Despite leading the NBA in scoring for the third consecutive year, it's been a bit of an uneven 2019-20 for James Harden. And his season can be broken into three distinct periods.
Harden sprinted out of the gate in his eighth year with the Rockets, needing little time to round into MVP form. He averaged 39.5 points and 7.8 assists per game in his first 20 contests, on pace to post the best scoring season since Wilt Chamberlain in 1962-63. Harden's dominance necessitated a change from defenses across the NBA. The solution was one of the most unorthodox schemes in league history.
The Nuggets were the first team to institute their own 'Harden Rules', opting to double-team Harden on nearly every possession as he crossed half court on Nov. 20. The plan worked as Harden took just 16 shots en route to 27 points, kickstarting a three-game losing streak for Houston. The Clippers and Mavericks executed the same trapping scheme with solid results in each of the next two games, highlighted by Los Angeles' decision to double Harden in the final minute at the Staples Center. The 2017-18 MVP took the incessant double teams as a compliment, though they also served as a sign of frustration.
"The whole season they’re running doubles teams at me. I’ve never seen that in an NBA game where you’ve got really good defenders and someone else running at the top of the key," Harden said following Houston's three-point loss on Nov. 23. "Y’all let me know the last time you’ve seen that."
The doubling pattern continued in games against Miami and San Antonio, sandwiching a 60-point night in which the Hawks inexplicably chose to let Harden attack in isolation. But aside from the win vs. Atlanta, Houston continued to struggle against the Harden trap, failing to take advantage of 4-on-3 situations as December began. A win in Toronto turned the tide.
Houston's victory on Dec. 5 featured a muted performance from Harden as he scored just 23 points on 7-11 from the field. Yet the road win stands as one of the Rockets' best efforts of the season. They tallied 29 assists and hit 22 threes, with five players finishing the night with 15-plus points. P.J. Tucker, Austin Rivers and Danuel House each hit at least three triples, while Ben McLemore canned eight threes. This wasn't simply a hot shooting night for Houston. It was a breakthrough in attacking off the Harden double.
The victory against Toronto appeared to scare teams away from the trap, though not entirely. Coaches began to dial it up in specific situations, often late in games or when Houston had multiple non-ball handlers were on the floor. Daryl Morey's moves in February once again attacked the strategy.
Opponents found the greatest success against the Harden trap in 2019-20 when Clint Capela was also on the floor. Houston's former center is an impressive rim-runner and lob threat, but he's frankly lost when he needs to make a play away from the rim. Capela would receive the Harden pass off a double near the free-throw line, then freeze entirely as he diagnosed the situation. The hesitation allowed teams to rotate back onto shooters, bleeding time off the clock without any option of an open shot. The Rockets would then have to kick the ball out and reset, often facing the same problem again and again.
Capela was dealt for Robert Covington on Feb. 4, a move that sparked Houston's impressive offensive performance throughout February. With either P.J. Tucker or Jeff Green at center, the Rockets now have five legitimate playmakers on the floor at all times. Such roster construction has made trapping Harden all-but-impossible. Tucker is decent (albeit unspectacular) when left alone on the 4-on-3, and his short-range flip shot has become a legitimate weapon.
Green has been even more impressive. He burrows downhill with aggression and authority when left in space, unafraid to challenge a shot-blocker at the rim. Green, Tucker and the rest of the Rockets have forced most opponents to eliminate the Harden trap from their playbook.
Houston saw its greatest success this season after the wave of traps passed, and the strategy has been eschewed by most coaches. But could we see a resurgence in the playoffs? The decision will likely hinge on circumstance. A poor shooting night from the Rockets may allow opponents to be more comfortable doubling Harden, trusting their rotational defense to sag off the correct shooters. If Harden is cooking in isolation, letting Tucker, Covington or House beat you from the corner may be preferable.
There's also the likelihood of a situational double, one that is dusted off only in certain situations. Coaches are unlikely to double Harden on every possession, though it could become increasingly fashionable late in games. Don't be surprised if we see the Harden trap in the final seconds. As Doc Rivers found out in November, taking the ball out of Harden's hands is often the safest route in a final possession situation. In critical moments, it may be up to Harden's supporting cast to make a game-winning play.