HOUSTON ROCKETS GUARD James Harden receives an inbounds pass in the left corner, where the reaction to the mere threat of the NBA’s trendiest shot descends into the absurd.
There are 54 seconds left before halftime in Game 3 of a 2019 first-round playoff series between the Rockets and the Utah Jazz. As has long been the custom when the ball comes to Harden — the human version of a 20-second timeout — the game grinds to a halt. Utah’s raucous crowd trains its collective eye on him. And for a moment, it goes as thousands of possessions have gone before it.
Harden’s defender, Jazz wing Royce O’Neale, arms wide and feet splayed in his defensive stance, crowds the 3-point line and the former MVP behind it. Two Jazz help defenders lurk along the baseline, just in case. If Harden wants to score, he has a choice: drive around O’Neale and into the teeth of the Jazz defense, or shoot over him.
Then, the absurdity. After a few brief seconds of pretense, O’Neale is suddenly no longer face-to-face with the NBA’s toughest individual assignment. O’Neale — a man who played in all 82 games last season, a man who presumably knows what he’s doing — slides around and behind Harden, O’Neale’s feet straddling the sideline. He is guarding the game’s most prolific scorer by standing out of bounds.
Most shocking of all, it works.
When Harden chooses not to drive, Ricky Rubio slides over to double-team him, forcing the ball out of Harden’s hands and, eventually, to then-teammate Chris Paul, who launches a 3 that’s blocked by a hedging Rudy Gobert. The scheme is extreme, if not illogical.
Why protect the 3 feet of 3-point territory between the arc and the sideline while giving Harden an unimpeded path forward? The answer: because Harden — like a significant portion of the league these days — prefers to go backward.
Over the past few years, the step-back 3 has become the defining shot of the NBA’s 3-point addiction. Its charge — selling a downhill drive to create space for a quick retreat — is simpler than its mastery. The two steps traditionally used to attack the basket are instead used to find space away from it.
And nobody employs it more than James Harden. In the 2019-20 regular season, Harden used some version of the step-back 3 on 39% of his overall shot attempts and 69% of his 3s, both tops in the league. He shot 37% on his 584 step-back-3 attempts, a total that dwarfed the 106 hoisted by Steph Curry to lead the league just five years ago.
Harden, by himself, attempted more step-back 3s during this regular season than any team in the NBA but his own. He nearly doubled the closest individual (Luka Doncic). His made step-backs from beyond the arc (214) would have placed him among the top 10 in 3s made overall.
But it’s not merely his own game that Harden is remaking. It’s the entirety of the league.
That the move has powered his individual success — an MVP and three scoring titles — has turned Harden into the NBA’s version of an Instagram influencer. In the period for which full-season Second Spectrum data is available, from 2013-14 to 2019-20, leaguewide per-game attempts of the step-back 3 increased 455%, during a time in which overall 3s were up 59%.
The evidence is everywhere — in high school workouts and Division III games; in the climactic shot of a Gatorade commercial; at a Lakers practice, where comedian Dave Chappelle gets a tutorial; in The Big 3, where Joe Johnson hit a game-winning, step-back 4-pointer; at Adidas, which sells Harden Stepback Shoes; on YouTube, where a 6-year-old mimics Harden in front of Harden; and, of course, in the NBA’s rulebook, where language added in 2019 strictly defines the “gather” — an attempt, some say, to keep Harden from turning his step-back 3 into a three-step step-back 3.
“A game-changer,” Harden says, rather grandiosely, when asked about the shot’s sphere of influence. “I’m here to inspire, whether it’s youth or my peers.” Or, as Harden told ESPN’s Tim MacMahon last year: “You know how [Jordan] has his fadeaway and Dirk has his one-leg and [Kareem Abdul-Jabbar] had the skyhook? I want my step-back to be one of those moves that lasts forever.”
At the rate the shot is being hoisted, Harden might well get his wish. But does that represent progress for NBA offenses — or is it actually, well, a step back?
