The Houston Rockets won a tough road game on Friday night, 116-112, over the Golden State Warriors. As usual, the raucous crowd at Oracle Arena gave the opposing team an earful, but for once the loudest boos were not reserved for perennial whipping boy Dwight Howard.
Instead, it was Howard's star teammate, James Harden, who drove the crowd into a fit of rage when he milked a Draymond Green foul for all it was worth, leading to a flagrant foul call.
Last season, the idea of Harden inspiring such hate would have been nearly unthinkable. He was the guard with the electrifying game and the shaggy beard who had emerged from the shadow of his sixth-man role in Oklahoma City to become an All-Star in Houston.
But this season, the whispers are growing. More and more basketball fans are speaking ill of Harden, picking his game apart. Flopper. Lazy D. No D. One-dimensional.
Does this hate simply come with the territory of being among the game's elite, or does Harden really deserve all of the criticism coming to him this season?
The D Problem
Harden is not an elite defender; even his staunchest supporters should be able to admit that much.
His defense was a problem for the 2012-13 Rockets as well, but much of that was covered up by the fawning praise of his offensive game. After all, he led Houston to its first playoff berth since 2009 in his first season with the team.
Since that time, two things have changed. First, the Rockets are now seen as a legitimate title contender, and with those high expectations comes increased scrutiny. Also, this is Harden's second year as a bona fide NBA superstar. As a superstar matures, and as the league adjusts, his game will become fodder for both opposing teams and critics.
The flashpoint for the criticism over Harden's defense seemed to come in November, when this YouTube video of his pathetic defensive effort went viral following a loss to the Los Angeles Clippers:
Harden's defensive foibles have inspired many, like Sports Illustrated's Rob Mahoney, to write a comprehensive breakdown of his problems on that side of the court. The findings weren't pretty.
Even long-shot championship contention will require a defensive integrity that Houston currently lacks, putting the onus on an unreliable, apathetic defender like Harden to address his faults more directly. Working in easier situational matchups will help, as Harden can be more palatable defensively if put in a position to succeed. From there, though, Harden’s entire defensive approach needs work — from the way he tries to guard the ball to his misplaced attempts at help.
Ouch. While these criticisms are harsh, they're not terribly different than the criticisms lobbed at other outstanding offensive players with questionable defensive tendencies, like Carmelo Anthony.
Whether it's deserved or not, it's just par for the course for elite players with such a noticeable flaw.
Is Harden a Flopper?
The fans at the Oracle certainly seemed to think so.
Flopping is a touchy subject among NBA fans. Every fan keeps his or her own internal "worst floppers" list, usually littered with star players who play for hated opponents.
But flopping is a very real thing, a technique endorsed by no less than the reigning MVP, LeBron James.
Per CBS Sports' Ken Berger:
Guys have been accustomed to doing it for years, and it's not even a bad thing. You're just trying to get the advantage. Any way you can get the advantage over an opponent to help your team win, then so be it.
Now, Harden isn't built like LeBron. He has the size of a true guard, listed at 6'5". But he takes over nine free-throw attempts per game, and that's a rare thing for a player his size.
Since 2000, only four players 6'5" or shorter have averaged more than nine free throws per game over an entire season: Allen Iverson (seven times), Gilbert Arenas (twice), Dwyane Wade (four times) and Harden (10.2 FTA attempts last season, 9.1 this season).
Iverson, the oldest player in that group, was considered to be a tough hombre who would drive on anyone, regardless of size. Arenas, for all his many foibles, wasn't known as much of a flopper. But the two current stars, Wade and Harden, are considered to be among the most notorious floppers in the league.
So what happened? Were the older generation of slashing guards just a tougher breed? Is flopping endemic in this new generation? It should be noted that, while Arenas' NBA heyday was nearly a decade ago, he and Wade are the same age.
It certainly seems like flopping is in vogue, so it would make sense that a guard like Harden, who gets to the line so often, would be seen as flopping more than most players.
The biggest problem for Harden's public image is the combination of the flopping allegations and the lazy defense. A player like LeBron is often criticized for flopping, which looks especially galling on TV, given the fact that he's built like a tank. But nobody can question his effort on the defensive end.
Further, those two championship rings keep him above reproach.
Harden will have a chance to play for one of those rings in the spring, if all goes according to plan. Until that time, he might want to consider showing a little more effort on the defensive end if he wants to keep the haters at bay.