James Harden is playing some of the best offensive basketball in the history of the NBA. While that may seem hyperbolic, Harden’s individual brilliance in the recent past can’t be overstated, as the reigning MVP is averaging a staggering 42.2 points per game over the course of an 18-game streak in which he has exceeded 30 points in each contest.
In short, he has been virtually unstoppable during this run. Harden is playing the game in a different way than virtually anyone ever has, unleashing his step-back three-point shooting (15.3 three-point attempts per game in the last 18), attacking the rim (14.4 free throw attempts per game), and finding teammates (9.1 assists per game) to unlock Houston’s overall offense.
As a result, many have speculated as to the best way to defend him at this juncture and, on Thursday, ESPN analysts Scottie Pippen and Tracy McGrady tried their hand as part of a segment. The focus was on Pippen’s plan to defend Harden, which is a good decision given that he is one of the best defenders in history. Still, it transformed into a riveting back-and-forth that isn’t often seen on televised coverage.
The full, six-minute video is absolutely worth a watch, and there is at least one genuinely amusing moment when Pippen asserted that “you have to start guarding James Harden when he gets out of his car going into the arena.” Beyond that, the segment takes a few twists and turns, examining the differences in defending Harden as a left-hander, promoting the potential that picking up him for 94 feet may be effective (at least on occasion), and generally preventing the red-hot guard from settling into his comfort zone.
Obviously, NBA teams have tried a lot of different things to slow Harden, both this season and in previous years as his breakout fully formed. That isn’t to say that what McGrady and Pippen came up with here, schematically, is groundbreaking or otherwise impossible to generate. Still, it is both interesting and flat-out pleasurable to see two formerly elite players discuss one concept in this kind of depth and the game could benefit from more extended breakdowns like this in prominent places.