This possession shows why Kawhi Leonard and James Harden are superstars (and why offense beats defense in today’s game)
Kawhi Leonard has won the last two Defensive Player of the Year awards and he’s considered by some to be the finest perimeter defender since Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen were terrorizing backcourts in the 1990s. He’s the first perimeter player to win the DPOY in back-to-back seasons since guard Sidney Moncrief won in the first two years the award was handed out (1983-84), and in 2015 he was the first non-center to win since then-Ron Artest won in 2004. Yes, Kawhi’s defensive numbers this year are weird, as Matt Moore noted at CBS Sports recently, but anyone who watches him knows he’s the finest perimeter defender in the NBA today.
Conversely, James Harden is perhaps the most effective pick-and-roll player in today’s game and one of the best scorers. Currently, he’s fifth in the NBA in points per game, and before the scorching Rockets lost to the Spurs on Tuesday night in Houston, they had won 10 in a row — best in the Association. Harden’s brilliant job running the show is the biggest reason why. Mike D’Antoni’s spread, SSOL offense, with shooters — Ryan Anderson, Eric Gordon, Trevor Ariza, and Patrick Beverley — and pick-and-roll (Clint Capela), or pick-and-pop (Nene, in for an injured Capela on Tuesday night), bigs compliments James’ incredible ability to create fouls and opportunities for teammates and himself. It’s why they’re again one of the top teams in the West and The Bearded One is again a viable MVP candidate.
So what happened when Harden faced Kawhi in the possession above, and why did I just waste your time with that rather long preamble? It’s because it’s a microcosm for the game today, and the incredible ability — on opposite sides of the ball — of Leonard and Harden.
First, Leonard navigates a Trevor Ariza screen with ease, something he’s perhaps the best in the league at doing.
This is really important. The NBA is a pick-and-roll league, and if you — as a defender — get caught up, or blindsided by the high screen, that has a domino effect on the rest of the defense. Once a defender is held up on a screen and a switch is forced, it usually sends a defense scrambling, resulting in an open shot if an opponent is smart and skilled.
If you slow the above sequence down, you can see Leonard spot Ariza in his peripheral vision, so he isn’t turning his head, which would give Harden an opening to breeze past him when he isn’t looking.
Next, the Spurs’ all-star small forward is so strong and quick, he pushes past the lithe Ariza and stays right with Beard when the screen does arrive. Kawhi’s extended right arm — because he spots Ariza before he arrives — gives him the leverage to push past him and stay right on Harden in good defensive position.
But the NBA in 2016–17 is one that favors offenses, and never is this more apparent than when Leonard and Harden face off one-on-one on the near side.
Leonard is giving Harden the baseline after getting over the screen, which is to the advantage of the Rockets’ point guard, who is a natural lefty. But Kawhi wants to keep Harden out of the lane as much as possible, where James has a change at finding weakside shooters and attacking the rim from an advantageous angle. Except, after a behind-the-back and through-the-leg dribble, lulling Leonard a bit, Harden takes one exaggerated dribble to his left and crosses over to his right as he bounds into the lane; he then cuts past a late-arriving David Lee for a simple lefty lay-in.
Could Kawhi have gotten in front of Harden after he made his crossover dribble to his right hand? Perhaps. But, the back-to-back DPOY would almost certainly get whistled for the foul, and Harden might’ve still made the basket with a continuation.
For refs, the blocking/charge divide is the hardest one to spot in today’s game. So many factors come into play, it’s often the call that feels the most subjective, even to experienced NBA watchers; I’ve had casual fans tell me the game is rigged when I explain these calls. There’s an art to making the call, and refs aren’t always consistent with it. Simple physics shows why this is a problem for defenders:
It’s impossible for a defender on an offensive player’s hip to get in front of him with enough time to plant his feet and take a charge, defending is just really difficult on the perimeter without the ability to hand check the player in front of you.
Hand-checking was slowly outlawed in the 1990s and 2000s. First between the backcourt end line and free throw line in 1994–95 and then it was done away with entirely before the 2004–05 season. Its omission is largely why a perimeter defender on the level of Leonard doesn’t really stand a chance against an engaged talent like Harden and little rim protection behind him.
This is the NBA today. Exceptional offense is almost always going to beat exceptional defense, even with the most skilled players.