For the better part of the 2018-19 season, many fans and pundits maligned James Harden for his patented step-back jumper. In the eyes of many, this was a travel and not being legislated properly by the NBA. However, the league informed head coaches across the league this summer that Harden’s jumper was perfectly legal, according to Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni. This is after the league had to clarify the gather step with new language in their rule book.
“[The NBA] made a point to tell every head coach that it is not traveling,” D’Antoni said on Saturday after Houston’s first day of training camp. “So hopefully, coaches will quit complaining and hopefully you guys in the news will understand that that’s not traveling.”
It seems there had been many complaints from head coaches and players about Harden’s move. Warriors head coach Steve Kerr famously had to delete a tweet in which he criticized the league’s officiating of Harden. Stephen Curry also mocked Harden during a game after he was whistled for traveling himself. It’s mentioned during Rockets broadcasts by away teams, it’s talked about on national television halftime shows, and it’s generally spiraled into NBA folklore that Harden travels every time he attempts a step-back.
“It shouldn’t have been a point (of discussion) period,” Harden said after Sunday’s practice. “The moves that I do and create aren’t travels or the referees that get paid a lot of money and are the best at what they do would call a travel.”
Tracing back how he developed this reputation is actually pretty simple. In 2018-19, Harden did get away with a couple of travels on step-back jumpers, notably against Minnesota and Utah.
In the following clip, you see Harden take a double step-back and get fouled by Ricky Rubio, sending him to the line for three free throws. This video alone generated 2.4 million views on YouTube, and it’s not the only place it was shared. The clip also did large numbers on social media, specifically across various Twitter and Instagram pages.
This was clearly a travel that Harden got away with and there’s no two ways about it. There was also a travel that Harden got away with on the Minnesota Timberwolves in March. Both clips made headway on social media and a narrative had formed on Harden’s step back – even though he only traveled a few times. The problem is once a narrative crystallizes that fast, it’s very hard to shake it away.
The following video is a montage of normal James Harden step-backs that he frequently does during NBA games. As present in the clip, Harden completes the vast majority of these jumpers without a traveling violation.
So while Harden may never win the court of public opinion, he has a point. Harden has mastered the art of the reverse gather step – which is understably an awkward visual. It’s unusual and without the benefit of slow motion, it is difficult for the average fan to see that Harden isn’t traveling on most of these plays. After the NBA’s clarification, the Rockets are hoping that this is the last they have to talk about traveling as it relates to James Harden again.
“I’m tired of hearing that ‘he traveled’ from coaches, from players, from haters, fans, whatever you want to call it,” Harden said. “Embrace it, it’s going to be here for a while.”