It seems impossible now, but there was a time when James Harden was considered a capable defender. Before he was traded to the Houston Rockets and began shouldering the heavy offensive load of a superstar playmaker, Harden showed flashes of strong defensive ability with the Oklahoma City Thunder. They’ve been totally absent the past two seasons, of course, but that doesn’t mean Harden lacks the physical ability to be an impactful presence on that end of the floor. And in training camp with Team USA last week, Harden reportedly impressed the coaching staff with his long-dormant defensive ability.
This encouraging news is courtesy of SheridanHoops.com’s Bobby Gonzalez.
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…
But now I am being told Harden is getting it done on [defense], which has always been the major complaint about his game.
It’s no surprise that Harden has committed defensively thus far with USA Basketball. There’s no better way for star players to learn new habits than playing with the national team, a sentiment routinely echoed by its members since the Redeem Team righted the ship at the 2008 Olympics. Constantly competing with and against players of the highest caliber forces All-Stars to raise their on-court games and gain a better appreciation for the work ethic of their peers.
Harden’s supposed defensive impact is just the latest example. His oft-comical deficiencies on that end have never been related to physical limitations. Harden is long, strong, and incredibly coordinated – he should be a net zero defender at the very least. But the evolution of young players takes time, and expecting Harden to give utmost effort on that end while adjusting to carrying such a burden on the other was never realistic. Still, his engagement on defense was simply embarrassing last season:
Now, star offensive players are expected to conserve energy on defense – to an extent. Nobody in the league knows how and when to flip his on-off defensive switch like LeBron James, for instance. But even on James’ worst defensive nights you’ll rarely see him completely lose his man off the ball or consistently fail to execute simple help rotations. Those are the aspects Harden needs to clean up first and foremost, and his play with Team USA is a sign he might be ready to do in 2014-2015.
Might is the operative word there. Will Harden revert to his listless defensive tendencies when asked to do a lion’s share of playmaking with the Rockets? Time will tell. For now, Harden’s performance on that end for USA Basketball is a reminder that he can be a helpful defender when he so chooses. Here’s hoping Harden makes the same choice as the NBA season gets underway in late October.
(Video via How U)
Will Harden improve defensively in 2014-2015?
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