Houston Rockets: Who’s to Blame for James Harden’s Defensive Struggles?


James Harden’s defensive struggles have been a popular topic of conversation ever since he donned Houston Rockets’ red and white. Harden has been chided by media and fans for his lack of effort, becoming a league wide punchline all too often. But who’s to blame for Harden’s defensive shortcomings?

In a recent conversation with Dan McCarney of the San Antonio Express-News, former Spurs’ forward Bruce Bowen contends that Harden’s defensive struggles are mostly due to the Rockets lack of a defensive system. Essentially, Bowen contends that Rockets’ coach Kevin McHale should shoulder much of the blame.

“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 every day, especially rotations. We went over our rotations every day in all my eight years in San Antonio. You would think me, Tim, Tony and Manu 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.”

The Spurs former defensive lynchpin, Bowen undoubtedly understands good defense. Heck, just ask Kobe Bryant, Ray Allen, Tracy McGrady, or any other formidable wing scorer Bowen shadowed throughout his career. I understand Bowen’s sentiment to back a young player like Harden; however, I agree with NBC Sports Kurt Helin:

“Bowen is not totally wrong here. But he’s also not totally right.”

Bowen is correct about Harden’s time with the Thunder; Harden was not as much of a defensive liability, but he was not a lock down defender either. Sure, Harden did an admirable job guarding Kobe Bryant, but the key difference between Thunder Harden and Rockets Harden is playing time, offensive usage, and effort.

With the Thunder, Harden served as a sixth man and his highest minutes per game average was 31.4 in his last season. Harden’s highest usage rate was 21.6 percent, also in his last season in Oklahoma City. During his two seasons in Houston, Harden has averaged approximately 38 minutes per game and his lowest usage rate has been 27.8 percent.

As Bowen points out, Thunder Harden was a better defender, posting a 106 defensive rating during three seasons in Oklahoma City. Rockets Harden, however, has posted a 107 defensive rating over the span of two seasons. While the difference is not earth shattering (neither rating is all that solid), as Harden’s minutes and usage has increased, his defensive intensity has slipped.

While McHale’s defensive ingenuity is not on the level of, say, Bulls’ coach Tom Thibodeau, the Rockets team defense has not been quite as bad as Bowen suggests. Yes, the Rockets defensive rating has seen a slight uptick during McHale’s tenure and needs to be addressed. However, as Helin points out, the Rockets have been mostly a league average defense that has actually improved slightly when compared to the rest of the league.

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So who’s to blame for Harden’s defensive struggles, the player or the coach?

Grantland’s Jason Concepcion actually shed some light on this question in a recent article. After the debacle in Atlanta, notably the supposed “redacted” scouting reports on forward Luol Deng, Concepcion uncovered additional “redacted” scouting reports from anonymous NBA sources. One scouting report citing a former teammate of Harden is especially interesting, or amusing, or, well I’ll let you be the judge.

2013-14 Former Rockets Teammate


is a great guy to hang out with and a great teammate. Always complimented my Buffalo Jeans. We’d be out until four, five o’clock sometimes, games days, whatever. I’ve seen him drop 30 on teams the night after waking up at five in the afternoon. As for his defense, he told me that sometimes he just gets to thinking about things, like Game of Thrones theories or what we’re going to do later after the game, and he zones out. Like, there’s a video floating around that’s like a compilation of


staring out into the distance or whatever as the other team just runs by him for layups and what not. Me and


used to joke that it looked like when the batteries in your controller die. I did talk to


about it a few times. I was like, “


what’s up with your defense?” and he didn’t say anything, just stared out the window. So I asked him again and he was like, “What?” So I go, “What’s up with your defense? Sometimes it looks like when the batteries in your controller died.” Then

Jeremy Lin

sat on a one of


whoopie cushions and that distracted him so I never got an answer.

Regardless of McHale’s notable shortcomings as a leader and coach, at the end of the day Harden’s poor effort is the primary culprit for his paltry defense. Like many high volume and high usage scorers, Harden seemingly justifies his defensive lapses as conserving energy for the more glamorous side of the court.

Imagine, for just a second, what type of player Harden might be if he were merely a league average defender. A league average defender would actually attempt to stay with his man. A league average defender would actually try to battle through screens. A league average defender would be more than a stationary object on transition defense.

Sadly, Harden is not even close to a league average defender. Until he harnesses his energy on both ends of the floor, Houston fans can look forward to more of this in the coming seasons.

All statistics courtesy of basketball-reference.com unless otherwise noted.