IT BEGAN WITH a phone call. It was a summer day in the late 1970s, and legendary coach Pete Newell needed a body. Any body. More specifically, Newell needed a defender for NBA forward Kermit Washington, whom he was working out during the offseason. Ernie Vandeweghe, a Knicks swingman from the franchise’s early years, had been the Lakers’ team physician for seven seasons.
Vandeweghe and Newell were friends, and Newell thought Vandeweghe could help. So when Newell called Ernie in search of the body to body up against Washington, Ernie sent his son Kiki, at the time a forward at UCLA.
The one-on-one between Kiki Vandeweghe (who later altered the spelling of his family name to VanDeWeghe) and Kermit Washington was the start of Newell’s decadeslong camp for big men, which would eventually see the likes of Hakeem Olajuwon and Shaquille O’Neal on its courts.
More to the point, their workout would birth what would become — four decades later — the NBA’s hottest shot. VanDeWeghe was a skinny collegian and far slower than the 6-foot-8, 230-pound Washington. On their first day together, VanDeWeghe showed up to a nondescript gym at Rogers Park, less than 2 miles from The Forum in Inglewood, and soon realized that if he had any hope of getting his shot off against Washington, he’d need to try something new.
There, bodying up against Washington inside, VanDeWeghe, in desperation, began stepping back to shoot. “I couldn’t get my shot off,” VanDeWeghe says. “The first couple of times I did [the step-back], Newell said, ‘Hey, do that again. What was that move?'”
By his own admission, VanDeWeghe might not have invented the move. He recalls having seen it occasionally used by the Philadelphia 76ers‘ World B. Free, the flamboyant and famously free-shooting 6-2 guard who had learned the game on the Brooklyn playgrounds. “It was like, ‘Whoa!'” VanDeWeghe says. Free was quicker and jumped higher than Kiki ever would, but VanDeWeghe had filed it away. And for upward of three hours a day that summer, VanDeWeghe went one-on-one with Washington, honing the move that would ultimately come to define his career.
“It became known as the Kiki Move,” he says. For the rest of his college career, VanDeWeghe consistently employed his seminal step-back — and did the same through 13 seasons in the NBA, where he would become a two-time All-Star. He also remained with Newell’s camp for a quarter-century, as a player and then an instructor. And he taught the step-back to everyone who came through.
His work was not done. In 1999, VanDeWeghe landed a job as an assistant with the Dallas Mavericks under Don Nelson. Nelson hired him to work with Dirk Nowitzki, then heading into his second season, on his footwork. VanDeWeghe mentored the 7-footer, as well as guards Steve Nash and Michael Finley, on the step-back.
By 2000, he was also tasked with tutoring Wang Zhizhi, a rookie 7-footer from China whom the Mavs had selected in the second round. VanDeWeghe, of course, taught the Kiki Move to Wang, who was slow afoot and not particularly keen on interior play. VanDeWeghe drilled Wang on footwork, preaching the importance of timing and balance.
Still, when Wang attempted a step-back 3 for the first time, Nelson glared at VanDeWeghe.
“I’m going to fire you,” Nelson said. “Why are you teaching 7-footers a step-back 3?”
“Because you can’t guard him,” VanDeWeghe responded.
It was a revelation that would take the NBA two decades to fully own.
“IT’S OUR FAULT, really,” says Wizards guard Bradley Beal. “Kids, and everyone else, are going to watch guys like James and myself doing the step-back. It’s a tough move.”
After a preseason win over the Knicks, Beal is stuffed back into a corner of the visitors locker room at Madison Square Garden. He’s on his way out, backpack slung over his shoulders, hat backward and unfastened, but he’s got time to talk about his favorite move, on which he shot 39% on 72 attempts last season. (He’d go on to shoot 32% on 65 attempts this season.)
Is it a good move? Beal is asked. “It depends on who’s taking it.”
In today’s NBA, though, everyone is.
