Daryl Morey has been standing up for James Harden for years. Back in 2014, the Houston Rockets general manager called the viral, 11-and-a-half-minute video of Harden’s defense “completely unfair,” saying it “bothered him in a big way” to see Harden’s worst moments compiled like that, out of context. Last season, Morey again came to Harden’s defense on Twitter, calling people out for embracing the “narrative” that Harden is clueless on that end of the floor rather than looking at how well he was playing overall.
In an interview on CBS Sports Radio and CBS Sports Network’s The Doug Gottlieb Show on Wednesday, Morey once again urged people to look at Harden in context.
“The criticism of James on defense, I think, is pretty unfair,” Morey said. “I think even he said, ‘Hey, I’m not the strongest defender.’ But I think if you compare him to the high-usage, offensive-burdened superstars, you’ll see that he’s right there with almost all of those players in term of his defense. Watch, his on-the-ball defense is very good. His ability to create turnaround plays is very good. And people don’t realize defensive rebounding is a big part of defense, and he shores up a lot of our positions where we don’t have as strong defensive rebounders.”
A few thoughts:
- You can’t argue with Morey’s point about high-usage superstars. While guys like Russell Westbrook, Damian Lillard, Isaiah Thomas, Kyrie Irving and DeMar DeRozan all take some criticism for their defense, it’s nowhere near on Harden’s level. The characterization of Harden as an inept, careless defender has become a meme precisely because of those highlight videos that Morey hates, not because he’s so much worse than everybody else.
- It would still be difficult to make a persuasive case that Harden is a helpful defender. He’s not as bad as the perception would suggest — and part of that is because of defensive rebounding, as Morey said — but he has a real problem with staying engaged away from the ball. If Houston is going to go from 23rd in defensive rating, where it is now, to 10th, where Morey said he wants to be, Harden either has to improve in this area or everybody else has to do a better job of covering for his mistakes.
- There are players in the NBA whose awful defense cancels out what they bring on the other end. Do not make the mistake of putting Harden in that category. He has been arguably the best offensive player in the entire league this season, scoring more efficiently than ever before and leading the league in assists. With him on the floor, the Rockets have an offensive rating of 114, which is just 1.1 points shy of the Golden State Warriors’ mark. Criticizing Harden’s work defensively can be fair, as long as you recognize that you’re nitpicking a deserving MVP candidate.