Posted January 16, 2013

James Harden walks the traveling line

Houston Rockets, James Harden, Rob Mahoney
James Harden

James Harden leads the NBA in free throws attempted and made. (David Liam Kyle/NBAE via Getty Images)

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.

(Emphasis mine.)

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:

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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:

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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.

13 comments
AdamSmith2
AdamSmith2

I would argue that your interpretation of the gather provision is incorrect. In that rule it states that a player is allowed the step as they gain control of the ball. However, a player that is already dribbling, by rule, has control of the ball, and therefore does not have the luxury of an extra step while they gain control a second time as they pick up their dribble. This is why the outline of the step allowance in your rule posting occurs after outlining he part about the player receiving the ball, not picking up their dribble.

kevind35okc
kevind35okc

I think that this analysis was not very precise. On the first clip, none of Harden's plays are actually traveling. On the second clip however, the first three clearly are, there's nothing wrong with the fourth one, #5 is traveling again and so is #6. #7 (v. Lakers) is OK and so is the last one.

Harden always takes 3 steps after his crossover dribble. He does this move every time he travels in the second clip, except for the play #6 (the eurostep). However, many people get away with this move - Kevin Durant does the same move all the time and many other players too and it never gets called, eventhough there's clearly 3 steps taken and the moment of gathering the ball is not really questionable, since the player catches the ball at the same time as he is placing his foot on the ground when making a crossover dribble.

The second move on which Harden almost always travels is his eurostep. He clearly takes three steps all the time. Just look at the 7th play on the second clip. Look at his eurostep from the allstar game (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v_aXDx456Lo). But considering people don't get called on other moves, I don't think Harden benefits from this more than any other player. It's common to see people making 4 steps and not getting called for traveling nowadays as long as the finish their play with a slam.

sede7
sede7

"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."

This refers to the START of the dribble
, thus your logic to add a third ("0th") step while gathering the ball is wrong in my opinion. The third clip (vs. MIN) is definitely a travel to me.

BitterBuffalo13
BitterBuffalo13

Combination of flopping and constant uncalled traveling makes me hate Harden's game.  He basically epitomizes the things I don't like about the NBA game.

abctlc
abctlc

If he's playing by the rules, he's not doing anything wong.  I think what you are referring to is something called "skill"? 

jsteppling
jsteppling

The first clip is travelling. The second I dont think and the third I dont know. :)  But man, Kobe does this much worse. MUCH worse. And Id say Paul Pierce does his version of it, too. In fact, westbrook does it....again a bit differently. And whoever said Parker palms the ball is correct, but again, he's not alone. LeBron does that a fair amont of the time, and Dwade for sure does. The only big time guy, off the top of my head, who doesnt do either is Rose.

gswposse
gswposse

Not sure why Rob hates the Houston Rockets.  He's already written an article on how useless and washed up Jeremy Lin is (after only like a few weeks into the season no less) and now he writes one on how James Harden is cheating. Yeah I know he said that Harden walks a fine line but please just by singling him out he is making the case.  Show me where this rule is enforced on any other top player, ever.  MJ? Kobe? LeBron? D Wade?  None of those guys travel? Ginobli? Westbrook? Parker? Monta Ellis?  You can make a video case on all these guys.  Write this article when the refs start enforcing it, otherwise like I said, you're singling a guy out.

Uncle_Joe
Uncle_Joe

Other players get away with the "gather & carry* loophole. "Ragtime step-count" is a perfect way to describe why Harden makes is more effective than other, more athletic players who do this. Unless a defender manages to hack in to whatever strange mix tape is playing inside Harden's head, making a clean block is much harder.

 

Harden has the highest percentage of "And 1" shots among guards, as well. Ginobili, who comes close to Harden's unsteady rhythm, is 2nd.

amccann19
amccann19

Tony Parker does it much worse...Parker palms the ball on the cross-over and does the same side-ways step that Harden utilizes...Ginobli too...but Parker is the worst

 

Reo
Reo

exactly what I feel. Most of the time when Harden drives in the paint, he can shoot and get a foul. That's because he's carrying the ball with HANDS!, with hands, that's why it's more flexible and manipulate the defense, coz he's not dribbling the ball. But his fan will say he is a beast. As for me, he's not beast, he's just carrying the balls with hands. 

KyleDavis2
KyleDavis2

@jsteppling You got to be  kidding .Kobe doesn't travel , and doesn't do the Euro step .. This is what James Harden is known for ..this is how he plays his game.Kobe has nothing to do with this..You don't see any video of Kobe or blogs about Kobe who has mastered foot work in all facets of the game. Lebron does is his fair share? Come on as far as traveling and foot work Lebron is the worse .He travels more than anyone and he changes his pivot foot all the time 

Mark4
Mark4

 @Uncle_Joe Actually, it's Harden that comes close to Manu's herky jerky, Manu being in the league in his 11th year now.  Nobody was doing that in the NBA in the fall of 2002 when Manu got here.  It's his move.  Harden is the imitator.

Mark4
Mark4

 @amccann19 Where do you think Harden learned it from?  This is GInobili's 11th year of doing it, and I'm sure Parker has picked up some of the finer points, just as Harden has.  

 

The downside as the offensive player is doing this draws WAY more than cursory contact.  I don't see that many of Harden's games, but Manu and Parker take some of the most vicious blows on their way in to the hoop.  It's like MMA out there.

 

As for the palming, find me a PG that doesn't.  League wide, they really only call it on anyone if you go "southern hemisphere" with your had actually all the way under the ball.