Pre-Season Film Study: How James Harden and John Wall can thrive together
The Houston Rockets aren’t the only ones still in preseason form. As I watched Tuesday’s warm up game against the Spurs I have to admit in shame that I did fall asleep at half-time, around 2.30am UK time (seriously, why were there a million timeouts in the first half?). I spent the next two days with a poor view of how James Harden and John Wall meshed together, in an offense that looked stagnant and to be honest, disastrous, when the two were on the court. This was my view of the game until I finally watched the 2nd half today, and I was cheered up greatly at the improvements which were made so quickly. Yet, it seems as if lots of commentators must have also fallen asleep at half-time, as the fallout from the game (as much as there is fallout for a preseason game, let’s be reasonable here) did not seem to appreciate some of the stuff Houston was trying in the 2nd half. So this is what we’ll look at in this blog post.
To set the table we need to look at how things started, and it was rough. The second offensive play of the game here saw John Wall drive – and there were two defenders covering the shooters on the strong side corner, with the Spurs drop scheme with LaMarcus Aldridge rooted religiously to the paint. Wall’s defender was chasing from behind, so Houston now had a 2v1 situation on the perimeter. But look how close together Harden and Cousins are, and how much easier that makes Dejounte Murray’s job to at least half guard both.
Why doesn’t James move towards the corner? Not only does that force Murray to completely abandon one of the shooters, it gives Wall another passing option. As a lefty, whipping that pass across his body to the corner is routine for Wall, yet Harden isn’t there.
The second play up here sees John Wall kick out to Eric Gordon in the slot after a pick n roll with Cousins. Watch how Harden and Wall both retreat enormously, culminating in this.
12 seconds left and your backcourt is nowhere to be found. John Wall is barely even in the frame. No wonder Stephen Silas wants Eric Gordon in the starting lineup, when your two starting guards abandon the play halfway through the shot clock you need a 3rd ballhandler.
This was the most egregious play of the 1st half for me and this next one is a little bit more nit-picky, but look how slow Wall and Harden are. Just strolling up court after the kick ahead. Cousins drives, collapsing the entire defense, but the kickout results in a turnover. Again, his star backcourt are nowhere near the play. They could be at the perimeter ready for an open 3.
There are of course times when Houston needs their stars to be in a certain position to help with spacing, I’m not at all suggesting Harden needs to be flying around the court like Steph Curry. Watch here as DeMarcus Cousins gets a lane to drive for the layup, partly thanks to John Wall (who has LaMarcus Aldridge switched on to him) staying where he is and not cutting and bringing in the interior defender. Harden’s positioning also forces Rudy Gay to leap out of his help position in front of the drive, because of the spot up threat.
This is another play where Harden and Wall are stationary but don’t need to do anything more. Eric Gordon curls around an off-ball screen and has Aldridge isolated onto him. It’s an easy blow by and Gordon doesn’t want any help defenders being brought nearer to him. This is where basketball can mirror the words of the father of modern football Johan Cruyff “you always think you help someone by walking towards them, but you help him the most by walking away”.
But it’s clear that Harden is still completely uninterested in re-engaging with a play once he’s given the ball up, and that’s a big problem. He curls around another off-ball screen here and he makes the pass to Gordon trying to get open off the weakside Cousins screen – a play Houston ran often last year with Tucker as the screener. But Harden probably telegraphs the pass a little early without realising Gordon actually isn’t open. Now there’s 5 seconds on the shot clock and Houston has NOTHING.
Harden is now a pedestrian stood at the logo hoping Gordon bails the possession out with a prayer shot. I don’t think Harden can get open or run any sort of fancy play, but he could at least be in passing range and take the shot himself – but that would break his cardinal rule of never moving once he has passed the ball.
So, it was a really disheartening 1st half. These are possibly the two most stationary stars in the NBA, intensely committed to not moving an inch off-ball. What else did we expect? One way you can improve the offense is to at least have them start possessions in actions together. I tweeted this at half time, and unfortunately we know the rest of the story – I fell asleep.
