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Travel or No Travel: James Harden's Step Back From Controversy

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Houston Rockets Media Day
Houston Rockets Media Day


As basketball returns for the 2018-19 NBA regular season, fans all around the world are excited and hyped up to watch some of the greatest athletes around the world, showcasing their skills, passion and pure basketball talent on the center stage of world basketball. The pre-season has given us a taste for things to come up with some really impactful plays from players and teams while also giving us a good look at how this year's fresh rookies perform along with the league all-stars and veterans. But one particular play from the reigning MVP had the fans, referees, players, and coaches scratching their heads in confusion. But before we get way too ahead of ourselves, we need to be up to speed with how today's basketball differs a great deal from the Bill Russel-Wilt Chamberlain, Bird-Magic, Jordan and the Kobe era.

The Golden State Warriors have absolutely dominated the league for the last few years. They've been champions for consecutive seasons with a roster boasting of all-stars with the likes of arguably the greatest shooting point guard of all time- Stephen Curry, One of the most dominant scorers in NBA history- Kevin Durant, 2016 Three Point contest champion- Klay Thompson and a former Defensive Player of the Year- Draymond Green. This year the Warriors also acquired an all-star who is one of the most versatile bigs in the league right now- DeMarcus Cousins. Though the Warriors are a team with strong fundamentals when it comes to rebounds, defense, pick and rolls, playmaking and passing, their forte, however, has always been scoring and more specifically, with the aid of the leagues best scorers in the team, perimeter scoring. And in doing this they have brought a massive tide of change in the way basketball players play today, at least so in my opinion. You might have seen countless articles online about how today's basketball is "positionless" and how you don't need to be at least above 6'8" to make it big in basketball. I mean look at Stephen Curry, Kyrie Irving, Chris Paul, Isaiah Thomas and Russel Westbrook, each of them has individual skill sets that have made a huge impact on their teams and games and none of them are taller than 6'3". So what changed? How did basketball transition from the big man's game to the elite, agile and shifty sharpshooters' game? Well, it all started with the introduction of the Three-Point Line back in 1979 which most basketball fanatics remember as Magic Johnson's and Larry Bird's rookie season but would slowly make its impact into the game much later on. It had the potential to change the dynamic of the game, players could now end games with clutch buzzer beaters and shorter players didn't always have to go through contact for a risky finish for just 2 points. Over the years' players ranging from all sizes began implementing 3 point shooting into their game and now it has come to a point where you cannot be a good basketball player unless you have a decent 3pt. shooting percentage, no matter how many blocks, rebounds or steals you're getting for the team. Now shooting from the regulation 3 point distance is not easy, it's even harder during a game when the defense is concentrating on the ball holder and so basketball players who play in competitive leagues practice drills and moves to separate and create space from defense while at the same time, improving and maintaining their three-point accuracy. One such move is the step back jumper that Houston Rockets' shooting guard James Harden is well known for.

Being a college level basketball player myself, me and my teammates like to practice fancy moves during our casual on court practices. It was one day when me and our starting shooting guard senior got into a discussion of whether James Harden's step back against his matchup from the Shanghai Sharks pre-season game was a travel or not. While both of us strongly felt it was a travel, on deeper analysis and discussion, our belief didn't feel as strong. So I got back home and being the crazy basketball fanatic I am, did some research and watched countless offensive highlights of Harden and the breakdowns of them. Turns out we were wrong, according to the rules of the NBA, Harden's step backs are not travels. But I still wasn't convinced that the step back gathers jumper he pulled in the pre-season game was not a travel. So I dug deeper into the rabbit hole and took a good look into the rules of the NBA. And my mind was blown! I have been playing basketball since the young age of nine, and all this time I didn't know one simple flaw in the travel rule. Now to label it as a flaw would be a bit too much, a loop-hole perhaps? Nevertheless, a good majority of people are offended by Harden's signature step back and think it's a blatant disrespect and disregard to the rules of basketball. Some coaches strongly refrain from teaching it to athletes since it is too unconventional and non-fundamental. But it's human nature to label something that we don't understand as negative. What many don't know is that there is a "Zeroth Step" rule, and it's not just for the NBA, it's universal because travel rules are same universally. It says that when the ball is in motion and or is being gathered by the attacker, step/steps do not count under the 1-2 step rule till the ball is caught with both hands after the gathering move. And we knowingly or unknowingly use this loophole everytime we go for a basic textbook layup. It's impossible to time your feet landing exactly at the moment you gather the ball before the 2 step layup. Hence we all take at least one step before the 2 step layup rhythm that all basketball players are familiar with. That step is the "Zeroth Step". Imagine what would happen if this rule didn't exist, all layups would just be plain travels and basketball wouldn't be very fun anymore.

Another player who has used this rule to his advantage before Harden is Jamal Crawford, well known for his "Shake n Bake" finishes. Essentially he does what harden does, but instead of a jumper, he transitions his footwork to a layup. He does a simple crossover, gathers the ball by wrapping it around his body while simultaneously stepping away from his defender, then he lands on one foot, transitions to another and goes for the layup. It's the same exact mechanism of Harden's step back, only just a tad faster. So yes this move is a 100% legal. Don't take my word for it, take the word of the NBA Referees as they have tweeted and I quote;

The offensive player gathers the ball, and flips it from his left hand to right foot as his pivot foot. He then is allowed 2 steps which he takes as a lateral 1-2 step. It's a legal play.

And that is how a single player questioned the basketball knowledge of players, coaches, officials, and fans all around the globe. This just goes to show how intricately James Harden and other athletes in the NBA study the game and how productive they can be while developing countermeasures for rules. Basketball constantly evolves even to this day. One moment you see a superstar perform exceptionally well, only to be surpassed by a fresh rookie. Because basketball is more than just a game. Way more than just a game.

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