James Harden Has a Lot of Improving to Do on Defense

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James Harden Has a Lot of Improving to Do on Defense
Scott Halleran/Getty Images

James Harden is a weapon offensively for the Houston Rockets, but saying that he is a liability on defense would be the understatement of the century.

Harden is easily one of the worst defenders in the NBA.

Whether it's because of a lack of skill or a lack of awareness is up in the air, but the fact remains that Harden often plays worse defense than teams play against the Harlem Globetrotters.

Heck, even kids have made Harden look silly.

Harden largely does more good for the Rockets than bad, but there may very well come a point when the Rockets force him to improve his work on the defensive end. If he wants to make the jump from "star" to "superstar," though, he would be wise not to waste time. Instead he should get to work on making himself better.

The following represents the worst of the worst of Harden's defense.

Ball-Watching at Its Finest

One of Harden's worst defensive displays came last season against Bradley Beal and the Washington Wizards.

The video clip does a great job of analyzing the play, but we can break it down even further. For starters, what is Harden doing watching solely the ball-handler?

Generally, a player's peripheral vision would take over in this situation. That clearly didn't happen for Harden. While watching the ball-handler, he allowed Beal—his assignment—to cross under the basket and out to the perimeter.

As an above-average shooter, Beal should have been well-guarded by Harden. Instead, Harden got caught by a back-screen and was unable to contest the shot.

Beal, a 38.6 percent shooter from deep last season, hit the shot.

Afraid of Contact

In this game against the Chicago Bulls, Harden employs the matador style of defense against Carlos Boozer and Luol Deng.

Harden meets each respective player head on, but as soon as they make a move to the basket, he backs off. After backing down, he throws his arm toward the ball to make it at least appear as if he's playing defense.

In reality, he's not. Not at all.

Harden might not actually be afraid of contact. He forces a ton of it when he has the ball in his hands. For some reason, though, a charging offensive player with the ball in his hands scares Harden.

Situations like these give Harden the opportunity to display one of the weaker aspects of his already weak defensive game.

Terrible Help Defender

Apparently, help defense isn't a thing for Harden.

Notice in the above video how long it takes Harden to react after Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard blows past Patrick Beverley on the perimeter. Harden doesn't react until Lillard is already moving past the free-throw line, leaving him no time to get in position to adequately defend the easy bucket.

To make matters worse, Harden taps Lillard on his way by and gets called for a foul. If Harden really wants to foul a player driving to the rim, he might as well stand tall and make solid contact to potentially alter the shot.

I'm not advocating flagrant fouls here, but what's the harm in going up strong to contest a shot? It'd be much more effective than the little love tap he gave Lillard.

Utter Lack of Awareness

Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Harden's Rockets lost by one against the Los Angeles Lakers on November 7. Had Harden not allowed Steve Blake to blow past him, maybe the Rockets could have pulled out the victory.

Deadspin offered a gem of a GIF after the game, and it showed just how poor Harden's awareness was on the play. You can watch the GIF here.

First of all, Harden makes the obvious mistake of underestimating the chemistry Steve Nash has with his teammates. He and Steve Blake are in constant communication on this play, and when Blake realizes that Harden isn't paying attention to him on the perimeter, he cuts behind Harden on the baseline and receives the pass from Nash under the basket.

Blake doesn't go up with the ball because of the help defenders under the rim—see what help defense looks like, James?—but he makes the wise play of dishing out to the open perimeter shooter.

The thing is, Harden doesn't even realize Blake breaks free from the perimeter until the pass from Nash is already past him. Again, he needs those peripherals to start taking over.

Blatant Lack of Effort

Harden put together one of his worst efforts on defense against the Los Angeles Clippers on November 4, showing a blatant lack of effort throughout much of the contest.

He failed to contest shots, move through screens, follow his assignment and stop the ball on the perimeter. This display pretty much included every aspect of his poor defense that was previously analyzed.

He took a few too many plays off against the Clippers, and they exploited it. The Clippers are too potent an opponent to take plays off against, but that didn't stop Harden from playing lackadaisical defense.


Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Based on the tape, it's clear that Harden is a really poor defender. In my opinion, all of his problems seem to stem from his inability to keep his eyes off the man with the ball.

His inability to properly contest shots and get good position defensively are both a result of ball-watching. If he focused on his assignment instead, he wouldn't be a step behind on the play.

The Rockets will struggle defensively with Harden on the floor, but luckily his offensive prowess is good enough to mitigate his defensive woes. Regardless, he needs to do some serious work on that end of the floor if he wants to become a superstar and help the Rockets win.

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