The GIF above showcases objectively fucking awful defense by James Harden against the Knicks last night. He makes absolutely no effort to prevent Shane Larkin from dribbling by him, he doesn't try and steal the ball, he doesn't foul Shane Larkin to stop the play, he doesn't drop back and try to turn a three-on-one into a three-on-two, and he doesn't try and chase down the ball for a block from behind. It is useless, shitty, lazy defense.
From his career in Houston, we have example after example after example after example after an entire lowlight reel of examples of James Harden not playing defense. Partially this is simply picking on Harden for the same sins that all NBA players engage in at least a couple of times over the long NBA season, but even when he's not committing gaffes, Harden is frequently disinterested in playing defense. It seems like he wants to return to playing offense as quickly as possible, even if that means letting his man score easily.
A contrarian line of thought has partially grabbed hold of the basketball cognescenti this season: what if James Harden is actually...good at defense? This argument is based almost entirely upon two things: the Rockets having the third best defensive rating in the league, and Harden's top-three ranking in Basketball-Reference's defensive win shares. We'll address the Rockets team defense in a minute, but first, basing anything more than a slice of an argument on defensive win shares is bad analysis. To oversimplify a bit, defensive win shares equally assign credit to all five players on the court. So, when James Harden plays with legitimately great defenders like Dwight Howard and Patrick Beverley, he racks up the same amount of defensive win shares as them. It is also a counting stat, and Harden has played the tenth most minutes in the league so far.
Harden isn't the godawful terrible mess on defense that he is often thought to be though. Houston couldn't have the third best defense in the league with Harden on the court for 77% of their minutes if he was. But as Kelly Scaletta details in a pretty comprehensive piece on the Rockets defense, during the offseason the they lost Chandler Parsons and Jeremy Lin (terrible defenders) and gained Trevor Ariza (a good, not great, defender). They never have two bad defenders on the court this season, and sometimes not even one.
Scaletta's piece also points to a change in the Rockets' defensive scheme, which has Harden defending in the post more often, occasionally even taking on power forwards. As seen in the GIF, Harden's lateral quickness is nearly non-existent, a big problem for a shooting guard defending the perimeter. But Harden is pretty strong and weighs a robust 220 pounds, so as long as he is giving effort in the post he is serviceable.
That is what James Harden's defense is, and all that Houston needs it to be: serviceable. With Dwight Howard (when he isn't injured) patrolling the paint, Patrick Beverley and Isaiah Canaan hawking ball-handlers, and a bevy of athletic 3/4's, Harden just needs to occasionally deny his man. He is so talented at offense that even occasional defensive successes are enough for him to thumpingly win his individual match-up.
Harden's lack of effort and lateral quickness are still going to lead you to wonder if you're watching a ten year old play basketball sometimes, and you should still share Harden GIFs far and wide. That shit is funny! But he's not the worst in the league at defense (see Bargnani, Andrea or Boozer, Carlos), and that's all the Rockets need him to be.