Defense Ain’t My Game: Being Kyrie Irving and James Harden

It’s so easy to credit players for their outstanding offense that fans often forget about the importance of defense in basketball. Two stars with equally terrible defensive reputations are Kyrie Irving and James Harden. Both players are crucial on offense but liabilities on defense. Kyrie Irving is considered one of the worst point guards defensively, but that’s only because James Harden is a shooting guard. Harden beats Irving as league worst non- defender scorer because he doesn’t defend most of the time.

Kyrie Irving is ranked #83 in defensive impact in ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus with -3.20, making him the third worst point guard defensively in the NBA in 2015-16. In the shooting guard class, Harden is ranked #48 with a defensive impact of -0.78. Irving’s rating is significantly lower, and this may be because they play different positions.

The players that Irving has to guard, like Stephen Curry and Russell Westbrook, are very strong offensive players. It makes sense that Irving would lose many points to these stars, just as they do to him. Harden, on the other hand, is clearly one of the top (if not the top) offensive shooting guards in the NBA and usually will not be going up against a player of similar caliber. Most other shooting guards don’t compare to Harden. This would make the overall number of points scored on him far lower than that on Irving.

Harden averaged an impressive 6.1 rebounds and 1.7 steals this season, but these stats are very inconsistent. He has gotten as few as 1 rebound in a single game (Timberwolves) while playing 32 minutes.

Kyrie Irving maintained an average of 3.0 rebounds and 0.3 blocks per game this past season. In the playoffs, his blocks increased to 0.6 per game and his rebounds decreased slightly. Being a point guard, he can’t be expected to excel in these components of the game. His performance is almost understandable; however, these stats are especially low for a star who plays over 30 minutes each game.

The Cavalier’s weak perimeter defense became especially apparent during the beginning of the NBA Finals, when the Warriors kept sinking open three pointers and long two’s. Irving took the brunt of the blame for this from Cleveland fans and quickly brought his defense together by Game 4. Going from ground zero to blocking Curry’s layup and making quick steals (he averaged 1.8 steals per game in the playoffs), Irving became a very active player on defense when the game was on the line. By Game 6, the Cavs’ defense was noticeably more effective than that of the casual Warriors. And by Game 7, the Cavs threw a bunch of bigs at Steph Curry, not willing to risk Irving’s lack of detail on the defensive end.

James Harden is a completely different story. He simply doesn’t try. Whether he knows how to play defense is still a mystery because he’s rarely active enough in the backcourt to show it. He fails to stay in front of his man and doesn’t bother to hustle when his opponent drives. Sometimes he even lets players through space by simply turning and keeping his feet static. Shots hit the rim and backboard as he stands in place, watching and waiting for his teammates to take care of rebounding.

With this attitude, Harden is a poor leader for his team. A leader is supposed to demonstrate the skills and characteristics ideal for all other players on the team to emulate, and Harden only succeeds in modeling laziness through his defense. Even if Kyrie Irving isn’t properly positioned on defense sometimes, he can always be seen working hard. He’s always using his speed to make up for weaknesses on defense.

Harden’s defensive shortcoming is far more significant than Irving’s because he has the potential to do a lot better. He influences the rest of the Rockets to also rely on Dwight Howard alone for all of the rebounds.

Kyrie Irving isn’t defensive player of the year either, but at least he tries. This simple motivation alters the attitude of one’s own team, and also their opposing team. The energy from one player can traverse to others on the team, like it did for the Cavs in the Finals, particularly in Game 7 with Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson on Curry.

Kyrie Irving needs to learn defensive schemes and James Harden needs to learn (and embrace) that defense is important. One of them has a future to improve and the other has yet to realize that improvement is needed.


photo via llannaba