Superstar Secrets: James Harden's post defense, physical strength

Superstar Secrets: James Harden's post defense, physical strength

James Harden is one of the most gifted scorers to ever pick up a basketball. Also, the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. Groundbreaking stuff.

However, while anyone tuned into NBA basketball knows Harden can do anything he wants with the ball in his hands, a large portion of viewers have spun this narrative that the nine-time All-Star is strictly a one-way player. 

To make such a sweeping statement is lazy, convenient, and in many ways, unsupported by what Harden does on the court. He's not going to win Defensive Player of the Year anytime soon, but Harden can clamp up using his underrated strength and balance control — particularly in the post. 

Let's start with the above statistic. Opponents made just 36.1% of their post-up attempts last year (regular season and playoffs) when Harden was credited as the primary matchup, per InStat. That's good for fourth in the NBA among all players who defended at least 35 shot attempts.

Harden was one of only four qualifying guards to hold opponents under 40%, along with Facundo Campazzo (36.8%), Marcus Smart (37.5%) and Donte DiVincenzo (38.9%). The major difference is that those four only defended around 40 post-up shots apiece; Harden matched up for 61, which was second among guards behind only Jrue Holiday.

This season wasn't an abberation. The former MVP has kept opponents under 43% since 2017-18 and has decreased that percentage in each of the past four seasons. How does he do it? By simply being a wall.

Look at the core strength. At 220 pounds (per Basketball-Reference), Harden is by no means a light guard. But he's consistently matching up against taller, longer players, and some bigs that may have a good 30 pounds on him. Yet everyone is settling for contested shots far from the basket. Observing 61 shot attempts, the only guy who consistently outmuscled him was Blake Griffin (pre-Nets). 

Harden consistently keeps his hands engaged throughout the matchup and has an excellent sense of timing for steals. He often gets strips just as a player goes up for a shot, but rarely fouls and rarely tries to gamble for a block once the shooter's hands are up. Instead, Harden keeps pushing them away from the basket while maintaining verticality wth his arms. He is almost never jostled out of his stance or tossed backwards, and that's because he has an impressive level of body control and stability.

The only way post players consistently beat Harden was by catching him off guard with a quick spin move or jump hook. In those instances, Harden wasn't able to get into position quick enough or get a hand in the shooter's face. Then, they could take advantage of the height and length mismatch. It'd also be good to see Harden slide laterally a bit better; maybe that way he could draw some charges when defenders try to spin and drive.

But again, Harden does a spectacular job of keeping defenders away from the paint and out of rhythm. It's not just about the makes or misses; an entire offense can stall if a post player can't find any open space.

This was awesome to watch. Kawhi Leonard is one of the best post players in basketball; he made 57.8% of his post-up shots last season, which was third among the 35 players with at least 100 attempts. But he has absolutely nothing on Harden in this matchup. 

The Los Angeles Clippers clear out for Leonard to do his thing, Harden says "No sir," and Leonard has to kick the ball back out to Lou Williams with little time on the shot clock (props to Williams and Nic Batum for making something out of this). Sure, you'd like to see the Clippers move around off the ball, but this is essentially a call for an iso that gets nullified.

Also notice how, in many of the above clips, Brooklyn isn't coming with help defenders for Harden. The Nets know he can handle any player in the league, and this means they're not leaving open shooters or cutters. Opposing offenses gunk up because the defense does not have to rotate to cover up for Harden.

Some might say the era of post-play is gone. That's a pretty ignorant claim when Nikola Jokic just won Most Valuable Player by primarily ripping defenses apart with his back to the basket. Plenty of teams like the Denver Nuggets initiate their offenses out of a post-up, whether it's to get a bucket or hit a cutter. In today's switching league, guards often find themselves on bigs posting up.

That might be a tasty mismatch for most, but against Harden, it's one of the more daunting challenges in the league. His post-defense acumen should help a Nets team that needs to improve on that end to live up to title aspirations. Harden and Nic Claxton (40.9%) are the only projected Nets rotation players who held opponents under 45% on post-up shots last season. 

This isn't to say Harden can turn Brooklyn into a defensive powerhouse. He raises plenty of individual questions about awareness and off-ball play. But post defense is one area where Harden can ease the burden on his teammates.

The Nets will overpower teams with the offensive wizardry of Harden, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. But at some point, they'll have to tighten up on defense to make a championship run.

Harden can help get them there.

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