Two Stars, One Glaring Weakness

The Houston Rockets and Portland Trailblazers contributed to one of the most exhilarating first rounds in NBA history, putting an exclamation point on it with a thrilling end.  However, as the Blazers moved on to the semifinals to face the San Antonio Spurs, they floundered and were beaten in five games. In each of these team’s playoff exits, there was a common denominator with their star player. As Houston guard James Harden continues to solidify himself among the league’s best and Portland point guard Damian Lillard ascends into the league’s elite, both need drastic improvements on the defensive end.

James Harden

For Mr. Harden, the defensive critiques are nothing out of the ordinary, as it has been something that’s constantly plagued him. There’s no debating that Harden is one of the more dynamic offensive weapons in the league, arguably the best at his position. Though, for Harden to elevate his game to the next level, he needs focus his attention on the other end of the floor. But, he won’t get to there by playing defense like this:

 

The great shooting guards such as Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, and Dwyane Wade, were all offensive masterminds. That being said, they were also two-way players, able come down on the other end and lock down on defense. They had an attitude on that end, a nastiness, a sense of pride that no matter what, you weren’t going to score.

And, for whatever reason it may be, Harden lacks that attitude, that sense of pride on the defensive end, hell, he lacks the most basic fundamental of defense, effort. James Harden as of now is more content with conserving energy on defense, in turn saving for the offensive end, letting his teammates mop up his messes that he leaves behind. In the postseason, Harden’s defensive inefficiencies were only magnified during his team’s loss to the Blazers in six games. Whether it was playing “ole” defense, getting back-doored, or simply losing his man completely, Harden was at the center of it and as a result his team suffered.

images-1 copyBeing such a dynamic scorer that Harden is, he became a liability during games, especially in crunch time because of his defense. Houston needed his offensive repertoire because without it they suffered immensely, but trying to hide him on defense became too much.  With Harden on the floor during the playoffs, Houston was giving up 112.5 points per 100 possessions, with him off; they were giving up five fewer of 107.1, per NBA.com/Stats. Granted, these numbers are by no means attractive, but in hindsight, with how close the games were in the series, that five-point differential becomes enormous.

Harden has the talent, he has the offense, but there is a gaping hole in his game and it’s on the defensive end. If Harden wants to separate himself and eventually be considered among the great shooting guards in NBA history, he’ll need to change his mindset and that starts with getting in a stance.

Damian Lillard

In just two short seasons, Damian Lillard has rapidly risen to one of the league’s clutch killers and one of most exciting young players. He’s deadly from three and can give you 20+ on a consistent basis, though, just like Harden, defense is the one area holding him back. Now, for first, second and sometimes third year players, defense is an area where they tend to struggle with. For young players such as Lillard, learning the in’s and out’s of an NBA defense can be difficult, such as schemes and personnel. In the first round versus Houston, Lillard’s defense wasn’t the ultimate demise of his team; Portland was able to hide him on defense by placing him on Jeremy Lin or Patrick Beverley, for example. However, for Portland in the second round, facing the ageless Spurs, Lillard’s defensive limitations came to light more than ever.

San Antonio’s five game manhandling of Portland put the spotlight on Lillard’s defense. Lillard started the series on Tony Parker, but in a matter of minutes it was apparent that he was no match to guard the Frenchmen. And, even though Portland elected to hide Lillard defensively by putting him on Danny Green, he didn’t fair any better. The constant misdirection cuts, running off screens away from the ball and the pick-and-rolls, were too much for the second year guard. It seemed as though on every pick-and-roll Lillard was run through he ended up on the round more often than not. San Antonio’s depth, along with head coach Gregg Popovich at the helm, exploited Lillard’s inefficiencies at every chance. Lillard’s inability to stay in front of opposing guards, properly defend the pick-and-roll created too many disadvantages, mismatches for the Trailblazers.

For all the criticism that Lillard faces regarding his defensive abilities, you cannot knock his effort. Rather it’s him continuing to learn, to watch film on how to improve, to defend at the NBA level. It’s working on getting stronger to defend going through pick-and-rolls, working on foot speed stay in front of opposing guards.

This postseason was a vast learning experience for Damian Lillard and will end up benefitting him and the Blazers in the long run. This offseason will prove to be a vital one for Lillard, he’s got the “clutch gene” and the ability to take over late in games, but for him to ascend into the elite point guard status, it has to start on the other end.

***

James Harden and Damian Lillard are NBA All-Stars, All-NBA players, that is a certain. They can put up a plethora of points in the blink of an eye, they are magicians with the ball in their hands. But for each of them to make the next leap in their respective careers, into greatness, stardom, it has to start on the defensive end. Each has the talent and abilities to become good, plus defenders, though whether or not they do, depends on them and the work they put in.

(Via Hoops-Nation.com, Tyler Pleiss. You can follow him on Twitter at @ThePleissIsRite)

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