Does James Harden’s Defense Make Him Any Less Of A Star?


Team USA has finished up the World Cup, won gold and by all accounts the coaching staff was thrilled with the play, defense and leadership that they got from James Harden. However, for some reason Harden has become a player that many seemingly just wait for the next opportunity to pile on about his defensive play.

I’ve lost count of the number of articles by “journalists” that we have seen this season with literally 1 clip of James Harden not playing good defense on a given play, followed by some repeated commentary about how sorry Harden’s defense is…the end. It’s frankly lazy journalism.

May 2, 2014; Portland, OR, USA; Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) shoots in between Portland Trail Blazers center

Robin Lopez

(42) and Trail Blazers forward

Nicolas Batum

(88) in the first half in game six of the first round of the 2014 NBA Playoffs at the Moda Center.Mandatory Credit: Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

Does it have SOME basis in truth? Yes. And it all started with the famous YouTube video put out last year with a number of outtakes of Harden playing lazy defense or not even trying on a given play. But the reality is for nearly every single average to below average defensive player in the league, if you set out to pick out single individual plays you could easily put together a similar montage of poor defense.

Casual fans may not realize, but the NBA is now and has always been full of average to below average defenders. How else would players like Tony Allen or Bruce Bowen who have or had no offensive game whatsoever, been able to carve out a nice niche career? Most NBA teams are fortunate to have 3 or 4 above average defenders on the entire roster.

You may also hear comments along the lines of “James Harden will never be a superstar playing sub-par defense!” Let’s take a look at that statement. Historically speaking, were Allen Iverson, Charles Barkley, Reggie Miller, Dominique Wilkins or Alex English EVER considered good defensive players? No, but what do all of these players have in common? All of them are among the top 25 scorers of all time on the career list.

Need more? We haven’t mentioned other legends known for their offensive prowess such as Julius “Dr. J” Erving and “Pistol” Pete Maravich, two of the greatest offense players ever, that you won’t find in the top 25 list due to years spent in the ABA or a career cut short by injury. Also never known as great defensive players.

Maybe the argument is, “not in today’s NBA”. Wrong again. Paul Pierce and Dirk Nowitzki are also on the top 25 all-time scoring list, neither of which has ever been anything more than an average to below average defender. Not to mention fellow 2013-14 All-stars Stephen Curry, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. All of which are poor defensive players.

The idea that James Harden has to excel on the defensive end in order to be a superstar is ludicrous. The Rockets do NOT want him spending all of his energy on the defensive end because his contributions on the offensive end are too valuable to diminish the energy that offensive effort takes.

When you look at the metrics, on offense this past season Harden was 5th in the league in scoring. He was 2nd to only Kevin Durant in free throw attempts, he gets to the line almost at will and shoots 87% when he’s there.

Apr 14, 2014; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) shoots during the fourth quarter against the San Antonio Spurs at Toyota Center. The Rockets defeated the Spurs 104-98. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

In PER (player efficiency rating) Harden ranked #11 at 23.5 per game. PER is a stat that favors forwards and centers due to rebounding (size) but the only guards in the league that graded out higher were Chris Paul and Stephen Curry, both point guards who benefit from assist numbers. Harden was easily the top shooting guard in the league and it wasn’t even very close.

So how bad was Harden on the defensive end? Harden’s opponents PER was 13.9 at the shooting guard position. That means he actually held his opponent below the league average of 15.0. The Rockets did however surrender more points to opponents shooting guards than any team in the league last year.

Jeremy Lin had something to do with that as well, as he was often Harden’s backup playing with Patrick Beverley when Harden rested. Lin’s opponent’s PER when at shooting guard was 17.4 and when Lin wasn’t in, it was Francisco Garcia, who came in at 15.1.

The Rockets decision to sign Trevor Ariza was in large part to shore up this deficiency that Chandler Parsons could not. For one, Ariza is an above average defender who can guard shooting guards, something Parsons was not quick enough to do in many cases. This will allow the Rockets to have Ariza take the tougher matchup out of the shooting guard and small forwards in a given game and allow Harden to take the lesser offensive talent on the defensive end.

What James Harden needs to do is improve on is his effort and consistency on defense. He needs to stop allowing plays where he gives zero effort, plays where he doesn’t even follow his man and at least get a hand up on him.

Much of this can also depend on the situation. Did Team USA or will the Rockets expect Harden to play lock down defense when he’s teetering on foul trouble? Or ask him to match up on the team’s best offensive player? No, nor should they.

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That one basket that he gives up in certain moments is not worth and extra foul on your best offensive player.

James Harden is CAPABLE of playing at least average defense and flashes above average in moments because of his elite athleticism. Those that don’t believe, check out the first quarter of the USA game against Finland. Yes, it is only Finland, but we see EFFORT and that’s all the Rockets will be asking him to give a little more consistently.

The Rockets have made roster moves to assist in this area and likely will continue to do so. James Harden is what he is. He’s an elite scorer that has all the skills and youth to join that top 25 all-time scoring list someday. All the Rockets need him to be is an average defender.

So how does Harden shut up the critics? One way would be a championship. That tends to shut everyone up. Another would be some big stops in a big game. But either way giving us plays of zero effort, even if taken out of context within the game, needs to stop and that James Harden can do.

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