Harden’s Step-back

Team sports are to a large extent about the creation, or reduction, of space and time. While the offence tries to find space and time to score, the defence is trying to shut these dimensions down. Therefor, in theory, each offensive act is countered by a defensive act, making it impossible for either side to score. In reality however, things like coincidence, mistakes, and especially the creativity of the players, breaks theory down.

One such very creative spacemaker is basketballer James Harden of the Brooklyn Nets. And one such creative space & time-making move, perfected by Harden, is the step-back. It creates opportunity to score because it does exactly what its name suggests: it takes a step back. It starts with an offensive player quickly moving forward, drawing in a defender, and then suddenly decelerating and stepping back, causing the defender, who is still in a forward motion, to lose contact, allowing the attacker to fire of a shot. Considering step-backs happen on the move against locked-in defenders, you’d think it would be a relatively wasteful shot type. Yet the step-back actually produces a higher conversion rate than the average attempt. According to B/R Insights, NBA players shot 48.9 percent on step-backs in 2015-16 and 45.1 percent on every other shot.

James Harden’s (and Stephen Curry’s) step-backs have inspired the 5 & 1 Step-back choreography introduced by The Incredible Shrinking Man to physically define the 20% space it feels we need for positive change.

Illustration by the visualiser of space Mike Sudal