James Harden: First, the obvious – Harden needs to show commitment on the defensive end. It’s simple, really. This team doesn’t have a chance until its star player brings consistent effort on both sides of the ball, though the Parsons/Ariza swap should mitigate the problem and increase their odds. As I told a reader last week, when asked my thoughts regarding the reports of Harden’s defense with Team USA, it’s not an issue of ability with The Beard. It’s the same “too cool for school” mentality that you see so prevalently in any pickup game amongst amateurs. Certain people think they’re just too cool, or too good to try defensively, and that they can just get the points back on the other end. Odd considering how much the defensive greatness of Michael Jordan and Lebron James, the two best players of the last thirty years, is lauded and pointed out.
Wrongly or not, Harden has quickly become the most hated superstar in the league, after experiencing a brief honeymoon as a fledgling darling during his first year with the team. His recent comments regarding his ‘mates added fuel to the fire and of even more recent relevance, the clarification that he and Howard actually do eat with the team saved the row from reaching outright unbearable levels. Is he aware of the perception? Does he know that the ten minute production highlighting his unwillingness went more viral than anything Jenna Jameson ever produced? One wonders why, at the least, such public shame and notoriety hasn’t nudged him to bend his back.
When the deal was made with the Thunder, what now seems like eons ago, some reports surfaced of Harden’s selfishness – that he didn’t fit the “culture” in Oklahoma City. One story went that shortly after a loss in the Finals, Harden grumbled in the lockerroom over his lack of touches. At the time, we brushed it all aside, and rightfully so. As I’ll expound upon later, none of those things should’ve been seen as alarming enough to not make the trade. But looking back, I see the truth. Watching this past season, watching James Harden, I see a player who is selfish and not as committed to the team and winning as he is to himself. You see how he is completely out of shape, huffing and puffing late into games when needing to guard an active wing; you see his disinterestedness in the huddles; and worst of all, you see the body language when things don’t go his way. When he essentially quit on this team in an overtime loss to Portland in round 1, after Kevin McHale made the call to ride Dwight Howard to the finish line, I remarked that I had never seen anything like it in twenty years as a Rockets fan. In hindsight, its even more alarming looking back.
Some of you have no doubt recoiled in disbelief over my criticism of Harden. A reader asked earlier in the year, “why are you trying to run James Harden out of town?” That’s a pretty simplistic worldview. You can criticize, but still be supportive. And more importantly, I don’t suggest these issues are irredeemable or mean he’s fatally flawed. Harden is still just 25 and there are countless examples of selfishness exhibited by some of the all-time greats. Remember Scottie Pippen refusing to enter a game after Phil Jackson drew up the last play for Toni Kukoc? Remember Kobe’s entire career? Selfishness isn’t prohibitive to winning. The distinction though, is that those guys consistently brought it at both ends, at least in the postseason. As has been beaten to death, that’s something that James Harden has yet to do.
Harden is one of the four or five most brilliant offensive players in basketball. With age, and a style of play nondependent upon athleticism, I expect him to only get better. His skill level will improve, as is the case with elite wings. The footwork, already at a high level, will become even more fine-tuned. The stepbacks from the midrange will become more lethal from different areas, and hopefully more encouraged from the front office as well. We saw a post game in spots, and that too, hopefully will be built upon. Might as well put that extra girth to use.
Harden’s offense will be there. And his attitude towards his teammates may never change. But that’s ok. For Harden, the only thing that matters, the only thing standing in his path to realizing full potential, and this team’s full potential, is full commitment on the defensive end. He’s talked the talk for some time, but will he finally walk the walk?