James Harden, Rockets Must Compete Defensively to Contend for a Title

In the second quarter of the Rockets game against Dallas on Wednesday night, James Harden was "guarding" Vince Carter on the perimeter, if by "guarding" you mean "watching him as he goes sailing by before reaching out a hand and halfheartedly swatting at the ball from behind." Venerable Rockets TV play-by-play man Bill Worrell said during the replay, "He just swatted Carter on the ass." We assume Worrell's curse-word slip was uttered out of exasperation since plays like this have become all too common with the Rockets best player. In fact, after the "swat," Harden stood upright and watched as his man drove into the paint.

This is not the Vince Carter who literally jumped over a 7'2" dude at the 2000 Olympics or who single-handedly brought the slam dunk contest back from the dead. This is the 36-year-old version, who is far more comfortable with pull-up jumpers than with above-the-rim acrobatics. And this is not an aberration. Harden routinely stabs at players as they drive by him and gets screened out of defensive switches. With all the preaching the Rockets did in the offseason about how defense would be the key to their success, it would appear Harden hasn't quite gotten the message.

If he appeared a bit lackadaisical on the defensive end of the floor last year, it was easily dismissed given how much of the offensive load he had to carry and the effort that required. But now Harden is surrounded by guys who can put up numbers offensively. Yet he still, frustratingly, takes plays off on defense.

This would be less of an issue if the Rockets were a decent defensive team, particularly on the perimeter, but they are not. They certainly aren't terrible, thanks to rim protection from Dwight Howard, Omer Asik and Terrence Jones, but opponents routinely get into the paint against them, which leads to easy baskets. Despite the scoring jag they went on for three quarters in Dallas, the Mavericks were never out of it and all it took was a lull in scoring for them to overtake the Rockets and win, which is why Harden and the Rockets must learn to play both ends of the floor.

I would never consider myself to be someone who lives by advanced metrics, but one particular stat stood out when looking over Harden's numbers this year. The percentage of shots players get at the rim while being guarded by Harden is 52.2 percent. That ranks him last among all the Rockets rotation players and it is particularly bad for a guy who plays on the wing. Far too often, his man gets to the basket on his watch.

In some ways, it is unfair to take shots at a guy like Harden, who means so much to his team. He is an offensive machine and one of the great scoring guards in the NBA. But such is life when you are one of the best. To hear your name mentioned with Kobe Bryant or Michael Jordan and others on the list of best ever to play your position, you can't show up and play one end of the floor.

What's more, Harden has all the tools to be an elite defender in the NBA. He has long arms, tremendous first-step quickness, great lateral movement and sharp basketball instincts. The problem is that the defense is as much about dominating your opponent as it is skill. You have to want it more than the other guy. Great defenders are known for believing they own a spot on the floor and if an opponent wants it, he is going to have to take it away.

The question is whether or not Harden and his teammates have this killer instinct. Do they hate losing more than they love winning? Right now, as dropping big leads like they did in Dallas would seem to indicate, the answer on both counts would appear to be no. But that is part of being young and relatively inexperienced.

During his regular weekly stint on a call-in radio program, former Rocket player and current color commenter Matt Bullard recalled how the Rockets were bounced from the playoffs a couple of times before they learned how to win, in his case, a pair of titles. He said that teams need to feel the sting of losing in the big moments before they can get better and learn what it takes to overcome them, and much of that is about their attitude on the defensive end of the floor. The Rockets have not scratched the surface of their potential; neither have they had to endure the indignities of defeat. As such, they remain a work in progress and most of that work is on the end of the floor that interests them the least.

Harden, like his teammates, seems to place greater emphasis on the glitter of scoring than he does on the grime of defending. This is illustrated by their current position as the best scoring team in the NBA. All young players who want to be great must learn to overcome the lure of offense and respect the tenacity it takes to play great defense. For Harden, he has managed to emerge from his NBA childhood as a burgeoning star, but if he wants to be truly elite, he'll need to get through puberty, and that starts by not letting 36-year-old perimeter players blow by him as if he's glued to the floor.

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