We featured Sebastian Pruiti's NBA Playbook work numerous times last season, as he gave ample coverage to the Thunder in his writing and analysis. Since then, Pruiti has moved to Grantland where he has continued his insightful way of breaking down teams and players via film footage. He gives Thunder super-sub James Harden the full treatment.
We've spent much time in this space considering how Harden finally figured out his role last season, morphing from an uncertain bench player to a true threat against which the opponent had to develop a defensive game plan. In Pruiti's post, he looks closely at how great Harden is at using screens off the ball to create open spaces. Be sure to read his entire post, but for our purposes here I extracted a few of his clips.
In this clip you can see how Harden uses his strength and balance to subtly create open spaces in which to work. He is not blessed with the blinding quickness or vertical explosiveness of Russell Westbrook. Instead, he excels at reading the defense's positioning and tendencies to initiate quick fakes and contact, then quickly pulls out of the fake to spring out for the ball. As a result, he often gets wide open looks on the wings.
From a personal offensive standpoint, Pruiti argues that Harden is much more effective on the wings than at the top of the key, and to this point I think his analysis has merit. Harden is a lefty, and for some reason, left-handed players (like Manu Ginobili) seem to have an advantage of playing angles a bit differently than righty's. When Harden gets the defense in a position where only half the court offers resistance, his inverted head fakes work even better.
Contrast this with when Harden starts his play at the top of the key. In this set, Pruiti argues that Harden is far less effective, especially when he has the ball. Why? Because he's presenting a much more normal threat to a defense.
I think that Harden's decreased effectiveness is exacerbated by the fact that as a means of his personal stature, he is not a low-to-the-ground burner like Westbrook or John Wall is. Those guys can get low to the floor and use their quickness and shiftiness to cross up the defense with dribble penetration. Harden on the other hand doesn't have that same level of lateral quickness, so if he can't shake the defense with a jab step or a head fake, he isn't going to work his way free.
Lastly, Pruiti argues, and I would be willing to cede, that Harden's effectiveness without the ball surpasses his effectiveness with the ball. I have frequently espoused that Harden's greatest effectiveness (especially late in games) is as a facilitator and not as a finisher, but Pruiti takes the opposite position. I think Pruiti is right, but here is the difference - when Harden plays without the ball, he is far more effective individually. However, when he plays with the ball and has Westbrook and Durant working on offense, he makes the team more effective offensively. I believe this is because he turns two players who are very difficult to guard when they have the ball (Durant & Westbrook) into near-impossible-to-cover guys when they're without the ball. While Harden does not have the one-on-one skills that Westbrook does, he still presents enough of a challenge that the defense must respect both his shot and his drive. However, with Westbrook and Durant playing off the ball, the defense will be forced to choose who to pay the most attention to, and an option one way (Durant) could easily be worked the other way (Westbrook) in successive trips. The versatility that the Thunder have with Harden running the point makes the idea most appealing, especially since the team struggled so much late in games.
I think the Thunder staff believes that Harden will be a key component in their late-game attack and I will be looking to see how they implement him as the season begins.