When James Harden had the kind of defensive performance against the Los Angeles Clippers normally reserved for blooper reels, he may have gotten a little silent empathy form one of his opponents, Blake Griffin.
After the game, Harden's defense was lambasted nationwide, a position that Griffin is all too familiar with.
Griffin, like Harden, is an amazing offensive talent, with all the physical attributes you could possibly want for his position. Both players are highlight machines waiting to happen. Both players are still just 24-years old. Both players have charisma and sell tickets.
Both players also have glaring holes in their games.
The Glass is Half-Empty
In 2011, Griffin had a spectacular rookie season, blowing the doors off the league, averaging 22.5 points and 12.1 boards per game. Then in 2012, the Clippers added a veteran superstar, Chris Paul, to their roster, and fans, analysts and fanalysts everywhere expected that the tandem would vault the Clippers into contender status.
While they have certainly made the leap to relevance, “contender” has been too strong a word for their accomplishments. In their first year, “Lob City” made it to the second round of the playoffs. Last year they didn’t even make it that far, getting sent home in the first round by the Memphis Grizzlies.
While the murmurings of Griffin’s faults could be heard before, they grew into a groundswell of negativity throughout last season. In particular there was concern over the defensive shortcomings he presented. It was so bad that even Griffin had to weigh in it at one point, telling Broderick Turner of the Los Angeles Times:
I don't think I'm as bad of a defender as some people try to peg me as, but I know I have a lot of work to do. The effort is there. I think our coaching staff knows the effort is there. I've got a lot of room to improve, like I've said.
But at the same time, I don't think I'm as bad as people say. People try to say I play zero defense, which I personally think is not true. For me, a lot times I'm the hardest critic on myself.
“I’m not as bad of a defender as some people try to peg me as,” is not the kind of thing you need your star player saying. Certainly, hearing him protest that he plays more than “zero defense” is not either. And if you’re your own hardest critic, why are you dismissing criticism as being too harsh?
That wasn’t the only criticism he faced—his jump-shooting and free-throw shooting received their own share of snarky remarks— but the bulk of the focus was on his defense.
Now Harden, an unquestionable offensive talent, is receiving similar treatment. He too had a second, senior superstar added to his team with the hopes of vaulting into title contenders.
He too is getting some nasty defensive critiques, as his team falls short of expectations. Here’s why.
Rob Mahoney of SI.com takes a completely scathing (and equally fair) review of Harden’s defensive “effort” here (and to do it justice, I can only advise you to read it). Mahoney uses both words and video to vividly point out the flaws. He sums up the whole thing by stating:
Even long-shot championship contention will require a defensive integrity that Houston currently lacks, putting the onus on an unreliable, apathetic defender like Harden to address his faults more directly... Harden’s entire defensive approach needs work — from the way he tries to guard the ball to his misplaced attempts at help. He’s a long way from respectability on that end, but it’s a young season yet.
"Unreliable" is not an adjective you want to attach to a player who is on a max contract. "Apathetic" is not a word you want to attach to any player, period.
But the word highlights why both superstars have become lightning rods for criticism. With both Harden and Griffin, the criticism isn’t just that they can’t play defense, it’s that they don’t play defense—and there is a difference.
We as fans can forgive failing to succeed, but we have little patience for failing to try. Steve Nash got two MVP awards in spite of a lack of defense because it’s understood that he just can’t play defense.
With the physical tools that Harden and Griffin have, they should be able to succeed. Ergo, we conclude, a lack of success is directly proportional to a lack of effort.
But The Glass is Half-Full, Too
To a point, that’s fair—to a point.
Identifying fair criticism is one thing. Defining a player by that criticism is quite another. The proverbial glass is not either half-full or half-empty; it’s both half-full and half-empty. The either-or aspect of these conversations allows players like Griffin and Harden to be simultaneously overrated and underrated.
The charges against Griffin grew to preposterous proportions. “All he does is dunk!” became the chief denunciation. So, all he does is make the most the most efficient shot in basketball better than anyone else? And that’s bad?
It’s entirely fair to say that he dunks. In fact, last season, he did more dunking than anyone in the NBA, throwing down 202 rim-rocking acts of violence, per Basketball-Reference. To say it’s “all” he does is not true. Griffin has averaged 10.4 boards and 3.6 assists over the course of his career. That’s something other than dunking.
And, while his jump shot still needs more work, Griffin did improve his shooting percentage away from the basket, hitting a career-high 46.8 percent of his shots from three-to-10 feet out, per Basketball-Reference.
And he actually has improved defensively. The Clippers defense is 3.1 points better while he’s on the court this season, according to NBA.com. According to Synergy (subscription required), his .61 points per play given up in the post is second-best in the NBA (albeit from a very small sample size).
I’m not trying to put him on the All-Defensive team, but there’s room between "bad on defense" and the All-Defensive team. That's called “no longer a liability on defense." Improvement is there. Those are indications he’s getting better.
Harden is looking a lot like this year’s Griffin.
The hype machine blew up last year after the trade. In his first season as a starter, he put up some prodigious numbers: 25.9 points, 5.8 assists and 4.9 rebounds a contest, while maintaining a true shooting percentage of .600.
The only players who have put up similar numbers are Larry Bird, Michael Jordan and LeBron James, and none of them did it at just 23 years old, per Basketball-Reference.
But because of his defensive shortcomings, his attributes are being set aside.
There is a cultural response I like to refer to as the “undertow” response. As players break out, and as ESPN flashes their highlights on SportsCenter every night, people get annoyed with the coverage and, correspondingly, with the player.
Furthermore, we grow acclimated to the exceptional. If David West threw down a Griffin-like dunk the world would explode, but because we've seen it from Griffin so many times, it's just another dunk.
When you stare at something long enough, no matter how good it looks, you'll start to see the flaws, no matter how minor.
How fair is the criticism of James Harden's defense?
So in response to the “tide” of media praise, with only the positives on display, a kind of “undertow” develops where only the failings are seen. The more we snare, the easier it becomes to nitpick.
That’s where Griffin has lived for the last year and where Harden appears to be headed.
Even LeBron James once lived there, long before he ever took his talents to South Beach. Believe it or not, there was a time when he was criticized for his defensive efforts. Then he applied himself to it. In the 2008 he started to improve, and by 2009, he had a tremendous season on the defensive end, getting named for the first time to an All-Defensive team.
So, yes, there is a way to get out of the undertow, but it requires improvement, and improvement requires work.
In balance, until Harden’s defense is characterized by words other than “apathy,” it’s hard to see that happening. And because of that, he’s in danger of having his tremendous offensive talents covered over by his defensive failings.