This is James Harden’s first season playing major minutes as the focal point of an NBA offense. And not just any NBA offense. Backed by Harden’s ability to turn himself into a one man fast break three or four times a quarter, the Rockets play with turbo boosters at all times. Every 48 minutes he participates in 99.42 possessions, per NBA.com/Stats, which, by a wide margin, leads all players averaging at least 20 minutes per game. Speaking of minutes, he’s played 1798 of them, more than anybody in the entire league.
When he’s on the court, Harden is expected to ignite Houston’s eighth ranked offense by relentlessly attacking the rim (he also leads the league in free-throw makes and attempts) in transition, off pick-and-rolls, and whenever he’s isolated with space on the perimeter.
But offense isn’t everything. Also a new experience: Harden is matched up against opposing starting backcourts on a night to night basis. How’s he doing?
When Harden is on the court, Houston gives up 104.2 points per 100 possessions, good for a bottom 10 caliber defense. When he’s off, that number drops to 101.5 (for reference, the Miami Heat are currently allowing 101.4 points per 100 possessions).
According to 82Games.com, opposing shooting guards are averaging a 15.1 PER going up against Harden. (He occasionally plays small forward, but rarely, and in that limited time the opposing PER is 15.2.) In today’s NBA, shooting guard might be the least productive position. Per Hoopdata, the league average PER among off guards who’ve appeared in at least 20 games and average at least 25 minutes per game is 15.1.
There are obviously several different variables to take into account here, such as team defense and specific match-ups, but from these numbers we’re able to deduce that Harden holds his positional opposition to their collective average. Sounds good. But if you actually watch Rockets games you know his defensive body of work hasn’t been as consistent as it probably could be. And at times, it’s downright laughable.
By design, whenever he’s on the weakside, Harden (and the rest of Houston’s perimeter defenders) will slide to the paint, leaving his man open, dissuading penetration into the lane, and baiting the ball-handler to throw a difficult cross-court pass. On most half-court possessions, Harden gravitates towards the ball like a moth to a dim porch light. He watches plays unfold with the body language of a non-participant, gluing his eyes to the ball far too much when it’s on his own side of the court. And he gambles quite often. Here he is reaching in on a drive by Gerald Wallace, leaving his man (Joe Johnson) open on the wing.
This particular gamble pays off (temporarily). But any defense will suffer in the long term when one of their players does it as often as Harden has.
The expectation here isn’t for Harden to become Tony Allen; he’s a human, and the amount of energy exerted when he has the ball deserves a nightly standing ovation. But there are a few cases throughout the league where high usage perimeter players can still give their teams above average defense on a quarter to quarter basis. To nobody’s surprise, these are also the very best players in the league: LeBron James, Chris Paul, Paul Pierce, and Kevin Durant, just to name a few. Right now Harden is far from that.
Rehashing a question Grantland’s Zach Lowe alluded to earlier this week: at what point do we stop using offensive responsibility as an excuse for awful defense. In this specific case I don’t believe the question needs a response right now, but as the playoffs near, the answer should become more and more important.
Nearly a quarter of Harden’s defensive possessions end in him covering a pick-and-roll ball-handler, per Synergy. I watched a large number of them, and a majority of them weren’t pretty. Not all, but a majority.
Call it sluggish, lethargic, or just plain lazy, defense like this is unacceptable for a heavy minute rotational player, let alone an NBA All-Star. When the screen comes, Harden slides above it (so far so good) then, instead of getting low and sliding with Danilo Gallinari (a taller, slower player), cutting him off at the free-throw line, Harden stands straight up at the elbow, bends at the waist, then waives his arm in desperation. It’s the type of defense someone would play if cement boots were fastened to their feet, and against pick-and-rolls Harden does it often.
More times than not, as the ball-handler hurls himself towards the basket, Harden lays back, putting himself in awful position to grab a defensive rebound—but phenomenal position to leak out as his team gets pummeled on the offensive boards. To the naked eye, it looks like he’s given up on the play.
For just a second, pretend Harden isn’t one of the five most important offensive players in basketball. Imagine he isn’t fifth in scoring with a 29.4% usage percentage. Now judge his defense. The technique is inconsistent. The effort is half-cooked. The numbers, though not a conclusive factor, indicate he isn’t the best. Neither does the tape.
But this is basketball, a sport that doesn’t separate offense and defense in a black and white way. We can’t ignore the energy he exudes on offense (not to mention the insane production) when discussing how poor his defense is because he’s SO efficient with the ball and it’s the primary reason Houston is a good basketball team. But when does the criticism begin? After seeing some of the effort and results, it’s time he begins to incrementally get better.