When James Harden proclaimed himself the "best all-around basketball player in the NBA" this summer, the claim was met in many quarters with a hearty laugh, followed by a link to one of the supercuts of his poor defense that have gone viral over the past year. As it turns out, the reigning All-NBA First Team shooting guard heard every last chuckle, even all the way over in Spain for the 2014 FIBA World Cup, and while he understands the skepticism regarding both his commitment and capacity to play both ends of the floor, he's entering the 2014-15 season intent on making us all into believers.
Here's Harden discussing his defense during the Houston Rockets' Monday media session, thanks to ClutchFans:
... and here's a recap of the chatter, via Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle:
"I hear [the criticism], but I don't pay attention to it," Harden said. "I know I can be a really good defender. Obviously, there's times my defense is pretty bad. There's a lot of stars whose defense is pretty bad sometimes. That category, I know I have to be better."
Harden made similar comments before and after last season, but on Monday he was specific, as if he also had clicked on that video, catching himself looking the other way while his man made a back-door cut or took off on a fast break.
"It's just [about] me being focused," Harden said. "It's not whether I can do it. It's me losing track of my man or small things like that that can easily be corrected.
"It's not the fact that I can't do it. I'm a pretty good defender. It's me being able to focus on small things that I kind of lose track of. I know that."
Good on Harden for copping to his missteps and his tendency to fall asleep during possessions; the first step, after all, is admitting that you have a problem. Next, of course, comes doing something about it, and Harden's still got a ways to go there.
Consider, for example, this report on Harden's defensive work during Team USA's pre-World Cup Las Vegas training camp from former longtime college coach Bobby Gonzalez for Sheridan Hoops:
I spoke to several members of the USAB staff, and behind the scenes they were amazed at how good James Harden has become as an overall player since his last tour with Team USA two years ago. The fact that he came in and was focused on being a lockdown defender blew them away.
And watch the re-energized lockdown artist's less-than-inspiring work during the U.S.'s gold-medal run in Spain:
... Yeah, there's the lack of focus, all right.
Harden is, of course, right when he notes that it's something of a time-honored tradition for NBA stars with major scoring and playmaking roles for their teams to take plays off on the defensive end. There's also a strong argument to be made that the 25-year-old All-Star's offensive contributions — 25.4 points, 6.1 assists and 4.7 rebounds per game, 9.1 free throw attempts a night, a sterling .618 True Shooting percentage (fifth-best in the league) last season — significantly outweigh his defensive debits.
In fact, as recently suggested by SB Nation's Tom Ziller, you could even claim that it's easier to build a contending roster around an elite one-way talent with clear deficiencies on the other side of the ball than it is to build a winner around a more well-rounded star who doesn't shine as brightly in either direction. While I'm sure Rockets general manager Daryl Morey wouldn't use the word "easy," he's done his level best to craft a strong defensive roster around Harden — bulldog guard Patrick Beverley at the point of attack, stalwart swingman Trevor Ariza on the wing, finally healthy All-Star rim-protector Dwight Howard backstopping it all — to minimize the bearded baller's fallout while allowing him to maximize his influence on the offensive end.
But there's a difference between conserving energy and not really trying at all, and it'd obviously give a Houston team that finished 12th in the NBA in points allowed per possession last season a pretty big boost for Harden to go from "total sieve" to "more regularly accountable feet-mover." The task of keeping Harden accountable falls to head coach Kevin McHale, who's emphasizing the basics — keep your man in front of you — as he enters his fourth season on the Houston bench, according to NBA.com's Fran Blinebury:
“Your defense is based on help and help principles. But if [a teammate] gets beat every time, I say, ‘Oh, my God I got to get over and help again.’ If [a teammate] shuts down his guy, there’s a calmness in me. I’m not over-helping. I’m not thinking, ‘Oh my.’
“It’s a trust factor of doing your job on defense. It’s not always relying on the trust that is built in. Your object as a defender is to not use that help all that time. Use it when guys make great moves. You can’t get beat on average moves. You can’t get beat on just average stuff. You gotta just make guys work hard to beat you. It’s simple things.
“In the end, if you play on a team that is [a] championship caliber team, there is a huge amount of trust. That trust comes from you doing your job night after night after night after night, so that everybody can trust each other.”
Through two years as The Man in Houston, Harden hasn't proven trustworthy on D, and the Rockets haven't proven capable of getting out of the opening round of the Western Conference playoffs. McHale's challenging Harden to take a step forward and lead by example on defense, and Harden's challenging himself to live up to the bold claims he made over the summer. If he puts his money where his mouth is, he could vault Houston into the upper echelon of the brutal West and himself into the MVP conversation. If the start of the season just brings more of the same lackadaisical work, though, Harden will likely be in the unenviable position of being unable to defend even himself.
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