A Substitute for War

Basketball philosophy

James Harden sucks at defense, does it have to stay that way?

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“James Harden sucks at defense” became a meme near the end of this season, thanks to a handful of long youtube videos showing his lowlights over the year. On his worst plays Harden isn’t just bad, but an embarrassment, often standing in the middle of nowhere and making his team play 4 on 5 defensively. He was giving no fucks.

However, what’s interesting of course, is Harden on paper should not be a defensive sieve. He’s one of the biggest SGs in the league in length and strength, has adequate lateral mobility and his feel for the game is strong, which should allow him to read defensive plays well. This is compounded by how in Oklahoma City Harden was quickly emerging as one of their better defenders before the trade, enough to defend Lebron James at times in the 2012 Finals.

So what’s going on here? Why is James Harden now the abomination of the league on defense? My guess is it’s energy. In his 3rd OKC season he averaged 31.4 minutes per game, while he’s been at 38 minutes or higher both his Houston seasons. Harden does not strike me as a specimen conditioning wise and it’s no secret he enjoys nightlife, which could play into having less than perfect energy level. What’s more is Harden’s ratio of driving to the rim vs athleticism is as lopsided as any player’s I’ve seen. Harden drives to the rim and free throw line as much as anyone in the league, despite being a good, but not dynamic athlete. His ballhandling and first step help him do this. Most other players who drive as regularly as him, are freaks of nature like Dwyane Wade and Lebron James athletically. This style of play in addition to the minutes played, may cause him to burn energy faster. Compare him to Paul George, who is the anti James Harden in regards to his athleticism and driving. George is one of the best athletes in the game, but is average at driving to the basket because of ballhandling problems. This may leave more of his athletic energy for the defensive end of the floor, where he plays at a defensive player of the year level.

How does one fix this? The first clear cut fix to reduce his minutes. If anything Harden’s less than perfect physical condition and driving heavy style of game, which also makes him a risk to get banged up, make him a candidate to specifically play less than the standard 35-36 minutes, let alone more. With the Spurs leading the way for reducing minutes this year, there’s nothing wrong with Harden playing an effective 32 or 33 per game. Secondly, Houston may want to free up some energy by taking Harden off the ball. Although he’s not used to this, as a great 3 point shooter one would think in time, he could learn to spot up and space the floor. At the least, it’d make him a diversion while players like Lin and Beverly drive to the basket. One could also try playing Harden at small forward more often with two ballhandlers in the backcourt.

It bears mentioning that with the cost of Harden’s defense there may be a reward coming with it. Harden’s offensive production is absolutely enormous, an ultra efficient 25 points a game while being his team’s best playmaker, gave him the 3rd best offensive season on paper this year behind Lebron and Durant. If one reduced his minutes and increased his defensive responsibility, his offensive volume and efficiency could be reduced.

If Harden is not capable of putting up both the offensive statistics he did the last 2 years while playing more defense, it may be simply a matter of talent. We know Harden is a fantastic talent, but we don’t know if he’s a talent on the tier of some of the legends of this era like Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant, Lebron James, Dwyane Wade, Kevin Durant, Dirk Nowitzki, Chris Paul. There may be one tier below that he presides in. Or he could make a big leap from year 5 to year 7-9 and become one of our great stars. How young the 2009 draft trio of Harden, Blake Griffin and Stephen Curry is, has been understated. Some players have hit their peak by their 5th season, but others have not. As a recent example Durant’s 5th season was his 2011-2012 Finals year, but by his regular season in his MVP 7th year, was clearly a different animal. Kevin Garnett in his 5th season in 1999-2000 was a phenomenal player, but by his 9th season in 2003-2004 season, he was spectacular at an even different level. If James Harden and the Rockets commit themselves to maximizing his career, by a season like his 8th or 9th, he could still be the MVP of the league, since his offensive statistics are already better than many MVP seasons.

Written by jr.

May 23, 2014 at 5:41 pm

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