James Harden's struggles on defense are well-documented.
His reputation on that end of the floor has followed accordingly, with Harden now considered among the NBA's worst defenders. But is this type of inductive reasoning really justified?
Harden has been caught mindlessly wandering around the perimeter while his man cuts to the basket. He can be seen lazily swiping at the ball, refusing to slide his feet quickly during help rotation while a ball-handler coasts to the rim for an easy opportunity.
The egregious nature of some of his worst lapses has all but sealed his reputation in the court of public opinion. Each ensuing error only piles on the narrative even further, solidifying his status as a clear-cut defensive liability.
But the label implies a logical leap that overlooks a crucial aspect of defense—technical ability.
Defense is both effort and skill.
There's zero doubt that Harden is missing the former. Yet somehow that shortcoming has overwhelmed any objective analysis of the latter, and his unwillingness to try on defense has fueled a false reputation of technical deficiency as well.
Reviewing tape of Harden's more successful defensive possessions reveals the inaccuracy of this assumption.
Yes, he could stand to ball-watch less and keep his head on a swivel a bit more. His level of awareness needs to be several notches higher.
But when he is locked in, Harden shows high-level anticipation skills and a knack for dictating direction to an offensive player.
Good defenders are able to react to an offensive player's moves with the ball and contest any shot. They don't get blown by, and they don't give up open jumpers. They're gnats—constantly whizzing around the personal space of an opponent, bothering his every move and making him uncomfortable.
Great defenders push offensive players to the sides of the floor and simply deny access to driving lanes. This requires both elite quickness to beat offensive players to their spots and the physicality to withstand body blows.
Here's a good defensive possession by Tony Allen of the Memphis Grizzlies. Notice how he crowds Washington Wizards point guard John Wall's space throughout the drive, crossover and pull-up shot. Wall is unable to generate an inch of room.
Here's a great defensive possession by LeBron James, then of the Miami Heat. As Paul George of the Indiana Pacers attempts to drive left, James bodies him and forces a backpedal dribble. George regroups and heads right, only to bounce off James once again.
This corners him into taking a huge step-back jumper, shifting George from an elbow isolation to a fadeaway from the three-point line in the corner.
What Harden may lack in lateral quickness is more than made up for in upper body strength. His thick frame can be a huge asset on defense to trouble quicker guards trying to slip by on either side.
Weaker defenders typically cede space when bracing for marginal contact as a mechanism to avoid fouls. Collisions between an offensive and defensive player rarely result in an offensive foul, and so brushing up against a defender before flailing is a one of the oldest tricks in the book to earn a trip to the free-throw line.
More physical defenders, however, are able to repel drives by appearing to be the aggressor in such situations. If it's the offensive player who's bouncing backwards off the defender, it appears as though he's trying to embellish the contact.
In any physical confrontation, officials tend to side with the sturdier player. That's where more bullish defenders have a leg up.
Still, pure power isn't enough.
It's on the defender to occupy a spot on the floor before the offensive player can, and this requires the virtually unteachable ability to see through crossovers, stutters and every other ball-handling gimmick.
It takes an intuitive and gifted player to quickly and accurately determine a player's intended direction before he takes a step.
Beneath the layers of lethargy and negligence, there is a defensive basketball player within Harden who has these instincts.
According to Bobby Gonzalez of Sheridan Hoops, he started showing it off a bit to the Team USA staff before the FIBA World Cup began:
I spoke to several members of the USAB staff, and behind the scenes they were amazed at how good James Harden has become as an overall player since his last tour with Team USA two years ago. The fact that he came in and was focused on being a lockdown defender blew them away.
It was evident at times during the NBA season last year as well.
Check out this possession against the Denver Nuggets from last season when the Nuggets try to free up Randy Foye with a dribble handoff in a late-game situation.
Harden immediately recognizes Foye's desire to turn the corner and cuts him off well above the three-point line. By squaring his body up to Foye's direction, he's in perfect position to ward off a foul call as well as force Foye to reset.
Foye's next move is a left-right crossover followed by a hard dribble toward the rim.
Most defensive players in this situation would back off and remain vertical, attempting to contest the shot and hope for the best.
Harden's methods are a bit bolder but far more effective: He holds his ground right next to Foye while sliding his feet and never yielding an inch.
If you pay close attention to his lead foot (left), he's actually sliding well ahead of Foye and placing himself in between Foye and the bucket should he try to angle his drive toward the rim.
Foye is no slouch himself, and he tries to read Harden's defense by dipping his shoulder to initiate contact and create separation. Weaker players will budge here and draw back slightly because it's difficult to withstand such an impact without immediately backpedaling.
This would play right into Foye's hands, however, and give him the requisite room to fire off an uncontested shot. In fact, it's what he's counting on.
Harden's upper body strength ruins this plan. He's able to absorb the hit easily, and Foye reacts by taking a giant step backward as a last resort.
The ensuing pull-up is no good and contested well by Harden. He's controlling Foye's direction the entire time and is able to explode toward the ball once he senses a shot coming.
Comb through any NBA player's game tape and you're bound to find some pretty embarrassing clips.
In the course of an NBA season, every player can't be on point all the time. Eighty-two games, thousands of minutes, hundreds of miles of travel and more would weigh heavily on anyone.
These players are human, after all, and prone to the occasional slip-up.
Harden, for whatever reason, has become the most convenient whipping boy and a major target of scrutiny. Fans and media alike have drawn a conclusion and are waiting to pounce on any ensuing futility.
That's not to say that he isn't deserving of much of the criticism he receives. There's no excuse for simply not trying, no matter how important an offensive tool you are as a player.
Defense is a five-man operation, and any broken link in the chain undermines the entire structure.
The sum is greater than its individual parts.
But Harden isn't quite as bad as he's made out to be on the defensive end. He's certainly shown flashes of capability, both in guarding players in isolation and working within the confines of a structured system.
Whether he can ever play with consistency is an entirely different question, and one only he can answer.
It all starts with effort.