Sacramento Kings

NBA Beat: Harden commits to making his defense less offensive

Houston guard James Harden, playing at Memphis this month, has had his defensive lapses spotlighted in clips on YouTube.
Houston guard James Harden, playing at Memphis this month, has had his defensive lapses spotlighted in clips on YouTube. AP

If you want a good laugh, type “James Harden defense” into a YouTube search.

There you’ll find a collection of Harden’s “defense,” including a clip more than 11 minutes long compiling his many follies and misadventures.

Harden knows we’re laughing. He even pokes fun at himself in a recent commercial, stating that he is not “defensive.”

After all, no one would ever accuse Harden of being defensive.

As one of the most gifted offensive players in the NBA, Harden has been an All-Star for the Houston Rockets and won Sixth Man of the Year honors with the Oklahoma City Thunder.

But for the Rockets to truly become a championship team, Harden knows he has to become a two-way player. It’s hard for a team to reach elite status when its best player doesn’t buy in on one end of the court.

Following a successful run with Team USA, Harden is prepared to put himself in the MVP mix.

“Oh definitely, definitely,” Harden said. “I’m getting better every single day. I think one of the things that was missing was my defense. I think that’s been pretty solid thus far this season. Just trying to find ways to lead my team, find ways to get the job done.”

That’s right. Harden is going to commit to playing defense.

Harden has needed to be at his best as the Rockets have dealt with injuries to Dwight Howard, Terrence Jones and Patrick Beverley this season.

Entering Saturday, Harden was averaging 24.7 points, 6.7 assists, 6.3 rebounds, 1.8 steals and 1.1 blocks.

It helps Harden to have a point guard like Beverley, who is a defensive pest. There’s also small forward Trevor Ariza, who signed a four-year deal to return to Houston and can affect games defensively, too.

Throw in Howard, a former Defensive Player of the Year, Harden has enough reinforcements to realize it’s OK to be defensive.

It’s not that Harden doesn’t have the tools to be a competent defender. He’s got good size (6-foot-5, 220 pounds) and great instincts.

But as YouTube would show you, too often Harden’s mind looked to be elsewhere when his man had the ball.

There are signs that could be a less frequent occurrence. Rockets coach Kevin McHale said Harden is being more physical on defense this season.

“I think we’ve tried to change up our defense so we’re all more physical; that feeds into him more because he is a big, strong guy,” McHale said. “I think he’s getting down in his stance, really worked at trying to keep people in front of him more. I think his physicality of trying to blow up screens and blow up actions helps him a lot.”

Asked what’s different this season, Harden said “just focus, focus.”

“The first two years (in Houston) was just me still trying to figure out the superstar role and being able to score a lot of points,” Harden said. “Now it’s on both ends of the floor at a high level. I’ve pretty much got the points down pat; now it’s just me playing defense, making sure I get my teammates involved, making sure I rebound the ball, making sure I make an impact each and every game.”

If that impact is made on defense, those YouTube compilations will be shorter on time and laughs.

Trending up

With the Lakers and Knicks looking to upgrade quickly, Marc Gasol could be the jewel among available big men next summer.

Gasol, the NBA Defensive Player of the Year two seasons ago, is showing off an improved offensive game, averaging 20.2 points after never averaging even 15 in his first six seasons.

He’s one of the best passing big men, and the Grizzlies will be hesitant to let him walk. The Lakers drafted Gasol and traded him as part of the deal that sent his older brother, Pau, to the Lakers to be a member of two championship teams.

The man who coached those teams, Phil Jackson, now runs basketball operations in New York.

It should be a good summer for Marc.

Trending down

“Born Ready” hasn’t been ready to take a big role with his new team yet.

Lance Stephenson is averaging 9.8 points and shooting just 36.9 percent for Charlotte. Stephenson was benched for the entire fourth quarter in consecutive games last week.

Stephenson argued he should have been an All-Star last season. At this rate, there will be no such debate.

Last words

“To be fair, one of the things that’s made it more difficult for him is that he came here and people proclaimed him as the next superstar. He’s not a star. He’s a guy that has talent to become a star. To be a star in this league, you have to do it over years.”

Charlotte coach Steve Clifford, discussing Stephenson’s struggles this season with reporters.

Follow The Bee’s Jason Jones on Twitter @mr_jasonjones and read more about the team at www.sacbee.com/kings.

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