Harden says he wants to be defined by it. Damian Lillard won a 2019 first-round series with it. (Paul George, the defender, later called it a bad shot — which did little to change the fact that it had gone in.) Luka Doncic has made it his go-to move — most recently hitting a high-arching 27-foot buzzer-beater in Game 4 of the Mavericks’ first-round series against the Clippers. Even those who don’t shoot it are planning to. “When the time is right, I’ll get to show that,” says Rockets guard Ben McLemore. (Promising news on that front: Though McLemore attempted just 21 step-back 3s this season, he made 13 of them, a 61.9% success rate that would’ve led the NBA if he qualified.)
For the players in the 2019 draft class, the move is as vital as a pair of shorts — you don’t step on the court without one. No. 3 overall pick RJ Barrett of the Knicks? He says he’s got one. Pelicans center Jaxson Hayes, the No. 8 pick, says, “It’s definitely something I’ve been working on.” Says Bulls rookie guard Coby White, “A lot of people say it’s my go-to move. You can’t guard it.”
Then there’s top pick Zion Williamson, whose shooting form has been doubted and dissected. Built like a defensive end, Williamson dominates when driving to the basket. He wouldn’t dare move away from that basket on purpose, would he? Williamson smiles. “I’ve been practicing it,” he says.
Last summer, according to skills coach Drew Hanlen, Jayson Tatum — who shot 32.5% on 40 step-back-3 attempts in 2018-19 — worked tirelessly on the move. His first one of the season came in the final seconds of the third quarter of an Oct. 30 game against the Bucks. That 27-footer earned him a courtside high-five from Celtics legend Paul Pierce, who has, for his part, called himself the move’s pioneer. (These days, everyone wants credit for inventing the step-back 3.) And it continued until February, a month in which Tatum hit 19 (five more than his total from all of last season) of his 61 made step-back 3s. (He improved to an impressive 41% on step-back 3s in 2019-20.)
Consider the 2019-20 leaders in attempted step-back 3s: There’s young (Doncic, in his second season, attempted 321, second in the league) and old (in his 17th season, LeBron James hoisted 115, good for fifth). There’s tall (Tatum, at 6-8, jacked up 148, the third most) and short (6-1 Trae Young was seventh with 96).
There are those who shouldn’t take them but do: Buddy Hield, despite making only 33.7%, attempted 95 step-back 3s this season. CJ McCollum was even worse, shooting 33.3% on 90 attempts. Despite having career years, Spencer Dinwiddie (62 attempts) and Devonte’ Graham (64 attempts) shot 25.8% and 26.6%, respectively.
TrueHoop analyst David Thorpe doesn’t need to see such shots to know how he feels about them. “I can just tell you I hate it,” he says. “Your momentum is going opposite where the ball needs to go. I’ve been teaching high school kids since ’87, and I’ve been teaching pros since ’99, and I’ve been teaching NBA players since 2003. I’ve not yet been teaching the direct step-back 3. I haven’t had a player that I thought could get it right.”
Says Warriors assistant coach Bruce Fraser: “I worry about the kids. I’m not trying to be the keeper of the pure world of basketball, but these are really difficult shots from really difficult range. Kids need to stop. There’s so much you can work on with a normal shot before you start adding these elements.”
There are, of course, exceptions, Thorpe says — like Harden, whose step-back 3 he calls the most efficient shot since Kareem’s skyhook: “[Harden] knows what he’s doing.”
Indeed, while Harden averaged 1.12 points per shot on his step-back 3s this season, good for ninth in the NBA, it’s his penchant for drawing fouls (he’s led the NBA in free throw attempts the past six seasons) that ESPN’s Kirk Goldsberry says separates him. The move is worth more than 3.0 points per shot — roughly three times the average field goal — when Harden steps back, fires a 3 and gets hacked.
The point is clear: When wielded by Harden, the step-back is undeniably a step forward. But what about for everyone else?
In the 2019-20 regular season, all shots in the NBA were worth, on average, 1.08 points — roughly the same as all 3-pointers. Step-back 3s? Those were worth 1.04. Not great. And if you remove all of Harden’s attempted step-back 3s on the season (and his 1.12 points per shot), that figure falls to 1.03 points.
In other words, if NBA players (save for Harden) took step-back 3s all game, their teams would score about five points fewer per game.
