- Ethan Sherwood Strauss, ESPN Staff Writer
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James Harden’s selection to the All-NBA first team is a wrong choice that an intelligent person could easily make. On the (bearded) face of things, he’s a perfect selection.
He puts up 25 and 6, raw totals befitting a superstar. And unlike some other ball-dominant stat-stuffers, Harden’s points come efficiently at a 61.8 percent true shooting clip. Sure, he takes a bunch of terrible, Nick Young-esque step-back jumpers, but all those free throws erase the debt of his bad decisions. He is not the enemy of Advanced Stat America in the way that, say, Monta Ellis was.
So what’s the problem?
Let’s start with what happens on the other side of the court. The man with the Rip Van Winkle beard perpetually plays defense like he just woke up. It’s difficult for a perimeter player to become an Internet sensation because of bad defense, but in this instance the fame is well earned. Harden isn’t just mediocre or even flawed as a defender, he’s corrosive to his team’s efforts on that end, a saboteur to Daryl Morey’s continuous goal of building a top-10 defense.
I could point you in the direction of Harden’s Real Plus-Minus (77th on defense among shooting guards), but the eye test might be even more indicative. Spend a few games watching Harden lose his guy off the ball, waddle around screens and bystander to blow-by layups. For long stretches, his only nod to the art of defending will be a late attempt to poke the ball from an opponent dribbling past.
It’s easy to dismiss this flaw in Harden’s game by pointing out that other guards have defensive issues too. But that justification reveals the defense conversation as too binary, split between simple categories of “bad” and “good.” There are degrees, and Harden is an awful defensive guard to the degree that he’s different from the others. All-NBA second-teamer Stephen Curry certainly isn’t a defensive plus for the Warriors, given his slight build, but it’s a mistake to conflate that with Harden’s nightly trudge of apathy.
I wish I weren't making Curry’s case from the Bay Area, because assumptions of homerism might distract you from how Curry beat Harden in player efficiency ratings and win shares. You might dismiss the strategic boon of teams altering defensive game plans to reckon with Curry’s 3-pointers off the dribble, and you might dismiss how Golden State was far more dependent on Curry (+14.9 points per 100 possessions when he played) than Houston was on Harden (+7.6). It’s a shame, because there just isn’t a great case for Harden against Curry beyond Houston winning three more games. He’s a worse defensive player, and he had a slightly inferior offensive season.
Speaking of Harden’s offensive season, it was good but hardly transcendent. He cleaned up against bad defenses, averaging a 114 offensive rating against bottom-20 defenses and a 105 offensive rating against the top 10. There’s nothing wrong with racking up stats against bad defenses (all stars do it to a certain degree), but speaking subjectively, I think it speaks to how Harden’s game lacks dimensions that other elite perimeter playmakers can claim, a reality that has been exposed in the past two playoff series in which Harden was the primary focus of the defensive game plan. He dribbles well and passes decently but suffers from a lack of facility with his right hand. He’s a good shooter -- not a great one -- and far from an elite athlete.
Many possessions are “get-fouled-or-bust” for Harden, who (not that it should matter in the voting) presents one of the least aesthetically pleasing styles among the NBA's stars. He takes flopping to the “difference in kind” degree he takes bad defense, bending rules until they comically break like splintered cork bats on a baseball field.
At the slightest hint of contact, he’ll conjure more fake whiplash than the shadiest personal injury lawyer and fling his beard to the sky like he’s trying to stab the Jumbotron with it. Many of his scoop layups are just pretexts for raking an extended arm into some sucker who’s just trying to play defense. Harden is not opposed to leaping at a defender while shooting, as though his jumper is naturally taken with a sideways, midair lean.
His dribble-heavy style could be described as “cynical Lance Stephenson.” Both shooting guards dominate the ball, and both like to shoot off the dribble, but Harden’s foul drawing allows him to be a far better player. Well, that and his relative sanity.
How did this happen, then? How did someone with such an unseemly style prevail in the voting? Harden’s case was aided by a few external factors. Russell Westbrook played at an All-NBA level but didn’t log enough games due to injury. Kobe Bryant might have had a (sentiment-based) shot were it not for his leg nearly atrophying into something as thin and bendy as an actual mamba snake. Chris Paul won a deserved first-team selection but probably lost some votes to Harden on account of missing 20 games.
Harden also likely benefited from that SG listed by his name. For whatever reason, we feel an attachment to the distinct category for players who are slightly taller than most point guards yet slightly shorter than the average wing. That, however, could soon be outdated thinking -- just like lumping the entire league into categories of “bad” and “good” defense. Today, though, the cynical shooting guard triumphs. He just drew a foul on us all.