As my then 10-yr-old son observed, when he finally got to attend his first live NBA game (court-side rather than on TV), Michael Jordan’s extraordinary offensive efforts were not so exhausting that they kept him from also being the best defensive player on the court. My son was astonished to observe something that was not readily apparent from his watching the Bulls on TV: MJ was the hardest working athlete my son had ever seen. It was marvelous to see, MJ not just doing the spectacular dunks, but diving to the floor going after loose balls, jumping into the seats chasing a deflected pass, setting hard picks, putting a full-contact body on his man, being first down the court on a change of possession, just a wonderful spectacle – and an instructive one.
My son and I never got to see Da Bears live at Soldier Field, but even on TV it was obvious: the strain of being the best and the toughest running back in football was not enough to keep Walter Payton from also being the best blocking back in football, the best at picking up a huge defensive end or blitzing linebacker before they could get to the Bears’ quarterback. Walter Payton never in his life went out-of-bounds to avoid being tackled.
Now, tell me again why playing a little defense is too much for the Houston Rockets’ James Harden, why at $20 million a year or whatever, he would not be able to sustain his wonderful offense (yes, the one that was virtually MIA during much of the Portland series) if he also had to suffer the indignity of going all-out at both ends of the court. For the same aggregate price, couldn’t the team get two actual full-time basketball players in exchange for this guy?
Harden seems to have been born to epitomize all that is wrong with today’s pro basketball game. His game, which is offense-only, consists of exploiting the scheduling flaw of the NBA (and of all other sports whose schedule is way too long): the season is so long that no one really tries very hard before the playoffs begin. Until the playoffs, Harden’s game is to shoot the 3 if no “defender” is energetic enough to waive a hand in his face, but if his shot is mildly contested, Harden drives into the perfunctory scrum in the paint, knowing he will come away with 2 or 3 points and all of his body parts intact. This works beautifully when the whole league is too tired or bored to get in Harden’s way, but it collapses in a heap in the playoffs, when basketball finally gets serious and suddenly looks less like pro wrestling and more like MMA. At that point, Harden grows petulant, shoots poorly (14-for-47 from the field in the first two games), draws few fouls, plays zero defense, and leads his team to defeat. Harden – and the Rockets – will be an uninteresting, uninspiring, team until Harden is fixed or replaced.