The evolution of the NBA’s most unguardable moves

    Kirk Goldsberry (@kirkgoldsberry) is a professor and an NBA analyst for ESPN.

If there’s one thing that separates NBA superstars from every other pro basketball player, it’s their abilities to create their own buckets. An elite group of players has the ability to take advantage of any sliver of space or the slightest opening to the rim — scoring in ways that leave defenses completely helpless.

The most deflating of these plays come on three types of spectacular moves, all unassisted and all unstoppable in the right hands: the step-back, the iso dunk and the deep pull-up 3. The best in the game rely on these moves when they need a bucket and want to make sure there’s nothing you can do about it. In a way, they’re perfect reflections of the modern game. But they’re also deeply rooted in their own important basketball lineages.

Here is the evolution of the most unguardable moves in the NBA.

The step-back

Let’s start with the go-to move for the NBA’s three-time defending scoring champion. James Harden has leveraged his amazing ability to create his own 3-point shots off the bounce for years now. He hunts and pecks with endless dribbles — rocking his body, threatening a dribble-drive. As soon as he notices his defender is leaning just a hair the wrong way, he pulls his body back, gathers up his dribble and fires.

The numbers are startling. Over the past six seasons, Harden has attempted a staggering 1,988 step-back 3s. Nobody else in the league has tried more than 800.

While Harden is the current master of this emerging technique, he is by no means the first jump shooter to create his own space. The league’s best scorers have been doing that for decades. Old-school icons such as Pete Maravich and Larry Bird proved jump-shooters could become elite scorers, but one legend took it to another level. Even if Michael Jordan never attempted a step-back 3, he deserves credit for an integral part of the move.

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