The Long Two: James Harden’s struggles and Evan Mobley’s defense

Brooklyn Nets, Cleveland Cavaliers, NBA

James Harden hasn’t been himself to start the new season, but how concerned should the Nets be about their star’s struggles?

When the Nets acquired James Harden last season, they hit the ground running. Integrating the ball-dominant Harden into an offense that already featured Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving required virtually no time at all (though it would take a while before the three actually shared the floor); Harden’s pick-and-roll playmaking mixed brilliantly with Irving’s on-ball artistry and Durant’s, well, everything, and the Nets steamrolled the rest of the NBA whenever two of those three shared the floor.

That dominance hasn’t yet carried into the new season. The 5-3 Nets rank just 13th in offensive efficiency through eight games — a far cry from the historic rate at which they scored last year. Durant looks every bit the superstar he was a year ago, but new role players have struggled to get acclimated, Irving chose to step away from the team and, crucially, Harden hasn’t been the same offensive force. The three-time scoring champion is averaging under 20 points per game on below-average efficiency and turning the ball over on over 18 percent of his possessions. Even more surprisingly, the Nets’ offense has been significantly worse with him on the floor.

James Harden’s problems are about more than just fouls

The Nets don’t need to sound the alarm just yet. Those numbers, along with almost every other statistic in the NBA right now, are the result of a tiny sample size and will eventually trend back toward expectations. But even with that disclaimer in mind, neither Harden nor the Nets have looked like themselves yet, and Harden’s struggles, in particular, are cause for at least some concern.

The former MVP has clearly suffered from the rule changes the NBA implemented over the offseason to curb disingenuous foul-drawing; his free-throw rate has plummeted to just 34 percent (he’s never finished a season under 41 before) and many of his drives to the basket have resulted in garish turnovers and missed shots:

While those kinds of plays are the most noticeable difference in Harden’s game, they aren’t the only cause of his early struggles. Not only is he not getting calls around the basket, but he also isn’t even getting to the basket on a regular basis. Harden has taken just 20 percent of his shots within four feet of the rim — by far the lowest mark of his career — and shot a baffling 45 percent on those looks. Both of those figures will improve as the season progresses, both because he’ll cut out some of his wasteful foul-seeking and because numbers that bad simply can’t sustain.

Still, there’s merit to the idea that Harden isn’t the interior finisher he used to be. Last season Harden scored 10.3 points per game on drives — the seventh-most in the NBA. This year, that number has dropped to five, placing him behind the likes of Franz Wagner, Josh Giddey and R.J. Barrett. His pick-and-roll possessions have generated just 0.72 points per play, and most ventures into the paint have ended poorly. A slightly slower first step prevents him from getting the same kind of separation on his defender, and he’s routinely left shots short at the rim:

That’s shifted a larger share of Harden’s shots beyond the 3-point line, where he’s been a much more efficient scorer. He’s drilled 43 percent of his pull-up 3s to date, including his usual diet of difficult stepbacks; but while those have been efficient looks for Harden, an offense built around that kind of difficult shot-making has struggled to score consistently.

When he played in Houston, it was in the team’s best interest to let Harden slow the game down, pick out a defender and attack in isolation with as many dribbles as he desired. But the Nets have more scoring and playmaking than those Rockets did, so one player chewing up the shot clock doesn’t provide as much of a boost. To his credit, Harden has held the ball for less time, on average, this season than he did a year ago, and his stepback 3 remains a valuable weapon when used in moderation.

The problem is that he doesn’t look nearly as comfortable blending into an offense as he is controlling one, and the less effective he gets at the latter style, the more important the former becomes. Half of his shots this season have come from beyond the arc, and all but 10 of those 3s have come off the dribble. That he has missed seven of his 10 catch-and-shoot looks isn’t as concerning as his hesitance in taking them. At times, he’ll eschew spot-up looks to either isolate or drive into a more crowded lane:

Harden’s unwillingness (or inability) to make himself an off-ball weapon — either by shooting off the catch or moving without the ball — makes him far less valuable as a secondary option than a player of his skill level should be. When sharing the offense with a generational scorer who should have at least equal influence on the offense, that starts to become a problem. The less potent Harden becomes as a primary creator, the harder it gets to justify his dribble-heavy style, off-ball inactivity and poor defense.

Part of these struggles — as with any early-season trend — come down to random variance that will even out as the season goes along. It’s also possible the hamstring injury Harden suffered in June is still nagging at him, which would explain his diminished explosion of the bounce. But we’ve never seen these kinds of warning signs from Harden before, and as long as he isn’t himself and Irving remains out, the Nets’ margin for error on offense — once historically large — becomes increasingly thin.

Evan Mobley: Already a good defender!

It’s not often that a rookie steps into the NBA and provides immediate value on defense, let alone a 20-year-old being asked to help anchor his team. The awareness, technique and communication required of NBA big men is too much for most young players to grasp and often takes years to master.

Evan Mobley, however, is not most young players. Through his first nine professional games, Mobley has been one of the most polished rookies in his class, flashing clear passing vision, a workable mid-range jumper and, most importantly, an advanced feel as a help defender.

It’s not just Mobley’s 7-foot-4 wingspan and fluid athleticism that makes him one of the best 20-year-old defenders in recent memory, it’s the way he processes the action in front of him and reacts to it in real-time. Where many bigs struggle to make sense of all the rapidly moving parts around them, Mobley is well aware of his surroundings, even comfortable in them.

That starts with keen awareness and positioning away from the ball, where he’s already adept at shading toward cutters, showing while teammates recover back to the ball and digging down on drives. At 7-feet tall with an expansive reach, simply being in the right place at the right time is usually enough to have an impact:

That length, discipline and feel make Mobley a solid defender in drop pick-and-roll coverage, able to contain the ball-handler while staying in position to recover back to the roll man:

The rookie has posted above-average block and steal rates so far, yet fouls on less than three percent of Cleveland’s defensive possessions — a rather low number for someone with that level of defensive activity. His excellent hand-eye coordination allows him to target the ball with pinpoint accuracy instead of recklessly flailing for blocks, and Mobley will surprise would-be scorers by rotating into the paint when their backs are turned, or simply swiping the ball mid-dribble:

Though it’s still too early to place much weight in these kinds of numbers, the Cavaliers have allowed fewer shots and a lower conversion rate at the rim with Mobley on the floor, and only two players in the NBA have challenged more shots within six feet of the basket this season.

Still, Mobley still has strides to take if he’s going to become the foundation of an elite defense. His lateral mobility is good, but not amazing, which makes him slightly less versatile than some of the league’s best combo big men. His upright stance and gangly movements make him susceptible to blow-bys, which teams have begun to exploit by making him defend in space:

Perhaps his most glaring weakness is on the defensive glass, where Mobley’s slender frame and high center of gravity keep him from outmuscling stronger centers for rebounds. Cleveland has grabbed less than 70 percent of opponents’ misses with Mobley on the floor, and backup units with him at center have been manhandled inside. These issues are all typical of first-year bigs trying to find their bearings in the NBA. Mobley is still well ahead of the curve and will improve as he fills out his frame and masters the nuances of help defense.

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