James Harden received a lot of flak last season for the lack of effort he gave on the defensive end of the court, and for good reason: he was a walking disaster.
Based on ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus, Harden ranked 75th (out of 80) amongst shooting guards with a defensive rating of -2.84. On the contrary, his offensive offensive rating of +5.97 ranked fifth in the entire NBA, behind only LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Chris Paul and Stephen Curry, making for the most polarizing RPM in the league. However, the eye test does more than any statistic can in showing how much of a detriment he was to the Houston Rockets on the defensive end. After all, an 11-minute highlight reel has been made of most of his blown coverages from this past season, and said video has received over one million views.
It’s not that anyone expects Harden to be an elite defender. Because of the load he carries offensively for the Houston Rockets each and every night, it would be unreasonable to expect him to dominate both ends of the court. (Unless, of course, he really does think he’s the best basketball player in the world. In which case, what?) After all, very few players in the history of the NBA are capable of pulling that off, and Harden is simply not wired like that.
On the other hand, he is one of the elite offensive talents the league has to offer, and the Rockets desperately need his production on that side of the ball. Also, the way in which Harden plays is bound to have some sort of physical impact on his body. He’s always looking for contact, which he parlays into an unbelievable free throw rate (0.529 free throws per field goal attempt), but it’s exhausting taking dozens of hits every game. It might just boil down to him not having the conditioning to carry the team offensively as he does and go all out on defensive, which is one of the reasons why they added Dwight Howard, picked up Patrick Beverley and signed Trevor Ariza — all are defensive-minded players and all are capable of picking up the defensive slack.
The issue doesn’t lie in Harden lacking the skills to be a plus defender, though. If that was the case, very few would complain. The problem is he doesn’t look like he gives a damn on defense. Many times last season, Harden would simply give up once his man drove by him, lazily reach around to try and poke the ball away, fall asleep and lose sight of his man cutting backdoor, not be in the correct help position, and half-ass closeouts on shooters, all culminating in him throwing his hands up in the air in a are-you-guys-kidding-me kind of way. It forced the rest of his teammates to cover him, which threw rotations out of whack and led to easy baskets.
It’s a big problem for the Rockets, and for them to be true title contenders Harden will have to give more on the defensive end. It’s that simple. After all, in their first round series against the Portland Trail Blazers, the average margin of victory was only 4.6 points per game, meaning the difference between winning and losing was merely a couple of possessions.
Had Harden been more dialled in, perhaps it wouldn’t have turned out as it did.
Harden’s defense hasn’t always been a big issue. When he first came into the league, he still struggled defensively, sure, but for different reasons. As is the case with most young players, adjusting to the NBA doesn’t happen over the course of one season. It is, after all, a completely different ballgame from the NCAA. In Harden’s case, he has always lacked lateral quickness, which prevents him from being able to stick with players on drives to the basket, but his slight frame made it easy for bigger two-guards to create space against him.
Nevertheless, he did, at the very least, try at that end of the court — a stark difference from what we saw this past season. He did a good job of using his body to cut of lanes to the basket, resulting in opponents taking tougher shots. He wasn’t always in the right help position, either, but he hustled out to contest outside jumpers. He was also more engaged, showcased by him getting down low in a defensive stance instead of just standing upright.
Harden did get better over his last few seasons with the Thunder, too. In the 2012 playoffs, he played a big role in slowing down Kobe Bryant, which helped the Thunder dismantle the L.A. Lakers in five games in the Western Conference Semifinals. Kobe averaged 31.2 points in that series, but did so on 25.8 shot attempts. More importantly, over the first three games, he averaged 25.3 points on only 36.8 percent shooting from the floor.
All in all, Harden’s ability to tussle with him in the post and not bite on his pump-fakes forced Kobe into settling for a lot of tough shots.
Finally, the numbers indicate that he was, indeed, a plus defender for the Thunder back in the day. Although on/off numbers aren’t the be-all and end-all in proving someone’s value, it’s hard to ignore that the team was better defensively with Harden on the court. Again, that’s not to say that he was one of the team’s best defenders, because he wasn’t. (The fact that the Rockets’ defensive rating was just the same with him on the court and off the court last season should prove that.) It’s simply another way of showing that, when combined with the videos above, he did have a positive impact on the defensive end at one point in his career, even if it was only small.
Reminder: The lower the defensive rating, the better.
It’s a tough balance when it comes to Harden and defense, because the Rockets desperately need him to be the Swiss Army Knife that he is offensively. With Chandler Parsons no longer on the team, there aren’t many on the roster who are capable of routinely creating their own shot, as well as shots for others. However, despite that, there’s no excuse for his sieve-like defense, especially since he’s proven before that he can give a team good minutes on that end of the court. What it boils down to is effort, and there’s no reason he can’t step it up a notch defensively.
With Team USA, Harden is focused on being a force defensively, and reports have come out singing his praises, claiming that he has emerged as a leader. After last season’s dumpster fire, it sounds crazy that he’s holding his own on the defensive end of the floor, but with how he competed as a member of the Thunder in mind, it’s easy to see he could be giving them positive minutes, there.
Obviously, that’s the main reason why it’s so frustrating to see Harden roll over on his back with the Houston Rockets. Of course, being on a team that is stacked with talent as Team USA is means that he doesn’t have to do as much offensively, yet if his production falls a little next season as a result of him working harder defensively — as he has shown he can — it’s unlikely that people will complain.
All statistics gathered from Synergy Sports, Basketball Reference and NBA.com.