we forgot who is on our team and we’re too ashamed to ask in the middle of a game. That’s why we fire off one-legged prayers from beyond the arc. It’s all we have. He even has the nerve to miss his attempts, just like us!

Keep our move out of your ever-expanding repertoire, pal.