Narratives are powerful. A concept so powerful it overrides reality, narratives are difficult to change once fans set them. Despite every metric stating otherwise, fans still call Nikola Jokic a bad defender. An NBA team is going to pay Terry Rozier because of his 2018 playoff performance despite being an awful basketball player. Once fans decide a player’s narrative, the player in question can rarely alter his reputation. And this is important; NBA players care deeply about their reputations.
The myth of James Harden being a horrible defender is one of the strongest NBA narratives. Laughable lowlight of reels of Harden standing around on defense spawned this narrative. Compilations of Harden frozen like his controller battery died ran rampant around the NBA community. You’ve probably seen plays like these time and time again on Twitter, followed by casual fans excoriating the superstar for his defensive effort.
In 2019, James Harden is not an awful defender. He’s not great on the defensive end by any means and he’s certainly not the best defender in the NBA. When a player carries the astronomical offensive load Harden does, it is natural for him to take some plays off on defense. Harden is human, after all, and his team relies heavily on his offensive creation. However, Harden rarely takes plays off on defense at this point. They come from time to time and those are the ones Twitter makes viral.
Houston’s loss to Golden State was disappointing given the circumstances, but blaming Harden would be silly. Besides his offensive numbers being excellent as always, his defense stood out as a positive. Houston’s on-0ff defensive rating splits would disagree, though much of the disconnect likely comes from Golden State being the greatest offensive team ever.
Team defense may be the most underrated aspect of basketball and James Harden was a definite positive in that are for much of the series. His newfound effort on in help defense is a far cry from the lowlight reels of old and it is a testament to the work Harden has put in. Many laud Harden for continually adding weapons to his arsenal; the addition of his floater opened up the Rockets’ offense to an all-time level. The addition of competent team defense is as important as any offensive one, but doesn’t get near enough attention. I’m going to break down the Rockets’ defensive gameplan against the Warriors and how James Harden successfully executed the gameplan.
Harden is not absolved of criticism on defense and his motor does stall at times. When he was disengaged, offensive players burned him with ease:
The Warriors often targeted Harden on switches, hunting out favorable matchups for Steph Curry and Kevin Durant. Not many players can guard the greatest shooter ever and Harden often struggled to guard these uber-elite scorers:
When Harden is engaged, he’s a more-than-passable man to man defender, especially when his assignment isn’t an all-time great scorer. On this drive, Harden doesn’t give Klay Thompson any room to breathe, bumping him off balance and forcing a tough shot:
While Harden’s on-ball defense was fine, his off-ball defense in this series was impressive. On defense, Houston’s ultimate goal was to force the Warriors’ role players to create. They often doubled Curry, Klay, Kevin Durant and Draymond Green, forcing other Warriors to beat them.
Harden and Nene double Thompson on the dribble handoff, forcing an outlet pass to Kevon Looney–who is no Draymond on the short roll–and he coughs up the rock:
Again, Houston sends two defenders at Klay, forcing him to get rid of the ball. With two defenders committed to Thompson, James Harden is responsible for zoning between two players.
He correctly rotates to Andre Iguodala before peeling off to contest Shaun Livingston’s cutting layup:
The Rockets often stationed Harden against a non-threat on offense, allowing to play center field. This play isn’t a lack of effort from Harden, Mike D’Antoni instructed him to allow Iguodala to shoot. In game five this strategy backfired, but against the Warriors, the Rockets will happily let Iguodala shoot instead of Curry or Durant:
Playing the roamer position off-ball requires an acute sense of positioning, IQ and effort. If you asked most casual fans, they would tell you James Harden has none of these. However, Harden did a commendable job defending off of the ball, mucking up Golden State’s offense and creating turnovers.
Harden doesn’t care about Iguodala chilling in the corner, so he steps up to help out Danuel House, who Kevin Durant left in the dust. Durant doesn’t account for Harden helping early and turns the ball over:
The Warriors dice up opposing defenses with their Steph-KD or Steph-Draymond PNRs, with the roller finding open shots on the short roll. Defenders have to double Curry, leaving the roller free to create four on three. Seeing this play coming, Harden promptly rotates to Durant who, while being a solid passer, is not elite.
A lob would have been the better pass, but Durant softly dumps the ball to Iguodala, giving Houston enough time to recover and force a miss:
When Golden State needs a bucket, they often turn to the staple of their offense, the vaunted low post-split. The initiator dumps the ball into the post and he proceeds to “split” off of another player, executing a flare, basket cut or dribble handoff. The action’s versatility makes it deadly and the Warriors are the best ever at running it. Exploiting the Rockets’ switching tendencies, Curry slips the split cut, finding a free lane to the basket.
Noticing this action, Harden correctly rotates off of Iguodala and, though he doesn’t contest, his presence alone is enough to force a miss from Curry, who already had a severe case of the yips:
Curry’s extreme gravity sucks in Capela, allowing Jordan Bell to slip into open hardwood. Again, Harden swoops in from the weak side, stealing the entry pass and stopping a layup:
Here’s one last split action, though this time Harden is directly involved in the action. Resisting Curry’s gravitational pull, Harden sticks with the cutter and swipes the entry pass:
This time, Harden is guarding Kevon Looney on the perimeter, a player he can completely ignore. With no defensive responsibility, Harden shifts his focus to the passing lanes, shutting down the Curry cross-court skip:
In this series, Harden remembered to charge his batteries, his controller running at full capacity. Attacking in early offense, Curry dispatches Clint Capela and Harden rotates, deterring Curry just enough to make him blow the reverse layup:
The sheer power of Harden’s narrative seeped onto the court, as the Warriors disrespected Harden on defense, treating him like a sieve. Curry lackadaisically floats the inbounds pass up to Klay with no inclination he would turn the ball over. He clearly did not account for Harden being engaged, as he easily steals the lazy lob:
Again, Curry didn’t account for Harden being a factor on this pass to the corner, evidenced by the grave lack of zip on the ball. Active Harden is in the building, though, and he slides over to intercept Curry’s sling to Iguodala:
It is easy to fall into the trap of relying on a narrative to drive opinion. James Harden is no longer a terrible defender, proven by the film. His effort and help-side rotations were a positive addition to Houston’s defense in the second round of the playoffs. Narratives can teach us to take a deeper dive into a player’s true makeup and help us avoid taking greatness for granted.