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.
Photo by Groovehouse James Harden must improve his defense if he wants to be an elite player in the NBA.
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.