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Thursday, February 04, 2021

The Defense Rests: The Harden Effect/Defect

Many media members love offense, and they also love "advanced basketball statistics." This is why we used to see and hear so many stories about how efficiently Steve Nash's teams played on offense, and that is why we often see and hear so many stories about how efficiently James Harden's teams play on offense. Of course, Steve Nash's teams never advanced to the NBA Finals, and James Harden's lone trip to the NBA Finals happened nearly a decade ago when he was Oklahoma City's third option behind Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. 

The stories that we do not see and hear as often as we should pertain to defense and rebounding. If you are college age or younger, you were not alive during the "Last Dance" season when the Chicago Bulls capped off their second three-peat in 1998. Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen were great offensive players who could score inside or outside and who could create scoring opportunities for their teammates with their passing skills. You may have seen their highlights and assumed that the Bulls won six championships because of all of the points that Jordan and Pippen scored.

However, if you want to watch or study just one game to understand why the Bulls were so great then that game would be game seven of the 1998 Eastern Conference Finals, when the Bulls defeated the Indiana Pacers, 88-83. The Bulls shot .382 from the field, with Jordan (9-25, .360) and Pippen (6-18, .333) both shooting poorly. However, Pippen led both teams with 12 rebounds and six offensive rebounds, while Jordan had nine rebounds (including five offensive rebounds). The Bulls were physically and mentally drained after making deep playoff runs for so many seasons, but with their season on the line their defensive principles, their rebounding, and their tenacity carried them to victory.

Another defensive masterpiece that is worth watching and studying is game three of the 1998 Finals, when the Bulls set numerous records while humiliating the Utah Jazz, 98-54. The Bulls held the Jazz--who featured the legendary pick and roll combination of Karl Malone and John Stockton--to .300 field goal shooting. Even the Bulls could not replicate that suffocating defense every game, but that game--in a series during which the other games were each decided by five points or less--highlighted the Bulls' defensive dominance, and made it clear that the Bulls were the superior team that would find a way to prevail in the series. Game six of that series was a defensive slugfest during which Pippen aggravated a back injury that would require offseason surgery to repair two ruptured disks, but he had a game-high +16 plus/minus number; Pippen made his presence felt during that game not so much on offense (eight points on 4-7 field goals shooting, four assists in 26 minutes) but rather on defense. Jordan got the headlines and the Finals MVP after scoring 45 points (on 15-35 field goal shooting) and nailing the famous game-winning jumper over Bryon Russell, but the Bulls were in a position to win because of their defense. 

While those two games are outliers in terms of rebounding and defense, they represent excellent examples of the building blocks of the Bulls' greatness. The 1997-98 Bulls ranked ninth in points per game and 15th in field goal percentage, but they posted a 62-20 record and won their third straight title because of their stifling defense, ranking third in points allowed and fifth in defensive field goal percentage. 

Being the high-flying, high-scoring "Air Jordan" helped Michael Jordan to sell merchandise and become a pop culture icon--but playing defense helped Jordan and his teammates become champions.

Great defense is not a "sometime" thing; great defense is built on habits and principles that must be established team-wide from the start of the season, and those habits and principles must be emphasized during practices and games.

Nash is now the head coach of the Nets, and his top assistant is Mike D'Antoni, who was Nash's coach when Nash won two MVPs with the Phoenix Suns. The D'Antoni-Nash philosophy is to play up tempo, shoot a lot of three pointers, score a lot of points, and play just enough defense to survive. The Nets give lip service to playing defense, but defense is not a part of the team's core philosophy: it is not part of their daily grind, and when things get tough during the playoffs it is not a pillar upon which they will be able to lean when the offense gets bogged down--and if a Michael Jordan-led offense can get bogged down, then any offense can get bogged down.

While the defensive mindset starts with the coaching staff, it is essential that the players adopt that mindset. Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen were great defensive players throughout their careers. In contrast, James Harden's defense is notoriously bad: he is slow to get back in transition, he does not stay attached to his man off of the ball in the half court set, and he is far too often little more than a traffic cone as an on the ball defender on the perimeter or in the open court. In recent years, Harden's supporters point to his post defense as a positive, and there are "advanced" numbers that support the notion that he is a good post defender. You don't need the numbers to know that, though; the eye test shows that Harden is deceptively strong, and that his strength enables him to hold his own even against bigger players, including elite players such as Kawhi Leonard (as we saw the other night, when Leonard could not budge Harden in a post up situation). Harden appears to take it as a personal challenge when the opposing team engineers a switch and then posts him up. Of course, holding one's ground in the post for a few seconds on a few possessions a game does not mean that someone is a good defensive player; what Harden does--and does not do--during the rest of the game matters more, and sets an example that his teammates follow.

If media members are going to give Harden so much credit for Houston's offensive efficiency the past several years, then media members should also mention the defensive numbers. Last season, the Rockets ranked 23rd out of 30 teams in points allowed (114.8 ppg) and they ranked 14th in defensive field goal percentage (.462). So far this season, the Rockets rank eighth in points allowed (109.1 ppg) and they rank fifth in defensive field goal percentage (.447). The numbers for the Nets are reversed; without Harden last season, the Nets ranked 18th in points allowed (112.3 ppg) and they ranked sixth in defensive field goal percentage (.446), but this season the Nets rank 28th in points allowed (117.8 ppg) and they rank 11h in defensive field goal percentage (.457).

No, one player should not receive all of the credit or blame for his team's defense (or offense, for that matter), and yes, the sample size for this season is small, but these numbers are worth monitoring. 

Kevin Durant proved that he can be an above average defensive player on two championship teams. Kyrie Irving proved that, at the very least, he can avoid being a fatal defensive liability on a championship team. However, if Harden does not commit to becoming a good defensive player then the Nets are not strong enough defensively at other positions to make up for his deficiencies. The Nets do not have a strong defensive presence in the paint, nor do they have a defensive stopper on the perimeter. It may be true that their offense will be so good at peak power that they will not need to be great defensively to win a title--though I am skeptical of that notion--but they will not win a title if they are below average defensively, and since Harden joined the Nets the team is well below average defensively.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:49 PM



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