The Five Stages of Defending James Harden
(Dedicated to the loving memory of Chris Vernon. Rest in Petulance.)
A favorite NBA team competing against James Harden and the Rockets can be an emotionally difficult time. Cherished notions are discarded, and biases run rampant. The clear script of success and good defense that many fans hold in their mind is, over 48 wrenching, brutal minutes, brought to face a stark reality and utterly destroyed.
Opposing fans and players often see their mental health deteriorate to a dangerous level. In the depths of this bleak time, however, there is some good news.
This is all completely normal. Millions have experienced this painful sequence of events. Experts have studied what happens when teams play James Harden and have broken the process into five emotional steps, or stages. Understanding these five stages can be a key to recovery, to a slow return to a normal, healthy, basketball life after facing the soul-crushing trauma of James Harden.
Stage One - The Hard Double, Trap or Blitz (Denial)
In this stage opponents will attempt to double team or trap James Harden to get the ball out of his hands. He’s not going to be able to do anything. Total ball denial will occur. We will be the team that stops him!
A doubling player will run at Harden, or come to trap him near the sideline, as the Rockets offense typically brings the ball up one side. This necessarily leaves someone open. Harden will usually find that person, and if they make their shots, we move to the next stage.
If we stay at this stage, the Rockets can easily lose. (Congratulations! You skipped the other stages! All-Star mental health!)
Teams are doing this almost every single game it seems, and it is giving Harden a lot of practice defeating this particular strategy. It’s not going to surprise anyone on the Rockets anymore. Tire them out, force some mistakes, perhaps, but if opponents think it’s novel; it isn’t.
Stage Two - Just Play Our Brand of Tough Defense(tm) (Anger)
If the Rockets other than James Harden are making their shots, defenses switch to this plan. Everyone plays as hard as possible on defense, and there may still be some attempted double teams. The opponent is annoyed their clever tactic from stage one has failed, and you can see they’re angry. Defenders break out their special “mean mug” at this point.
Harden will often just single-handedly wreck this plan by stepping back and making shots from nearly half court, or driving, successfully, against four defenders in the paint. Defending him one-on-one, alone, is not recommended for most players.
When Harden obliterates what is normally considered Good Defense, we go to stage three.
Stage Three - Play Inside Harden’s Jersey (Bargaining)
Apparently Our Brand of Tough Defense(tm) didn’t work. We’re on to Stage Three, where defenders attempt to get so close to James Harden they can read the label on his underwear.
“If we can’t stop Harden with double teams, and we can’t defend the whole team, because he wrecks us, maybe we can just make him super uncomfortable? We’ll play Harden extremely close, and go back to our regular defense elsewhere. Maybe that’ll work.”
This stage is what produces those three-point shot attempt fouls for Harden. This phenomenon is well documented. Stage Three is the cause, and three free throws are the effect.
Once a defender commits to overplaying everything on Harden, getting under his skin, it’s almost inevitable that they’ll jump at the step-back three pointer. Playing defense that way, it’s practically impossible to curtail that aggressive reaction. Guess what? Harden knows it.
Worst case, the defender hits Harden, best case, he lands in Harden’s landing space, and yes, Harden doesn’t make it easy for him. The call is right there to be had, based on the defender’s behavior, and yes, it’s a foul. It’s nearly always a foul.
Other team’s fans (but not coaches, usually) might complain, but those free throws come from fouls committed by defenders who have decided to not let Harden breathe. That’s the price. Harden always makes you pay. There’s no bargaining with The Beard.
Stage Four - Run Around Fouling Everyone & Hope They Don’t Call It (Depression)
This defense takes a number of forms, but has one consistent element: frustration and depression. The defense had a plan, it had several, in fact. None of them are working. Nothing is working.
At this point, defenses might slip into a zone, they might full-court press, they might double and slap everyone, and cheap shots are a real possibility. They smash into driving players, go over the back, lunge at passes. Sometimes players get ejected.
James Harden and the Rockets have broken the opponent as a coherent, legal, NBA defense. Sometimes it gets chippy, and often the refs try to control things by calling every single play exactly by the book. The contest becomes either a brawl or a free throw parade.
It’s awful to watch. It’s a hack-fest, and any beauty, grace or style has been clubbed out of the game. But this isn’t the Rockets fault. The opponent, having come to their wit’s end, in their depression, has chosen to play anti-basketball.
Anti-basketball is ugly, and the opponent, sadly, not at their mental best, willingly chose it. They’d never do that under normal circumstances, but under the strain and anguish of James Harden, teams aren’t themselves.
Stage Five - Extended Garbage Time. (Acceptance)
Hello, 12th man! Now deep bench players enter the game, and being guys who sit around a lot, when they get the ball, they’re going to damn well shoot it. No defense is played, by anyone. The opponent can be strangely giddy at this point, almost manic. They have at last accepted reality.
Oddly enough, this tactic often narrows the margin in a contest to the point that it resets. James Harden re-enters the game to restore order and pile up more minutes and more points. Sometimes this is enough to restart the whole process, usually time mercifully expires.
In any case, the opponent has accepted the loss, and emptied the bench. Admittedly, this was more a feature of the Rockets 2017-2018 season, but it’s coming. In fact, it’s already started. Watch and see.
Now that you know the Stages of Defending James Harden, you can begin to cope with the horror and despair you’ve experienced. If this guide can help just one person (Chris Vernon) heal from his unhinged, unseemly, and unjustified loathing, then it has done its work.