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Athletic Alchemy: “The Harden Rules”

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One of the internet’s best analysts goes in deep on how to defend James Harden

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You may not like his game, but it’s becoming increasingly hard to argue that James Harden isn’t one of the top players in the NBA. Slowing Harden will be of paramount importance in this upcoming series.

But how? It’s not like other teams haven’t tried. In fact, the team the Rockets just eliminated were highly regarded defensively - and they got obliterated. Harden is everything for this Rockets team: Harden used about 36% of the team’s possessions while he was on the court; for comparison, Lebron James used about 31%.

“The Jordan Rules” are a famous set of strategies used by the Detroit Pistons to slow down Michael Jordan. We mostly think of it as “just rough him up a bit,” but there was actually much more to it.

The internet is a weird and wonderful place, so if you haven’t yet come across his work, it’s my great pleasure to introduce you to Athletic Alchemy. Check out his Harden Rules video here.

The video starts up fast and hits hard, so it’s not an especially quick, or light watch. But it is so damn good that I watched/listened to it three times straight before deciding to write it up. In fact, I’ve had it running in the background a few more times while writing this. So sit down somewhere you can focus and enjoy.

Rule 1: Do not reach

The video starts like a spoken word poem. With Alchemy’s carefully measured cadence and sneaky-deep one-liners (“Just like I would tell any brother in America, protect yourself and show your hands”), he starts us off with the most obvious.

Free throw attempts are what elevates Harden’s game into the ultra-dangerous-elite territory. Taking some of that away is critical, and definitely the starting point. As we’ve pointed out elsewhere, Klay Thompson is elite at this.

Rule 2: No Space

The step-back is Harden’s preferred move, so you shouldn’t be overly concerned with him getting past you. Crowd up on him and make him beat you by driving by.

Alchemy makes this point numerous times, but it bears repeating; the step back jumper is Harden’s go-to move. According to basketballreference.com shooting data, he takes about 50% of his shot attempts from deep, and most of those are off of that step-back move.

While we may concede some easy layups as a results of this approach, I agree that crowding Harden is probably worth the risk.

Rule 3: Force Harden Right

There are few truly ambidextrous players. Even people who can adroitly dribble with either hand still have a preference. For Harden, it’s going to his left. He’ll still do some damage, and Alchemy isn’t advocating for conceding anything, but anything we can do to take Harden out of his comfort zone will help.

This was a major element of the Jordan Rules as well - by forcing the player out of their comfort zone, you can really gum up the offense. Everyone knows about this rule, but when you see it strongly enforced by an entire team, it doesn’t take long before we see results. It’s just one of those things that’s easier said than done.

Rule 4: Trust the Help

You can see how these rules all somewhat support each other by now - and the next point is no different. Once you’ve got him limited by reducing fouls and crowding his space, the last defensive principle involves what happens after Harden is funneled to where we want him.

The bottom line is that the on-ball defender needs to stay with Harden as much as possible. The Warriors generally have great defensive rotations, but Harden is incredible adept at both the kickout pass off the drive, as well as the lob to a rolling screener like Capella.

Rule 5: Attack him on the defensive end

Ok, if you haven’t clicked on the video, then please try the embedded version below; it’s queued up on rule five. Athletic Alchemy’s best and hottest take: “Harden knows his weakest link is his motor.”

Test Harden’s motor and will.

History has shown that his tank can be emptied, and his will can be broken

This series is going to be amazing, but I’ll certainly enjoy it a lot more if Harden struggles. He’s good enough to need his own rule book; that’s a strong complement. Now let’s read it and use it to shut him down.