The step-back 3 is sexy. The step-back 3 is ubiquitous.
The step-back 3 is not, in fact, a great shot.
THE WOOD-PANELED stalls in Houston’s expansive locker room are arranged in the shape of a horseshoe facing a large projector screen. After an October preseason game against the Spurs, a few Rockets players sit on folding chairs and are asked why the step-back 3 is the NBA’s shot du jour.
“This guy,” McLemore says.
He points to Harden.
Across the room, a media horde engulfs the Rockets guard, his bearded stare visible through a forest of extended iPhones. After dropping 40 on San Antonio, Harden is still the show.
This season, Harden averaged 34.3 points per game. And he did so while taking those 584 step-back 3s, 263 more than Doncic, his closest competitor. Opposing coaches shake their heads, then send double-teams when he’s barely over half court. Nothing has worked.
Consider an early-December game against the helpless and hapless Cavaliers, who take turns trying to slow Harden down.
After a 17-2 run to start the fourth puts Cleveland up 99-90, Harden, already with 37 points, responds. He holds the ball in front of Jordan Clarkson on the left wing before taking one dribble toward midcourt and an abrupt between-the-legs bounce to change direction. Two hard dribbles put Clarkson on his heels. Clarkson skids inside the arc as Harden steps back behind it and nails a 3 with 7:15 remaining.
Nearly a minute later, Harden looks straight at rookie Kevin Porter Jr. before taking two quick hops back in front of Cleveland’s bench. Porter’s shoulders drop as the ball goes through the net.
Two minutes after that, Matthew Dellavedova puts his body on Harden at the top of the arc. The Beard uses him as leverage to pogo back and make a 29-footer — Harden’s lefty follow-through slamming Dellavedova’s head for good measure.
At 2:24: Harden, again guarded by Porter and then double-teamed by Collin Sexton, gives the ball up to McLemore before getting it back, then hopping back and to the right of Porter to hit a 27-footer.
Harden finishes with 55 points on 10 3s. Nine of them are step-backs. The Rockets win 116-110.
Two days later, he’s at it again in Orlando, scoring 54 while nailing 10 from behind the arc. Once again, nine of those 10 are step-backs — the exclamation point coming when Harden steals the ball from Evan Fournier, glides the other way and toe-taps away from two defenders to nail his last step-back trey with 4:15 left. Houston wins 130-107.
It is easy to see why the rest of the league is smitten. This season, step-back-3 attempts per game (6.0) were up 36% from the 4.4 taken in 2018-19, a tally that itself was a 76% increase over the prior season’s 2.5, which was a 47% increase over the prior season’s 1.7.
But then there’s this: Despite Lillard’s and Doncic’s viral heroics, according to ESPN Stats & Information data, NBA players were a mere 2-of-20 on game-tying or go-ahead step-back 3s in the final 10 seconds of games this regular season.
There is, perhaps, an explanation for that.
On Christmas Day, in the fourth of the day’s five games, the Clippers lead the Lakers by three in the final seconds. LeBron James has the ball, and after a series of pick-and-roll switches, he faces up against Clippers guard Patrick Beverley on the right wing.
James dribbles once, readying himself to launch backward. As he does so, rising for a potential game-tying step-back 3, Beverley lies in wait. With his left hand, Beverley casually strips the ball from James, sealing the win for the Clippers.
Nine days later, in the waning seconds of an Eastern Conference tilt, slippery Hawks point guard Trae Young has a mismatch on Celtics big Daniel Theis. With Atlanta down by two, Young feigns a drive and pulls back; Theis plods along in lockstep, like a dance-team member with the routine down cold. He swats Young’s shot as the horn sounds.
To watch those plays is to sense a trend: Beverley and Theis knew exactly what was coming. The counter, it seems, has become the primary option. And that has changed the geometry of the game.
In search of space, shooters are stepping back. In search of a response, the defenders are stepping out. It’s a two-step dance. A retreat that’s not a surrender.
But as defenses continue to adjust, will players continue to step back even farther?
Says Beal, eyes wide, “I wouldn’t be surprised by anything.”