The viciousness of a signature move is in its predictability. Nothing is more demoralizing for a defender than getting suckered by something they've watched on film a hundred times.
The other key component is indivisibility from a particular player. Almost every scorer worth his salt has a step-back jumper these days, but the shot belongs to James Harden.
There's no better place to start.
James Harden's Step-back Three
Built on the threat of his drive and amplified by Harden's unparalleled mastery of the late gather, his step-back three was the definitive shot of the 2018-19 season. It was also the culmination of a process that started several years ago.
In 2013-14, Harden averaged 10.5 drives per game. That figure climbed steadily after that—to 13.9 in 2014-15, 14.5 in 2015-16 and 17.1 in 2016-17 and 2017-18. During Harden's first six seasons with the Houston Rockets, he led the league in total free-throw attempts five times. If a defender wasn't on his heels when checking Harden, he was already beaten.
His strength, quickness and ability to manipulate contact made him the most dangerous penetrator in the NBA. As defenders got wise to his tactics and gradually made head-down drives less effective, Harden countered. He capitalized on opponents who were terrified of his drives toward the rim and made himself even more dangerous when moving away from it.
When a player's pet move forces opponents to abandon perhaps the most basic defensive principle in the sport—stay between your man and the basket—you know he's doing something special.
Harden's step-back three isn't one shot. It's several. He can hit it moving left, right, diagonally and straight backward. The roots of its effectiveness are in his late gather, the same skill that made so many of those drives in his earlier days seem like travels (even when they weren't).
It's true Harden's moves occasionally cross into illegal territory, but those screaming about traveling on every shot aren't seeing the genius of his timing.
A final indicator of the desperation Harden's signature move provokes: He's already the all-time leader in fouls drawn on three-point attempts (by a mile), according to a deep dive ESPN's Kirk Goldsberry did earlier this year. Defenders, once on their heels and unable to stop Harden, are now failing even when they're lunging toward him.
There's just no winning against the league's greatest signature move.
Giannis Antetokounmpo's Eurostep Dunk
The overwhelming nature of Antetokounmpo's physical gifts—extreme length, obscene strength and alarming dexterity for a player his size—allows him to drop jaws in a variety of ways. But the move that best encapsulates everything that makes the reigning MVP so hard to handle shows up in his Eurostep dunks.
They require speed, precision footwork, deception and, in the end, staggering power. Despite loping strides that cover huge swaths of the court, Antetokounmpo can still accelerate in a blink. This gets his defender backpedaling and renders proper positioning less effective. The side-to-side action of Antetokounmpo's final two steps has a destabilizing effect.
Alex Len was right in front of Antetokounmpo the entire time in the above clip, and it didn't matter. Giannis forced a retreat and refused to accept surrender.
Plenty of players can sidestep defenders, but most wind up finishing with a wrong-foot layup. Antetokounmpo is one of just a few who can finish with wrong-foot dunks, which are basically new territory in the NBA. The audacity of bringing the ball right back into the defender's face with a left-foot, right-hand spike just adds to the authority of the play.
Antetokounmpo doesn't always need velocity and change of direction to soften opponents before that hammer squashes them flat. He's strong enough to operate with far less subtlety. Just ask Ben Simmons.
Giannis can bully big men and spin past guards. He can cover the floor in just a few elongated steps. He can rise above or skirt around defenders of all shapes and sizes. But nothing presents the full package of his dominant skills better than his Eurostep jams.
LaMarcus Aldridge's Turnaround Jumper
The post-up technician is in danger of extinction these days, but LaMarcus Aldridge is doing what he can to prolong the species' survival.
Aldridge loves the left side of the floor, and he's long been gifted at exploiting opponents' tendencies to deny big men a path to the middle of the lane on post-ups. It makes sense; you don't want a right-handed player effectively driving middle with his strong hand.
After a few probing bumps to find his balance (and shake the defender's), Aldridge can quickly shimmy toward his left shoulder before reversing course and turning over his right toward the baseline. With a high release and a little backward body lean, he can get his favorite shot off against the rangiest big men:
Anyone without the requisite length has no chance to bother his feathery, all-wrist release:
Aldridge led the league with 7.0 post-ups per game this past season. Among players who employed that old-school tactic at least 2.5 times per game, only Jonas Valanciunas and Joel Embiid scored more efficiently. Neither operated as far from the bucket as Aldridge, though. His post-ups frequently yielded mid-range jumpers, another throwback element the veteran big man is keeping alive.
Effectiveness is an important part of a signature move, but the real defining feature is how inextricably a certain motion or shot type is tied to a player's identity. When you think of Aldridge, you imagine him shooting that trusty right-shoulder turnaround before anything else.
It's just who he is.
Joel Embiid's Pump Fake
Harden's step-back exploits the rules and opponents' logical fear of a drive. Antetokounmpo's speed and strength force defenders into weakened positions. Aldridge's jumper leverages length and touch. There's a logic to those moves that doesn't apply to Embiid's long-range feints, which makes their continued effectiveness even more impressive.
Embiid is a career 31.5 percent shooter from deep. He is considerably more accurate when defenders inexplicably freak out and leap at his fakes from beyond the arc, allowing him a running start toward the cup.
Even Embiid doesn't understand why opponents keep doing the math wrong. Given his awesome power and skill inside, you'd think opponents would view an Embiid three-point attempt as a defensive win. And yet there's no end to the clips of frantic charges toward his slow-mo deception.
"I shoot 30 percent from three, but guys still jump when I shot fake," Embiid told reporters in January. "I don't know why, especially because I say that I hate shooting threes."
If Embiid becomes a league-average three-point shooter, guys will be jumping into the stands on every fake. That'll be bad news for rims everywhere.
Chris Paul's Snake Dribble
If you see a big man drop in pick-and-roll coverage against Chris Paul, you already know what's coming. CP3 is hard-wired to cross back underneath his trailing defender toward the foul line, usually the right elbow, before uncorking his patented lean-back mid-ranger.
If the guard trailing Paul manages to reestablish contact after shedding the screen, it gives Paul the chance to do his other favorite thing: trap his man on his back by slowing down before stopping short and inducing a shooting foul. It's diabolical.
Rajon Rondo's Behind-the-Back Fake
He'll be doing this when he's 50.
Stephen Curry's Relocation Three
Guarding Stephen Curry is a massive challenge, which is why defenders have to fight the natural tendency to relax when he gives up the ball. That's exactly when he's most dangerous.
Blink, breathe or otherwise lose focus after Curry relinquishes possession, and it's all over. He materializes someplace else, usually in the corner, ready to sink a trey.
ESPN's Howard Bryant joins Bleacher Report's Full 48 podcast with Howard Beck to discuss big-picture questions facing the NBA's future.