James Harden is really good at basketball. It just so happens that he has a rather strong distaste for defense, something that has tarnished his reputation and led to him being constantly bombarded by hate and Vines. And not the good Vines like the ones we see of Russell Westbrook tearing down a rebound and breaking away for a dunk in seven seconds, but the embarrassing Vines that show Harden not showing up whatsoever on defense.
Since arriving in Houston in 2012, Harden has taken off from sixth man to superstar. The offense has been there in waves. It was no struggle for him to leap straight to 25.9 points per game in his first season (an All-NBA Third-Team season at that), and he’s since improved his play as a passer and upped his constant free throw trips to elevate his impact even more.
Last season, Harden joined Oscar Robertson, LeBron James and Michael Jordan as the only players in NBA history to average at least 29 points, six rebounds and seven assists per game in a season. As far as offensive impact and all-around production goes, you can’t be in better company than that. And with 29 points, 6.1 rebounds and 7.5 assists a night in 2015-16, a stat line somewhat underappreciated because of his defense, Harden put himself in that small, elite statistical group.
Yet, that’s not the whole picture with Harden. Rare, all-around offensive prowess aside, it’s the defense that people often focus on.
His effort improved in 2014-15, and he lessened the critique by providing a little more intensity for his Rockets at that end of the floor. Then last season happened, and Harden was at the forefront of chemistry issues with Dwight Howard and an overall lackluster stigma that filled Houston.
The defensive issues with Harden are obvious. You can look at the opportunistic 1.7 steals and 0.6 blocks per game and say that he’s not that bad. It’s a foolish argument and beyond simplistic, but Harden’s defenders may say so.
But that’s not the case for almost everyone. Others pay attention to the fact that the Rockets allowed more points with him on the floor, or that he ranked 47th in Defensive Real Plus-Minus (DRPM) among shooting guards at -0.98.
It’s an incredibly stark difference to his first-place ranking in ORPM at his position, featuring a mark of 5.37 to shatter second-place Khris Middleton’s 3.13.
And then there’s, you know, the basic eye test of how appalling Harden’s effort can be. Whether his defensive stance is non-existent, he’s failing to even jog back to defend in transition, or he’s letting opponents blow past him with ease in the post, it isn’t hard to notice Harden’s primary flaw. It’s even easier to notice the hate and criticism that ensues on Twitter.
The following clips are just a few examples. And while they may be picking out the lowlights, there are far too many painfully bad lowlights from Harden far too often:
If next season is similar, another year removed from being the 2014-15 MVP runner-up, Harden’s reputation is going to take another hit. He’ll be the amazing scorer who “flops to get free throws” and can’t (chooses not to) play defense.
The fact that the Rockets making the playoffs in 2017 is no sure-fire guarantee makes matters worse for Harden, as there’s no doubt he’ll take a fair chunk of the blame. No matter how unfair that may be for the man who shoulders the bulk of the offensive load and was forced to lead the NBA with 38.1 minutes per game last season (39.7 over the last 25 games), that’ll be the case. An easy-to-hate, no-defense superstar is going to be a fall guy.
And unfortunately for Harden, both for the Rockets’ win chances and his reputation, things won’t be easy whatsoever.
It was time for Dwight Howard to leave Houston this summer. He’d expressed obvious frustrations with the front office, and his fit, role and importance next to Harden were an issue. A fresh start just made too much sense for everyone involved.
Even still, though, Howard was the Rockets’ best interior defender and rebounder, and likely replacing him with Clint Capela will pose some challenges for the 22-year-old. He’s shown real promise, athleticism, lateral quickness and a knack for swatting shots, recording impressive averages of 13.3 points, 12.1 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per 36 minutes last season to go along with ranking sixth among power forwards in DRPM (2.74). The Rockets having a 22-11 record in games he played at least 20 minutes in comparison 19-30 when he failed to reach that mark is another indicator of his positive impact.
However, Capela clearly can’t do everything alone, and he’s still a work in progress on offense without a jump shot. And this is where the Rockets’ summer acquisitions lump him and Harden with more pressure, especially after the team already ranked 20th in defensive efficiency last season.
Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson, two catch-and-shoot threats who will help the Rockets’ new Mike D’Antoni-led offense, are not good defenders by any means. Both are offense-first players, and while no stat can fully depict a player’s defense, Gordon ranking 41st in DRPM and Anderson ranking 87th at their respective positions combines with the eye test to offer little promise to the Rockets’ defense. Being run off the floor at times when their shooters cool down is such a clear weakness.
The obvious candidates the team will look to in order to pick up the slack are Patrick Beverley, Trevor Ariza and Capela, though Harden will likely be lumped into that group. Not because he’s near their defensive level, but to show his own efforts and help the team look remotely respectable at that end of the floor. Leading by example as the team’s sole star player and establishing two-way reliance is needed at some point, and hopefully controlling his minutes slightly to reduce fatigue can motivate him.
No matter how much Harden is set up to thrive as a top candidate for the 2017 scoring title, any kind of defensive turnaround is needed more than ever. To avoid his reputation being further tarnished to an unfair level and, more importantly, for the sake of the Rockets.
Whether or not it actually happens is the frustrating question that Houstonians will be racking their brains with until the season starts.
All statistics courtesy of Basketball Reference, NBA.com and ESPN.