How James Harden Quietly Has Become an Elite Defender

LeBron James #23 of the Los Angeles Lakers handles the ball against James Harden #13, Eric Gordon #10, and Carmelo Anthony #7 of the Houston Rockets (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
LeBron James #23 of the Los Angeles Lakers handles the ball against James Harden #13, Eric Gordon #10, and Carmelo Anthony #7 of the Houston Rockets (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images) /

James Harden of the Houston Rockets has become a punching bag for jokes and memes with his perceived disinterest in playing defense. However, this past season that was not the case. Here’s how he’s quietly become a very good defensive player.

James Harden has been scrutinized for many things, but especially for his perceived lack of effort on the defensive end for the Houston Rockets. In fact, one could even argue that reputation has played a role in him not having more MVP awards, as people feel he can’t be considered one of the best without at least trying on the defensive end of the floor.

This can’t be said about Harden this past season, as Harden had the second most total steals in the league, behind only Paul George. I should remind you that George was a Defensive Player of the Year finalist.

Harden also finished second behind George in deflections per game (of players who played in at least 77 games) as George had 3.8 per game and Harden had 3.5 per game. In addition, Harden finished second in total deflections to George with 277, compared to 292 from PG13. Harden also finished 7th in Defensive Loose Balls Recovered this season. Furthermore, James Harden was the only player in the league this season with over 150 steals and at least 55 blocks. Harden finished with exactly 158 steals and 58 blocks.

That’s a feat none of this year’s Defensive Player of the Year finalists even accomplished. Not only that, but I could even make the argument that Harden should have been named to either of the All-Defense teams. The first team guards were Eric Bledsoe and Marcus Smart, while the second team guards were Jrue Holiday and Klay Thompson.

For starters, Holiday played in less than 70 games and his team didn’t make the post-season. Usually unless your team makes the playoffs, you don’t receive these accolades.

Eric Bledsoe finshed 16th in the league in steals per game and Smart finished 6th. Harden finished with more steals than each of them, including Thompson also. Harden also finished with more blocks than each of them as well. Harden also finished the season with more deflections per game and total deflections than each of the guards who were named to an All-Defense team.

In fact, one could argue that Klay Thompson shouldn’t even be on the All-Defense team and that he simply got there off of his reputation. On the flip side, Harden should have been on the All-defense team and he didn’t get there because of his own reputation of applying lackluster effort on the defensive end.

You also have to consider the fact that Harden scored 36 points per game and is the focal point of the offense! Yet despite this, he still managed to improve his defense compared to previous seasons. Imagine if he was like Marcus Smart, who averages under 9 points per game and is able to apply maximum energy on defense. Or even Bledsoe, who averages 16 per game and is the 3rd option on the Bucks. Or even Thompson, who despite averaging 21.5 per game is the third option on the Warriors.

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So while I understand it can be fun for the national media to throw shade at Harden and his “lack of defense”, he actually proved that narrative wrong this season in route to becoming an elite defensive player and played a big part in the Rockets having the 5th best defense this season.