Before we talk about anything else let's get the obvious out of the way: James Harden sucks at defense.
Whether he is physically unable to D up or its just a matter of want-to is a different matter altogether. But for all the yak-speak and YouTube montages created on the matter there's one more obvious thing to get out of the way: James Harden is a very good basketball player.
I was one of the few people who was a little apprehensive about awarding Harden max money when Daryl Morey pulled a coup just before the 2012 season and traded for him. At the time Morey called him the "foundational type of player we have been looking for."
After two years, Harden has played every bit like the type of player that Morey thought he traded for. At this point looking forward, all of our expectations are based mostly on how good James Harden is or can be.
And just how good is that? Good enough to make the All Star team in both seasons since he arrived in Houston. Good enough to earn All-NBA honors both years too (He made the third team a year ago before making the first team last year.)
His numbers have been about what you'd expect for an All-NBA caliber shooting guard. Last year he was in the top ten of pretty much every major stat category for shooting guards, and led NBA shooting guards in scoring and assists. Harden is regarded by many as the best shooting guard in the game today. But then again, its not like there's much competition, is there? The NBA today is pretty thin at the shooting guard position all around, but that's what makes it all the more puzzling that most conversations about Harden this offseason were about his terrible defense and not his offensive prowess.
His defense is so bad that it overshadows all of his other attributes. It also doesn't help that his style of play irks a lot of people. It's nice that he scores a lot of points and his little Eurostep move is a darling little thing he does, but it seems like every time you turn around Harden is pleading with refs trying to get to the free throw line.
As a basketball fan, I have an existential dilemma when it comes to a player like Harden. Basketball is the most fun to watch when baskets and possessions are traded like stocks on the NASDAQ. Basketball is NOT fun to watch when it's mostly played in between the annoying shrills of a referees whistle.
Harden is probably one of the savviest players in the NBA today. He understands the rules of the game better than most and has an affinity for good numbers and efficiency. From this perspective, it makes sense that he tries to get to the line a lot. In many situations, a foul call will yield the best opportunity for an offense to score but it's just so goddam annoying to watch. It ruins the flow of the game and its takes the crowd out of it.
Throwing your hands up in the air and gesticulating wildly as you drive the lane may be effective in getting a zebra to throw you a peanut, but it does bupkus for fans of free flowing, brisk-paced basketball. At times it seems like he's not even trying to score, but going for the foul instead.
I think this is why Harden, and the Rockets for that matter, get little in the way of respect. Quite frankly, Harden's style can come off as hacky and whiny. You couple that with the perceived disingenuousness of a Dwight Howard press conference and it's no wonder you hear rumors out there about how no one wants to play with these guys.
But then you see Harden do stuff like this:
Quibbles with his style aside, there's no denying that it is effective and we should expect way more of the same from Harden this season. Style be damned, the jersey he wears has us all hoping that Harden can build upon his current success and take his game to the highest echelons of the NBA hierarchy.
Coming into his sixth year, Harden himself knows he's on the precipice of becoming a truly elite player. As he laces up against the Lakers tonight, he knows that he will carry a heavy burden for this franchise. All the more reason to keep his shoulders square and dunk that shit instead of trying to get a whistle.