HOUSTON — If there’s one thing the Rockets tired of more than seeing replays of Damian Lillard’s lethal dagger over the summer, it was hearing the criticism of James Harden’s defense. Or what there was of it.
The All-NBA first team guard was a virtual pin cushion on social media for his lack of commitment to the part of the game that didn’t involve his trying to put the ball into the basket.
“I hear it,” Harden said at the annual Media Day gathering on Monday. “I don’t pay attention to it. I’m not a really good defender. At times I can be really bad.
“A lot of stars, their defense is bad. That’s a category I know I have to get better at. For us to go and reach our potential, that’s something that has to be done. That’s one of the things I’m excited about this season. I have no choice.”
Harden raised some eyebrows when he told an interviewer that he regarded himself as the best all-around player in the NBA.
“I wasn’t saying that to be cocky,” he said. “I’ve just put such hard work and effort into my craft. Obviously we know there’s a lot of great talent out there in this league.”
Perhaps Harden even made the statement to set the bar even higher to motivate himself.
“Probably, to play the way I know I can play,” he said. “My teammates know I can play. Like I said, I got to get better at both ends. It’s just me focusing on all possessions. Being able to concentrate on small things.”
Coach Kevin McHale, with his pedigree as player, knows about the small and large things that go into the making of champion, including getting defensive effort from even the biggest offensive gun.
“We talked about all that,” McHale said. “We’ve constantly been challenging James to take on challenges. He knows he’s got to improve in areas. We asked him to do a lot last year. We’ll ask him to do a lot this year. There’s a lot of offensive pressure on him to deliver every night, but you still got to go out there and play the other side of the ball.
“He’s a young guy that’s growing into being a leader, growing into who he is. We won 54 games last year. He was first team All-Pro. I know there’s not anything above first team. that’s about as good as you get. He must have done a lot of really good things. Like all our guys, he’s got to improve in areas. He knows that. He’s not afraid to work.
“Your defense is based on help and help principles. But if (a teammate) gets beat every time, I say, ‘Oh, my God I got to get over and help again.’ If (a teammate) shuts down his guy, there’s a calmness in me. I’m not over-helping. I’m not thinking, ‘Oh my.’
“It’s a trust factor of doing your job on defense. It’s not always relying on the trust that is built in. Your object as a defender is to not use that help all that time. Use it when guys make great moves. You can’t get beat on average moves. You can’t get beat on just average stuff. You gotta just make guys work hard to beat you. It’s simple things.
“In the end, if you play on a team that is championship caliber team, there is a huge amount of trust. That trust comes from you doing your job night after night after night after night, so that everybody can trust each other.”
The Rockets are hoping that a lineup that includes three players — Dwight Howard, Trevor Ariza and Patrick Beverley — who love to sink their teeth in on defense can rub off and put some bite into Harden’s defense.
“It’s not the fact that I can’t do it,” he said. “I’m a pretty good defender. It’s me being focused on the small things that I lose track of. I know that. Like I said, in order for Rockets to reach potential, I got to get better at that end.”