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FILM STUDY: Taking a look at James Harden’s unique style of defense

Brooklyn Nets v Detroit Pistons Photo by Brian Sevald/NBAE via Getty Images

Since arriving in Brooklyn in mid-January, James Harden has been a prolific offensive player. He’s averaging 11 assists, the highest mark in the league, and has posted 12 double-doubles as a member of the Nets as well as four triple-doubles. To top it all off, Brooklyn’s offense has been scoring at a scorching rate of 118.7 points per 100 possessions, which would be good for second in the league if extrapolated over the entire season - trailing only the Bucks by less than a point (Per NBA Stats).

Defense, however, is a whole other story. Much has been made about Brooklyn’s struggles on the defensive end, especially since the blockbuster trade for “The Beard.” Their defensive rating has plummeted to 27th in the league, but I don’t think the blame falls on Harden there. Rather, it’s the players who the Nets sent out in the move: Jarrett Allen, Caris LeVert and Taurean Prince with Allen being their defensive fulcrum. Allen has now been (somewhat permanently) replaced in the starting lineup by DeAndre Jordan, who’s age has caught up to him and is no longer the mobile rim protector he once was in his prime with the “Lob City” Clippers.

Harden, however, has shown promising signs as a defender. Despite being a traditional guard in the offense, his quickness and physicality allows him to go for steals and body up with bigger wings and forwards, adding up to a unique style. Let’s take a look at the components of Harden’s defensive game, and the strengths and weaknesses associated with them.

Harden loves to swipe at the ball!

I was always taught to defend laterally, with your legs and not your arms. “You reach, I teach” was a saying popularized by the GOAT Michael Jordan, and yet, Harden seemingly opts to play the opposite. He’s averaged 1.6 steals per game for his career, a moderately high mark for a guard. However, there is some risk involved in his reach-heavy style. When Harden sticks out his arm in transition, he essentially gives up defensive position and can let the other team run by him.

Here, Harden is guarding Danny Green in transition with a barreling Ben Simmons coming down the floor at high speed. Objectively, not an easy situation to be in as a defense. Harden makes it worse, though, with a risky gamble where he lunges at Simmons, leaving Green — a knockdown shooter — completely wide open in the corner. Harden needs to be smarter when he reaches, and that includes having positional awareness on the floor of where his man is and if his teammates can help if he’s caught out of position.

For example, this is a much smarter swipe for Harden. Reddish had already put his head down to start the upward motion towards the rim, putting Goodwin out of his line of sight. Considering the dwindling clock and Reddish’s shot-heavy style, it was all but a certainty he was going up with it. The Nets don’t end up with any points off of Harden’s steal, but those extra possessions pay off in the long run.

Call it risky, call it dumb, call it whatever you want. Harden’s tendency to swipe down at the ball instead of contesting is unorthodox. It’s a valuable move in certain situations. So, let’s examine the risk-reward factor: the reward is a steal, one of the most valuable plays in basketball because it creates a live-ball transition situation with a defense on its heels. In fact, since Harden’s debut, the Nets average 120.3 points per 100 possessions off of steals, which would rank first in the league for the entire year.

The risk, however, is such: the offensive player gets an uncontested shot attempt, which has a high chance of going in. That second part is crucial, though. Whether or not this swipe-down move by Harden is directly related to the shot’s degree of difficulty matters because the risk factor will be lower. In that case, this swipe by Harden on Grant is a good decision, because a one-legged fadeaway jump shot is going to be difficult, even if Jerami Grant drops it in with ease.

Elite Post Presence

One of the most underrated aspects of Harden’s game is his post defense. Standing at only 6’5” inches and 220 pounds, opposing forwards and bigs may see Harden as a mismatch down low, whereas he is anything but. His wide frame and stature allows him to body up down low ... and post presence doesn’t require much lateral movement. Last year, he had the second best points per possession numbers for any post defender who got posted up a minimum of 12 percent of the time, according to NBA Stats. That talent has continued to shine in Brooklyn.

Sometimes, opponents will get the best of him down low. The Nets will need to learn how to scheme around this unique skill of his.

Part of it, Harden has said, is simply the lack of practice days to solidify the Nets defense.

“The schedule is so crazy that we’re playing four times a week and no time to practice,” he told ESPN’s Rachel Nichols. “It has to be throughout the course of the games that we’re learning, you know, and I think we’re going to use this season for that.”

The Nets are poised to make a deep playoff run, and they’ll need every ounce of defensive talent as possible to bring the Larry O’Brien trophy to Brooklyn. James Harden told Rachel Nichols recently that the Nets just need to be “solid” on that end, and that includes him.