But had I stayed awake I would have been pleasantly surprised that the Rockets did exactly this in the very first possession of the 2nd half. They run a 21 series between Harden and Wall, who curls around the stagger screen with Boogie and then drives into a ton of space. The pull up middy is there, but he opts for a lob to Cousins which doesn’t connect.
Houston had a miserable 70 offensive rating in the 2nd half when Harden and Wall were on the court. But I don’t care, because plays like this happened. This was a well executed play between Harden and Wall which resulted in Wall being wide open in the middle, Cousins rolling with a smaller guard on him, and the pass just wasn’t right – otherwise it would have been an easy alley-oop. Harden could probably try to move over to the top of the perimeter as Wall picks up his dribble, possibly getting an open 3, but it’s still a very good play to start the half.
Unfortunately, next possession up and we have another situation where Harden and Cousins are occupying the same position on the perimeter despite having a 2v1 situation. Cousins even sets a screen for Harden, which is cute, but he will soon realise completely unnecessary as Harden isn’t moving.
I noticed in the 2nd half that Silas had one of Harden or Wall in the corner at lot more, which kind of forces them to be doing something. They are at least always in a position which is genuinely stretching the defense. You can’t back off all the way to the halfcourt line if you are in the corner. And this is a play which again worked really well right up until the end, a reminder that in the preseason the process can be more important than the result. Harden runs the empty side pick n roll, a favourite of him with Cousins – although Cousins is a popper in this case. And there are so many very good options here once Harden starts his drive. He can obviously try to go to the rim and try to get contact or put up the floater. Or if you look at the weakside PJ Tucker sets a screen trying to free up Wall in the corner. But Harden takes the ball back out because he has an extremely favourable isolation matchup with LaMarcus Aldridge, who even Eric Gordon was able to absolutely torch earlier in the game.
Last year this is a pull up 3 or a drive every single time, but with Cousins he has the 2nd mismatch which usually comes from a switch, and he tries the over the top pass with Cousins almost spinning off of Murray in the post, but the referee calls the foul. We’ve seen Harden get lots of mismatches over the years, but never this second part – because Houston was either playing small or had Capela who couldn’t do much with the ball in the post. Even after, once Boogie had caught it, look how open Tucker and Wall were in the corner. That’s 5 potential plays out of one set.
Here’s another play where the offensive alignment gets a wide-open shot, as the Spurs drop coverage looked suicidal against Houston’s 5-out offense. Gordon and Cousins run a two-man action and Cousins is left on the perimeter – mostly because of Aldridge’s positioning but also because Harden on the perimeter and Wall in the corner are such threats that their defenders can’t help off of them.
And here’s another play where Harden and Wall at least start the action together. Harden sets a guard-guard screen, John Wall attacks and kicks out to Harden, who then goes into isoball and nails the 3-point shot. We’re still going to get a lot of Harden isolations, because they are extremely efficient, but you can also start plays involving more people and see if you can get other looks. Afterwards, you can ‘revert’ to isoball as a secondary look, which might be a happy medium to keep the other players happier and more involved.
Harden and Wall also pushed the pace a lot more in the 2nd half, going from a pace of 105.5 to 113.7. Both players got out in transition off-ball and pushed the ball up, whether on a fastbreak or off a made basket.
Looking at all these 2nd half clips, I hope you will agree it was a lot more optimistic for how these two players can mesh together. You can mitigate some of their worst off-ball habits by calling plays that have them getting into actions together early in the shot clock, and at least position them around the court so that even without moving they warp the defense and help the offense. Harden can stand in the corner with his hands on his knees or drinking a Gatorade, and it would still be more impactful than being at the halfcourt line every time someone else is handling the ball. As bad as it looked early on, kudos to Harden, Wall and Stephen Silas for coming out in the 2nd half and making the adjustments needed. They didn‘t always pay off, but that's not what the preseason is for. I'm excited to see more.