One of the more popular memes in the NBA is making fun of James Harden and his defense, which often ruins possessions for the Houston Rockets, as his legs get glued to the floor, and he watches a ball handler blow by him for an easy two points.
But is Harden that bad of a defender? Is it nitpicking and looking especially at him when there are other players making the same mistakes? Maybe, but he’s a superstar, so it’s part of the trade. More eyes on you, better be careful, because your screw ups will be more noticeable. The problem is that Harden does show, from time to time, that he has a clue or two about helping out on defense. This makes his tendency to show up on defensive lowlights even more frustrating for Rockets fans, or anyone who wants to see good players give it their all on both ends.
There’s the more famous version of James Harden “defense”, which means looking at players blowing by him, not offering any help when he can, and what looks like someone playing zone when everyone else is playing man:
But there are those rare moments when Harden is focused defensively. Being a guard with quick hands, great balance and a very strong upper body, it’s no wonder that when he’s actually trying, he can come up with some good defensive plays:
So is Harden a bad defender or not? Most of the time, he’s bad. The fact that he can play good defense at times is even more frustrating, showing it’s a lot more about focus and wanting to give it everything on defense, than simply having zero defensive awareness and capability of keeping up with a player. It slightly reminds me of Russell Westbrook, who can be a nightmare to handle when he’s focused defensively, but too many times he seems to think about other things, lose his man off the ball and gamble way too much when there’s no need for it.
Rockets teammates, front office and coaches keep Harden satisfied by defending his defense. The usual mantra is that Harden is too exhausted from carrying the team on almost every possession offensively, that he can’t be 100% as committed or focused defensively. Makes a little bit of sense, but very little, that’s it. I see it more as a player who knows he can get away with anything he does (or doesn’t do) on defense. No matter how bad it’ll get, he won’t get pulled or even criticized. That’s part of why things broke down for the Rockets last season. Harden getting treated differently because he’s more talented than anyone else.
Think of Stephen Curry: Not a great one on one defender, but in a smart team defense with guys good enough to cover for him and hide his weaknesses, he can be quite effective: Come up with blind side steals and help on traps in the corner. Curry doesn’t try to laze off and let everyone else do the work. He plays the way he’s supposed to. Eventually, both the Thunder and especially the Cavaliers exposed him, but it wasn’t a case of Curry intentionally giving up on defense.
Personally, I don’t believe Harden can change. If the Rockets insist on trying to win with him, which they obviously do considering the extension they gave him, they need to surround him with the right players to make his defense look less awful: Someone who can ease off the pressure on offense (and make Harden comply), while making the defense good enough for Harden’s mess ups not to ruin it, or at least make him go along with a role that’s not disastrous when he doesn’t do as he should.