It’s become commonplace to yuk it up every time we catch James Harden sleepwalking on defense. It’s such easy fodder for a guy who believes he’s the best all-around player in the NBA. In the same Q&A where Bruce Bowen talked about Tracy McGrady and Vince Carter settling and why it’s unfair he’s been labeled a “dirty player, San Antonio Express-News scribe Dan McCarney also asked Bowen about watching Harden’s defense. Bowen’s answer might surprise you.
Bowen doesn’t blame James, so much as the coaching staff in Houston. By way of the San Antonio Express-News, comes Bowen’s illuminating answer:
See, I don’t cringe, because I remember him in OKC. In fairness to James, yes, (his defense) has been terrible, but what are the principles in Houston? I’m very disappointed in their team concept. That’s what I don’t see. So, if there are no rules and regulations, how do you hold anyone accountable? Speaking to James about this, he’ll say it – “I know I have to do a better job.” But without any direction, without a coach saying, hey, we’re going to send this player baseline because that will be our best bet, it’s really tough. Defense is something you have to practice very day, especially rotations. We went over our rotations every day in all my eight years in San Antonio. You would think me, Tim [Duncan], Tony [Parker] and Manu [Ginobili] all knew what we were supposed to do. But others don’t. They have to become as familiar as we were. That’s why I go back to principles. Go back to OKC and they’re playing the Lakers, he guarded Kobe pretty well. That’s why I say, what’s going on (in Houston) is about something else.
Bowen’s right — at least in terms of Harden’s increased effort on defense with the Thunder. In particular, the defense James played on Kobe Bryant — not so coincidentally, Harden’s favorite player as a kid in SoCal — when the Thunder knocked out Kobe’s Lakers 4-1 in the 2012 Western Conference Semifinals.
Harden was also praised by Team USA coaches for his defense during training camp before the US captured gold at the FIBA World Cup. Then again, once play at the World Cup started, he got lost on defense a few times even though the American team was strong enough his lapses didn’t really matter:
Still, it’s what Bowen notes about his time with the champion Spurs that sticks out here. Practicing rotations day in, and day out, is how you play defense on a string, even with new personnel. That’s why — even though Duncan, Manu, Parker and Bowen all played together for a number of consecutive years — the Spurs practiced those rotations so much they became second nature to the regulars and the newbies could catch on faster. After a while, the key nucleus of Spurs players — including Bowen — reacted on instinct with their fast twitch muscles taking over before their brain could even comprehend why they were sliding to cover someone’s man.
It’s a testament to Popovich and his staff to repeat those rotations even for those players who knew them inside and out. Repetition breeds familiarity which leads to better team defense.
According to Bowen, there’s no incentive for Harden to work hard on defense because they’re not working on those rotations as a team. Sure, Patrick Beverley can hound an opposing ball handler in the backcourt and Dwight Howard can be a force protecting the rim, but until the Rockets are playing defense on a string — as a whole unit — Harden’s defensive lapses will continue to pop up throughout the season.
And something Bowen doesn’t mention and failed to mention when he was talking about T-Mac and Vince, is the responsibility Harden, McGrady and Vince have all shouldered as the primary offensive weapon for their team (not so for Vince anymore, but back in the day, yes). Sure, Harden asked for that increased role when he declined OKC’s less-than-max contract before he was dealt to Houston to be “The Man” in the fall of 2012, but part of that is role is defense, though Bowen’s prognosis shouldn’t be discounted.
Do you agree with Bowen?
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