James Harden: Redefining Basketball IQ

Basketball IQ is a term thrown around by analysts and pundits so often that sometimes it feels like a meaningless platitude. Despite this, most generally understand that a high IQ basketball player is one who is able to read a game on the fly, adapt, and overcome obstacles to victory as needed.

Players like LeBron James, Nikola Jokic and Kawhi Leonard typify what a high IQ player looks like. Making smart plays, not forcing the action and re-working game plans as needed.

James Harden, however, is on a different playing field. To be sure, no one will confuse James Harden for being the best player in the league – even though he is in also in that conversation. Rather, James Harden has shifted what it even means to have basketball IQ to the point where it is not hyperbolic to say that there has truly never been another player like Harden.

Known primarily for being a prolific scorer, he does not score the same way that many of his contemporaries or predecessors do/did. Michael Jordan relied on his extra terrestrial athleticism and razor sharp jump shot. Kevin Durant has the ability to rise up and shot from basically anywhere within the half court. Harden on the hand has developed his own ever-expanding set of rules to live by, allowing him to thrive with the ball in his hands.

Harden’s game plan starts before he ever steps foot on the basketball court. Though he sometimes maligned for his flopping, his strategy goes significantly deeper than that. As a proactive force on offense, Harden has mastered the art of garnering specific reactions out of defenders and patiently waiting until he receives exactly the reaction he desires before pulling the trigger.

Rather than shoot when he senses he has an inch of daylight – a tactic utilized by many elite sharpshooters – Harden will dribble incessantly with the occasional feint until he senses his defender’s body moving in a specific direction, and either rise up for a shot and draw a foul, or take his man off the dribble.

With unconventional athleticism – great balance and excellent deceleration – Harden isn’t able to rely on blowing past defenders with regularity. And even though he is an excellent ball-handler and shooter, he is not content to simply pick his spots and take what the defense gives him. Defenses are forced to constantly react to what Harden is doing, and he remains unpredictable enough to avoid being pigeonholed.

The genius of Harden’s approach is that he fully capitalizes on the axiomatic advantage of being on offense (the defender does not know the next move) and combines it with untraditional offensive moves that stretch the rulebooks to their maximum. Making full use of the “zero step” and pioneering the double step back, Harden has effectively weaponized the rules to his advantage.

Even though many continue to complain about his unorthodox gameplay, referees are always carefully watching Harden with a watchful eye, and he is playing within the rules established by the NBA. Of course, he successfully gets away with the occasional flop, but this is hardly unique to Harden. Flopping is practically par for the course in today’s NBA, some just happen to be better at it than others.

Unlike Stephen Curry who (rightfully so), gets heaps of credit for changing the landscape of basketball, fans seem far more reluctant to do the same for Harden. Not only is James Harden a basketball genius, he is practically playing from the future.

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