By Rob Mahoney
Watch any Rockets game and you're likely to experience a mental trigger -- that immediate notion that something you've just seen is ever so slightly amiss. There is no evidence so flagrant as to get up in arms about and no whistle to validate your instant suspicion. But James Harden weaved from just inside the three-point line all the way to the rim with a single dribble, finished and drew contact in the process. His syncopated strides bear a completely different rhythm from the quick one-two step of a standard drive, to the point that they almost seem illegal.
That's largely because Harden's drives almost are illegal. No NBA player is more slippery off the bounce, in part because no player is more willing to walk the fine line of the league's traveling rules. The widespread confusion over the letter and enforcement of the traveling violation has locked most of the league into a very conventional two-count driving style, though some of the more daring players are prone to Eurosteps or jump stops on occasion. Harden's cadence is a world apart, largely because of his cunning manipulation of the "gather" provision of the rule.
To clear up any confusion, the 2012-13 NBA Rulebook states as follows in Rule 9, Section XIII, Item (b):
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.
The first step occurs when a foot, or both feet, touch the floor after gaining control of the ball.
The rules note that a player's first step occurs after gaining control of the ball. In other words, a player is allowed to collect the ball in his hands as he takes one step, and follow up with two more full strides. Harden's incredible driving and finishing ability comes as a result of his understanding of what's allowed in this regard, as well as his mastery of timing and spacing those three steps. Observe:
All of the above are strange plays that may invoke a momentary doubt, but are nonetheless legal according to the contemporary writing and interpretation of the traveling rule. Look at the first play in the clip above. At the 0:07 mark, Harden gathers his dribble facing two defenders at what is essentially the top of the key. His foot is on the ground, and yet because he is only now formally collecting his dribble, he's privileged to two additional steps to cut through the heart of the Bucks' defense. That's where Ekpe Udoh's positioning creates a bit of a problem; the Milwaukee big man is smart to expect Harden to go to his left, but overcompensates for that possibility and allows Harden to split the defense. From there, Harden simply takes two huge strides -- one to get him inside the free-throw line and another that brings him deep into the lane for a double-clutch finish.
By delaying his gather until he's able to exploit it to create a positional advantage, Harden can use variable speeds and lengths on the ensuing two steps to maximize the effect of his drive. That maneuver is used to particular effect in the third play in the clip above, with a drive beginning at the 0:31 mark. Harden lulls two defenders in with his gather and then explodes to the basket -- not with first-rate athleticism, but with a better understanding of how to navigate the room (both literal and figurative) afforded him.
And think: If we're duped by Harden's gait while watching from an optimal, unobstructed view, imagine how difficult it must be to time his layup and dunk attempts if you're tasked with staying in front of him. Harden's ragtime step-count provides one of the chief explanations for his incredible number of free-throw attempts. Perimeter defenders and shot blockers alike just can't seem to catch the groove of his drive, and often wind up swinging for the ball at the wrong moment:
***It doesn't take much for a defender to miss Harden's attempt by a single beat, and in the process pad the lead of the player already tops in the league in free throws made (321, or 8.4 per game) and attempted (375, or 9.9 per game). That Harden is also terrific at selling even the slightest contact makes the ordeal of guarding him almost unfair. With defenders unable to impede Harden's path or peg when his attempt might come, it should come as no surprise that he averages 26.5 points as one of the league's most efficient high-usage scorers. Harden is simply playing a different game from everyone else, if only because he best understands the rules.