The Defensive Short: Guarding James Harden

James Harden

Trying to defend arguably the best scorer in the NBA is no easy task. I mean, James Harden is and probably will win the Most Valuable Player award this season for a reason. He can beat you in so many ways which makes the task that much harder. Superb ball-handling, deceptive quickness, and a vicious step-back are just a few of the scoring tactics that he has under his belt. However, there are things as a defender that can be done to make Harden’s life much harder on the offensive end.

Discipline is the number one goal. Everything that’s mentioned following this paragraph is under the umbrella of discipline. Opponents must be smart and put themselves in the best position to stop Harden. Mind lapses, misreads, and things of that nature will lead to automatic baskets for a skilled guy like Harden.

Keep your hands to yourself.

That’s a phrase that we all heard as kids growing up. Fighting with siblings, cousins, or friends could get handsy at times which would cause your parents to come down on you yelling, “Keep your hands to yourself!” Well, the same could be said about guarding Harden. He has drawn the third most fouls in the NBA with 458. A lot of those are due to the simple fact that many defenders can’t keep their hands to themselves.

When he drives, he does a great job at showing the ball and luring opponents into swiping at the ball. It’s a huge reason as to why he gets to the free throw line so much. The safest technique for on-ball defenders is to build a wall and put their arms straight up. They have to rely on their teammates to help weakside to hopefully get a hand on the ball.

Another thing I’ve noticed is guys love to reach when defending the Houston guard. Reaching is a bad practice because it puts the defender in the most inopportune positions. One bad reach and Harden is on his way to the basket. The offense has a numbers advantage and everyone else on the floor is more susceptible to fouling as well.

In addition, Harden has mastered making guys pay for putting their hands in the bread basket. The number of fouls that he draws while in his shooting motion is mind-boggling and cringeworthy. If there’s a hand or a body part anywhere in his vicinity while he’s shooting then you better believe that he’s getting the call. Not to mention, he does a hell of a job selling the call as well which doesn’t help the defender either. It’s very frustrating to watch and I can only image how frustrating it must be for the coach as well.

This is why I stress discipline so adamantly. The more opportunities you give a guy like Harden the more times he’s going to make you pay. Things like reaching and fouling make his job easier.

Contest without fouling

Another teeth screeching thing I see a lot are guys fouling Harden while contesting his shot. Not just on his way up but at the peak of his shot. One of the worse things you want to see from a guy is him putting forth the effort of contesting a shot and then fouling. It’s the equivalent of making a great move to the basket and then missing the layup. For an 86.3% free throw shooter, you have to diminish the number of attempts you give him at the line. Opponents have to contest without fouling. Instead of trying to exactly block the shot, they can focus more on putting a hand in Harden’s face.

Be tough and keep your head up

As I mentioned earlier, guarding a guy like Harden is not simple. Defenders have to know he’s going to score but it’s more about making him really work for those buckets that he does score. Confidence is key on defense just as it is on offense so guys can’t get down on themselves. We saw Harden break the ankles off of Wesley Johnson and while everyone laughed and it trended on Twitter, Johnson had to keep his head up and remain playing.

What great scorers like Harden hate are pests. Being a hard-nosed defender and not giving him any personal space can make him uncomfortable. One thing I always kept in mind when playing was if I guarded someone who I knew was talented with the ball, I did my best not to let him get it. So it’s key to do things like denying him the ball and making him work on the defensive end to soak up all of his energy.

What makes the great players great are that no matter what you throw at them, they prevail. Stopping a guy like Harden is nearly impossible but things can be done to make his job harder. Defenders have to stay disciplined and put themselves in the best position possible. Keeping their hands to themselves, contesting without fouling, and being a pest are all ways to slow down this elite offensive player.


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