James Harden's deadly stepback makes him the best offensive player in the NBA
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James Harden’s deadly stepback makes him the best offensive player in the NBA

James Harden’s deadly stepback makes him the best offensive player in the NBA

On Saturday, the Golden State Warriors defeated the Sacramento Kings. In that game, Stephen Curry did this:

A litany of angry fans took to Twitter to lament this egregious call on Curry. Citing James Harden’s infamous stepback, the mob cried out that Harden travels on his stepbacks and therefore this should not be a travel.

Spoiler alert: Steph Curry blatantly traveled on that shot.

And Curry knows the rules: he’s one of the best offensive players in the NBA. Maybe he forgot about the rules when he threw up the No. 13 on his chest — a symbol of offensive dominance or flat-out cheating, depending which side you’re on — in the middle of his hissy fit.

We’ll go deeper into this, but Harden almost never travels on his stepbacks, while Curry did. In the official NBA rulebook, section XIII, it says:

  1. A player who receives the ball while standing still may pivot, using either foot as the pivot foot.
  2. A player who receives the ball while he is progressing or upon completion of a dribble, may take two steps in coming to a stop, passing or shooting the ball. A player who receives the ball while he is progressing must release the ball to start his dribble before his second step.
    1. The first step occurs when a foot, or both feet, touch the floor after gaining control of the ball.
    2. The second step occurs after the first step when the other foot touches the floor, or both feet touch the floor simultaneously.

The key provision we need to understand is the bolded one: gaining control of the ball. In gaining control of the ball, the player is allowed to take a “gather step” before the 1-2. When counting a player’s steps, they don’t count “1-2,” they count “0-1-2.” Harden is a virtuoso when it comes to using the gather step to his advantage, with a gather into a smooth 1-2.

For an example of a travel, we take a look at the Curry play from the other night. Curry gathers twice with his right foot before going into the left-right step. This is a classic example of a double gather, or a “0-1-2-3,” which is illegal:

And if you don’t believe me, take it from Ronnie Nunn, NBA referee for 19 years and head of officials for five more:

Many fans believe this stepback is precisely what James Harden does on his stepback jumpers. This is simply not the case. For this piece, I tracked all but 10 of James Harden’s stepback jumpers on the season, and he only traveled three times (I used NBA.com’s video box scores to do so, and the video was unavailable on 10 clips.). It’s another double gather, similar to Curry’s shot. Harden snatches back through his legs but takes an extra step here. The first step is with his right foot. He then re-establishes his pivot, transitioning into his left-right-left footwork:

But these plays are a massive outlier in Harden’s full body of work. To understand Harden’s wizardry, we need to get out our scalpels and look at the anatomy of the James Harden stepback jumper.

Harden’s stepback proficiency is largely a product of his footwork, executed with the grace of a ballerina and the power of a sumo wrestler. The lion’s share of Harden’s stepbacks are from beyond the arc and are of the left-right-left footwork variety. As a left-handed shooter, he is more comfortable shooting to his right, since his hips are naturally aligned to the basket. Harden legally stabs out his left foot (this is the “0” step) before softly gliding into the right-left 1-2 and rising up for the shot:

The second-most common footwork Harden steps back with is the short pull-up type variety. Harden splits his feet to stop on a dime, before quickly pulling them back under him to rise up for the shot:

Harden’s stepback does not create a lot of space, but he requires little airspace to make the defense pay. His release is so quick and he is so adept at shooting over contests that this shot is nearly impossible to defend.

Less commonly, Harden will stab with his right foot first, transitioning into his footwork moving to his right. He does not choose this footwork often, since, as we discussed earlier, his hips are not naturally aligned to the rim going to the left:

Diving into the numbers behind Harden enlightens how truly silly his offensive capabilities are. If Curry did not exist, Harden would be the best off-the-dribble shooter ever, and the best shooter ever for what my money is worth. The volume he shoots stepbacks at is unprecedented, and he doesn’t compromise much in terms of efficiency.

As of Jan. 5, Harden had attempted 525 jump shots, 233 of which were stepbacks. He made 98 of those stepbacks, good for a 42 percent clip. 44.4 percent of Harden’s attempted jump shots have been stepbacks. Harden’s stepback numbers compared to the rest of the NBA are simply ludicrous.

Luka Doncic has attempted the second-most stepbacks in the NBA, shooting 29/84. Seven players take stepbacks on at least 10 percent of their jump shots: Kemba Walker, Kawhi Leonard, LeBron James, Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, Doncic and Harden. Corresponding to their previous order, here are the number of stepbacks each of the seven players have made and taken, compared to the number of jump shots attempted in total:

Stepbacks made/Stepbacks taken/Jump shots taken

Walker: 32/60/532

Leonard: 16/45/402

James: 28/56/340

Lillard: 32/72/518

McCollum: 36/81/535

Doncic: 29/84/421

Harden: 98/233/525

Coupled with his elite efficiency, James Harden’s stepback volume is absolutely bonkers and is one of the greatest offensive feats in the history of the NBA. The next time someone on Twitter tries to discredit Harden’s greatness because of his alleged rampant traveling, show them this.

Right now, James Harden is the best offensive player in the NBA and is putting on a show that comes on about as often as Halley’s Comet does. So sit back and and marvel at the James Harden Experience, because it won’t be here forever.