Back to the NBA Journey, Week Twelve: Perfect Strategy

James Harden has become the NBA's most devastating offensive weapon; almost to the point of unfairness. (Issac Baldizon/NBAE via Getty Images)

The 2018-19 NBA season is nearing its halfway point. The Association still believes that its destination will be another championship for the Golden State Warriors. But that doesn't mean we can't enjoy the season as a whole. Last year was wonderful, so let's return to the path. Let's go back to the Journey.

Song of the Week: Eric B. & Rakim - "Don't Sweat The Technique"

Fighting games are my favorite genre of video game to play when I want to play competitively. They require knowledge of the game, the character I choose, the opponent's character and both of our individual play styles in order to achieve victory. A big part of the formulated gameplan is understanding which moves are known as, "safe" and which are, "unsafe." Safe and unsafe refer to whether or not there is a window to counter or "punish" an attack if it's blocked.

The best way to explain this involves making the connection to actual fighting. Jabs are quicker punches that do not cause that much damage. They're used to set up more powerful punches or as a defensive mechanism to attempt to halt the opponent's offensive pressure. They're also harder to counter because the fighter returns back to the ready stance to throw another punch faster than other strikes. Hooks and uppercut punches are generally slower, but they do more damage because they're more power generated. It is also more possible to see those punches coming and react with either an offensive or defensive option. In most cases, jabs are safe when blocked and power punches can be unsafe depending on the range where they're thrown. I really hope that made sense, because I'm about to explain where the definitive lines of safe and unsafe moves are blurred.

Depending on the two fighters in the match, a more powerful move can be safe, even if game mechanics and general fighting game knowledge suggest the contrary. For example — stay with me here — in Street Fighter V, M. Bison's standing heavy kick is a move that does a lot of damage and can lead to even more combo damage if it connects. If the opponent blocks it, Bison can safely attack again before the opponent can, forcing the opponent to continue to block. That is frustrating for anyone who plays the game, since the main objective is to attack. This means Bison's opponents have to think a little harder and longer about when and where to attack or defend. Combine the safety of moves like that with his devastating offensive potential, and Bison is seen as a "cheap" or unfair character. Despite being the overarching boss of Street Fighter for nearly three decades, it is still seen as unfair that some of his moves are frustrating to deal with.

But consider this: in both real and video game fighting, it is just as important to avoid getting hit as it is to land attacks. Attack and defense are tightly bonded, and blend into each other based on fighting style. Relentless offensive pressure keeps opponents defensive, keeping them from trying to attack. Playing defensively can lure opponents into mistakes, allowing for high-damaging counterattack opportunities. Understanding what works and what doesn't is an integral part of strategy in any competition. Those that grasp this concept tend to excel in their form of competition.

This brings me to James Harden. Last year's MVP is in his seventh season as lead guard for the Houston Rockets. He has not averaged less than 25 points per game in any season since being traded from Oklahoma City before the 2011-12 season (sorry, Ed), and had become the game's most devastating individual offensive threat. The most amazing feat so far for last year's MVP is that he is on pace to lead the NBA in threes made and free throws made for the second-straight season; something no player had ever done before him.

But there is a growing number of people who denounce the way Harden plays basketball. I posed the question on Twitter if those who follow basketball like the way he plays. Some still find him fun. Some don't. As he grows more divisive, detractors do not like how he has a propensity to attack the basket with the sole purpose of drawing fouls or to simply dribble in place to shoot long threes. For some, his game is not aesthetically pleasing. While I understand not liking how a player looks when he's effective, anyone arguing the method of effectiveness is lacking perspective.

Two categories in which capable perimeter scorers fall into are either shooters and slashers. Basically, a player like Harden is either well above average at making shots or drawing fouls and making free throws. Those players are then taught to either attack to free up space for the jumper (Steph Curry, Klay Thompson), or knock down jumpers to free up driving lanes (DeMar DeRozan, Giannis Antetokounmpo). Elite perimeter players like Harden are adept at both, making them impossible to defend. Harden not only has nothing a defender can effectively concede to him to make him less effective, but he can also decide to repeat the same move because it's indefensible. His patented casual step back three as well as his ability to place his arms (and not the ball) in the path of swiping defenders for foul calls are two things that are "cheap" because he can use them at will. It feels unfair because within the confines of basketball, he found a way to optimize his abilities to not only succeed but dominate. He has taken a basic philosophy that most in the basketball realm subscribe to and optimized it by having the ball. If the goal of every offensive possession for a team is to come away with points, then the player most skilled at making layups, free throws, threes and dishing out assists for teammates should have the ball more often than anyone else.

A player like James Harden isn't supposed to be fair. If he didn't figure out a way to maximize his potential as a player, he would not be able to confidently state that he is playing like he should win the MVP again this year. And if he wasn't so good, there wouldn't be any complaints about how good his moves are. Harden still misses shots, turns the ball over, and his team loses games. But he is also so individually good that those flaws will never offset the great things he's capable of doing.

January Blurbs!

  • Minnesota Timberwolves head coach Tom Thibodeau is the second one to be fired this season. After the team handled the Los Angeles Lakers Sunday night, the man known as Thibs was relieved of both his coaching and front office duties. There was always an air of underachieving around the Wolves, despite both Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins still being relatively young. Add in the Jimmy Butler turmoil to the sustained mediocrity, and he wasn't going to be long for the job. An early candidate to fill the position is former Chicago Bulls head coach Fred Hoiberg. This would further confirm the false idea that the Timberwolves and Bulls are doing their collective best to feed each other's franchises.
  • I highlighted Russell Westbrook's down season so far in last week's Journey post. While I still believe a lot of his shooting woes are attributed to fatigue, his free throw shooting may have a different reason why it has dipped. Pulled from this Uproxx article, the NBA initiated a rule change in 2017 in which players could not walk beyond the three-point line between free throws in an effort to speed up the games. This affects Westbrook because during his entire career, he would walk to halfcourt between shots. As those of us around basketball know, free throws are all about routine and repetition. Any disturbance in that can and will negatively affect a player. That's such an interesting cause-effect relationship for Westbrook, and I hope he finds a new routine that works for him.
  • This week's Hooper Appreciation Blurb goes to Nets point guard D'Angelo Russell. It seems like a lifetime ago when he was the Lakers point guard of the future. But after an issue with then-teammate Nick Young and the prospect of Lonzo Ball being drafted, Russell was traded to Brooklyn. This year, still just 22 years old, he's figuring out his place in the NBA. He's averaging 18 points and over six assists per game, elevating the Nets as one of the surprising teams thus far. Russell is more than just a solid player. He's proven to want the ball in big moments and has had big-time scoring outbursts, such as his 28 points Sunday against the Bulls.

Twelve weeks in, and we're still on the Journey. Happy NBA, folks.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *