There hasn’t been a single playtype more prolific than the James Harden step-back jumper in the recent NBA past. But it isn’t always legal.
James Harden is one of those NBA superstars whose image sticks instantly with the minds of casual viewers. The Beard has always been one of the most stylish players in the league ever since he got drafted.
Harden leveled his game up several notches after he got traded from the OKC Thunder (who drafted him) to Houston. Rockets fans rejoiced the addition of another dynamic player at the 2-guard position when it happened. But nothing could’ve prepared them for what then came.
Through 8 seasons and change, James Harden set all kinds of ridiculous scoring, assist and offensive records in H-Town. In particular, he became the NBA’s deadliest, most prolific scorer from iso situations.
It got so ridiculous that at one point, Harden averaged a near-supernatural 43.6 ppg for January 2019. Much of that scoring onslaught came via his patented step-back jumper.
The very first of many, many stepback threes from James Harden in a Sixers jersey 😎 pic.twitter.com/O0tmInTATI
— NBC Sports Philadelphia (@NBCSPhilly) February 26, 2022
However, there’s a faction of NBA fans who don’t quite rate the 3-time scoring champion at the level that he deserves. One of the many reasons provided by these viewers is the fact that Harden sometimes bends the rules. Especially when it comes to his most effective move.
Examples of James Harden NOT traveling on a step-back jumper
James Harden didn’t develop his step-back jumper anew when he first joined the Houston Rockets. This is quite a common blacktop move – one that the likes of Larry Bird, among others, perfected in their heyday.
What the Beard changed in his approach was his ability to exploit the zero-step travel rule, instituted by the league back in the 1960s if we’re to believe former NBA referee Ronnie Nunn.
When it comes down to lulling a defender into a flat-footed position, there’s no one better than Harden. A part of the reason why is his ability to transition from a hang dribble to a backward step wickedly quick.
Harden’s stepback is just NASTY 🤧 pic.twitter.com/CPJJNsKPlY
— ً (@arxanii) February 26, 2022
Harden had to hit the stepback 💦 pic.twitter.com/R4BS2okmdp
— Brooklyn Nets (@BrooklynNets) November 11, 2021
In fact, there are quite a few occasions when his footwork seems mightily suspect. If I had to hazard a guess at a rough figure, I’d say about 20-25% of his step-backs in 2018-19 deserve their validity to be checked in slo-mo footage.
Illegal examples of the Harden step-back jumper
About half of that 20-25% figure would be constituted by what NBA fans now call the ‘double stepback’. This particular variation involves the Beard niftily hopping backward (in either direction), at times taking an extra hop-step.
See what I mean? Future teammate Kyrie Irving, who hit the single most iconic step-back in NBA history, was absolutely bamboozled by this piece of footwork.
What Harden appears to do better than anyone else (including Giannis and LeBron) is confusing NBA referees. His speed for skill movements is sometimes so askew that it’s practically impossible to tell what he does in real time.
Having said that, there are a few obvious examples where the Beard was clearly flouting the regulations. Check this step-back J over Ricky Rubio during his landmark 2018-19 season, for example.
It is amply clear that Harden is able to game referees in different, subtle ways throughout an NBA game. He’s usually always cordial with them, and his reputation as a top-3 skills guy in the league usually helps him.
At the end of the day, it seems that his double step-back jumper is a trend that’s here to stay. The likes of Kyrie Irving, Steph Curry, Luka Doncic and Zach LaVine have already perfected that particular style of J. They’ve even executed the move multiple times during real games.
Luka Hitting that Harden double stepback 😂 pic.twitter.com/sBbosJROpG
— CJ Fogler AKA Perc70 #BlackLivesMatter (@cjzero) October 26, 2019