For the past four seasons, James Harden has been known and feared as a merciless offensive basketball player.
First, he ran Oklahoma City’s second unit with unassuming guile, elevating his teammates with some fantastic playmaking ability, a sneaky, powerful left-handed drive and the lingering threat to strike from behind the three-point line at any moment.
Now, after you combine his near-apex efficiency with high volume, Harden is clearly one of the league's four or five best scorers, and this year’s training camp will be his first as a certain superstar. The question of whether or not he could handle the responsibility as a high-usage player was answered last season, but that doesn’t mean other areas of his game couldn’t afford a fine polish.
It’s popular to assume that Harden will be even better now that he’s a year older and more comfortable playing in Kevin McHale’s system. Plus, he now has the league’s best center by his side. But if he fails to improve in the areas listed below, what we’ve already seen out of Harden might have already been his best.
While Harden’s offensive output last season was a nightly fireworks display, his defense was more of a dampened candle.
On every possession where he was the primary defender, Harden allowed 0.92 points per possession, which placed him at No. 322 in the league, according to SynergySports. Also, the Rockets gave up 3.7 more points per 100 possessions with him on the court, per NBA Stats (subscription required).
During this year's camp, Harden can stand to improve his overall awareness whenever his man doesn’t have the ball. Too many times last year Harden ball-watched, losing sight of his individual responsibility by either over-helping or leaking out too early for a hopeful fast-break opportunity.
It was a blatant lack of commitment from a player who's so talented, and his legitimate goal this year should be winning the scoring title. However, he was all over the place last year, suffering mental lapses that cost Houston dearly, as last year's squad wasn't nearly good enough to give away points for free.
Also, opponents shot 40.4 percent from behind the three-point line last season when Harden was the closest defender, according to SynergySports.
Houston’s defensive principles last year revolved around its perimeter players packing the paint and thwarting drives to the rim, so Harden should be excused (just a tiny bit) from a few of the uncontested threes his man wound up hitting last year.
But his effort and instincts indicated that he wasn’t the type of player who should be allowed to participate in such a system in the first place. He didn’t recover well, and he was often a step or second too slow.
Getting into another aspect of defense, his off-the-ball blunders are no excuse for what he did as a wing defender. Just a few months after he was tasked with guarding LeBron James in the NBA finals, Harden deteriorated completely on-the-ball.
This could be rationalized by the reasonable and oft-used point that Harden often needed all of his energy for offense in the context of Houston's up-tempo style. That makes sense, but Harden went overboard on more than a few instances, too.
In the clip below, he is defending Thabo Sefolosha, one of the dullest blades in Oklahoma City's drawer. For reasons unbeknownst to everyone in the building but Harden, he nearly falls over going for a steal. This leaves his teammates in a brutal five-on-four situation, and Sefolosha waltzes to the basket for a layup.
The theory that Harden is tired or needs to save energy doesn't apply here—the play occurs just over a minute into the game.
In the clip directly above, Harden is matched up against MarShon Brooks, and the results made Craig Ehlo shudder. With painful fundamental technique and no willingness to get low and make his man work for more than three seconds, Harden once again hangs his teammates out to dry.
It wouldn't matter if a three-headed Dikembe Mutombo/Dwight Howard/Ben Wallace monster was his safety net, Harden needs to get better in the most basic ways when it comes to defending on-the-ball. Houston needs him to be better.
This area of Harden's game is the most difficult to improve, in part because his league-leading 295 turnovers last season were the result of an aggressive style of attack that also prompted him to lead the league in free-throw attempts.
It's a trade-off Harden needs to somehow manage, even though there aren't very many options as to how he could. Is Houston happy when he takes off by himself down the court on a one-man fast break? Sure they are. However, this doesn't give the defense a chance to set themselves up, and Harden against the backpedaling opposition was as advantageous a situation as the NBA had last season.
This was where a vast majority of those turnovers occurred, with Harden appearing to be out of control and either drawing an offensive foul or looking for contact and never hearing a whistle. It's the type of play that makes Harden special, and giving him the red light wouldn't be wise. But telling him to slow down just a bit might, especially if Houston can utilize Howard more in half-court sets as an equally efficient means to scoring points.
In the end, turnovers are the worst thing an offense can do, and as his team's best offensive player, Harden needs to (somehow) use better judgement.
Harden is nearly flawless scoring and distributing in the pick-and-roll, has a smooth jumper and can effortlessly draw fouls better than anyone in basketball. It's his duty on the defensive end that needs to be recognized and upheld.
But Harden's lucky. Nearly all the blemishes on this end can be fixed with coaching and basic fundamental alterations. Harden hasn't been this bad of a defender his whole life, and if he commits himself to getting better in training camp, there's no reason to think he won't see drastic improvements throughout the season.