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(Sort Of) Defending James Harden’s Defense

I planned to write about the Omer Asik/Dwight Howard gruesome twosome this week, but decided to hold off for a couple reasons; one being that the sample size is still too small. Despite lineups that feature those two posting a poor offensive rating, the Rockets are trying some interesting stuff to make it work. So as one of the five or six Asik-Howard believers who still exist, I’ll let the situation breath a bit before diving in.

Instead, now seems as good a time as any to inspect James Harden’s defense, an ongoing issue carrying back to last season that exploded as a national talking point against J.J. Redick and the Los Angeles Clippers earlier this week.

If you haven’t seen the clip that tells the story, it consumed the Internet on Tuesday:

Everything about that performance was a horror show, and you’d be hard pressed to find an NBA guard ever playing worse defense throughout the entirety of a game. I’d guess Harden was injured, but he looked explosive as ever in transition. His problems, just like last year, were instead insensible and lazy.

It’s a shame, because while Harden is nowhere near being being a game-changing defender, he showed during the season’s first three games (and then against Portland on Tuesday night) that he’s capable of being better. It’s this writer’s naive humble opinion that he isn’t a lost cause; his mistakes are correctable, which is why watching him regress is so frustrating.

Playing for the league’s fastest team while carrying just about all the offensive burden was obviously detrimental last season. Harden is only human. He gets tired. He’s also the vital cog that makes Houston’s offense function as one of basketball’s best. Now, even with Dwight Howard as a teammate, Harden leads the freaking league in total minutes. Expecting him to be a shut down ball hawk is not realistic, but operating as a solid team defender is.

Physically, he has great foot speed. He can close out. He can stay with his man off the dribble. He can, he can, he can. Here are some examples.

We’ll start with a play where Harden begins strong then tapers off towards the end, though it isn’t nearly as bad as anything we saw against the Clippers. As Mo Williams runs a pick-and-roll on the left wing, Harden is the weak side defender forced to cover two guys at once while waiting for Francisco Garcia to recover from his help at the foul line. Once the ball is swung, Harden jabs at Dorell Wright—causing the split second’s worth of hesitation Garcia needs to get back in position—then denies entry to his original assignment in the corner, Wesley Matthews.

Portland resets their offense with Williams beginning a drive from the top of the key, and as the strong side defender, Harden stays put in the corner. It doesn’t seem like much, but last season Harden would’ve incorrectly dropped in to help on the Williams drive, leaving his man wide open in the corner for the second best shot in basketball. Progress.

Things eventually fall apart, but I’m willing to give Harden a pass for two reasons: 1) It’s a broken play in the fourth quarter, in a game where he carried the Rockets on offense, and 2) Wright cut down to the basket as Matthews slid up behind the three-point line—all four of Houston’s other defenders were on the strong side and if Harden stayed with Matthews then Wright would’ve been wide open beneath the rim.

I don’t know if that’s what Harden was thinking at the time, but that’s my excuse for him falling asleep.

Once again we see Harden on Matthews. This time serving as the weak side defender on a pick-and-roll. Normally, Harden would cheat all the way down to help, but at the seven second mark you see him turn his head back to his man—he’s actually conscious of what he’s supposed to do!—and drift back up to the perimeter before correctly reading Portland’s dribble hand-off, going below the screen and somehow managing to get a finger on Mathews’ shot attempt. It’s smart, athletic defense from someone who can seemingly make plays like this whenever he feels like it.

I’m throwing this clip in because no explanation is needed. Just watch it. Before guiding him towards Howard, Harden keeps Gordon Hayward in front of him for the majority of the shot clock. It’s phenomenal one-on-one defense.

As poorly as he played against the Clippers, it was one game. Harden hasn’t been perfect in the other four, but he’s flashed some promising sequences that show he may be on his way to becoming the functional defensive player Houston desperately needs. Let’s hope that’s the case.

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The Rockets Daily – November 6, 2013