But what is the basis for this criticism? Harden has never been known as a stopper—everyone knew that when he was with the Oklahoma City Thunder, and everyone knew it last year, when his Rockets were just as bad defensively as they are now (they currently give up 105.9 points per game, second-worst in the league).
Harden’s skills on the other end could’ve been expected to double-dip into mediocrity when he made the superstar jump, and his usage rate ascended. He’s asked to do a ton for his team offensively, and the Rockets’ prerogative has always placed an extreme emphasis on getting back down to the basket as soon as possible.
This is a team that was content to try to outscore people through last season. Now that the bar’s been raised, we assume that coach Kevin McHale is instilling firmer defensive principles in the locker room—but is he?
The Golden State Warriors—members of the top-five-in-opponent-points-allowed club, giving up just 95.6 per contest—have two paltry defenders in their starting lineup in Stephen Curry and David Lee. Coach Mark Jackson finds a way to make things work anyway, because of how valuable both are on offense, and because Andrew Bogut and Andre Iguodala are capable of picking up so much slack.
Who’s to say Kevin McHale isn’t slowly gearing his squad toward a similar dynamic? As the team looks to move Omer Asik, they may be searching for the right wing defender to pair with Dwight Howard.
Such an acquisition could allow the Rockets to hide Harden on offense as much as the Warriors hide Curry. Harden, like Curry, shares the rarefied air of players so valuable on offense that they're worth working around on defense.
Lessening Harden’s defensive load is essential for Houston if they’re to continue expecting him to be the motor of their mega-aggressive offense, which is currently leading the league with 109.7 points per game.
But making up for Harden’s one-sided responsibilities is a tall task at the moment. Jeremy Lin and Chandler Parsons, his most frequent partners in the backcourt and on the wing, are shameless ball hawks who often suffer lapses in coverage through failed attempts to create turnovers.
These habits point to a larger problem in Houston, and it’s one that not even the greatest of wing defenders would solve. The team simply hasn’t found a desired stylistic balance—the polarity of their offensive and defensive success illustrates this more clearly than anything.
While Harden may look halfhearted on defense at times, he can hardly be to blame for his squad’s not knowing what it needs to be.
Harden needs to do more than hang his head and feebly swat at the ball as scorers blow by him on backdoor cuts—absolutely. But the onus to improve the overall defensive situations he’s in is beyond him. While he should show more energy defensively, he shouldn't have to expend so much effort that's less useful to his team, since he's already a ball-handler, passer, space-creator and scorer.
Dwight Howard hasn’t offered the level of rim protection many expected, and the tenacious Patrick Beverley is one of the only perimeter players on the roster who’s a natural defender. Ronnie Brewer is on board too, but McHale never plays him—perhaps he should.
The Beard already changed the culture in Houston once—he made them winners again; he made Houston basketball exciting and proud in 2012-13. It would be unrealistic and unfair to expect him to change the scene again, especially by expecting him to morph into something he’s not and has never been.
Help has to come from above, from the kind of systemic alteration for which only coaching and management can be held accountable.