Houston Rockets: James Harden’s most improved skill is his defense

Houston Rockets James Harden (Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images)
Houston Rockets James Harden (Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images) /

Everyone knows the negative narratives surrounding Houston Rockets’ guard James Harden, with the most common one being his lack of effort on defense. This season, though, his improvement on defense is making a big difference.

The problem with narratives is that sometimes they are based on clips and highlights, not actual facts. The idea of James Harden not playing defense fits in this category. We all know the famous clip about Harden’s lack of defense. A YouTube clip from years ago made the rounds that featured clipped segments of Houston Rockets‘ games in which Harden had numerous confounding defensive lapses and missed assignments altogether.

Of course, there was some truth to this narrative, as Harden’s defense has often left a lot to be desired. In the last few years, though, The Beard’s defense has improved and changed for the better, yet the narrative has not. Let’s dive into why the narrative surrounding Harden’s lack of commitment to defense needs to change.

Harden’s post defense is among the best in the league

One of the most under-reported and flat-out missed aspects of Harden’s game is his post defense. When this is brought up, the normal response is “Harden is a guard so the sample size is probably small.” This isn’t true, as the Rockets switch on most pick and rolls and that routinely leaves Harden matched up with a bigger center or power forward.

Harden’s 0.32 points allowed per post-up play is first among players who have defended 20 post-up plays or more. What makes Harden so good in the post is his strong base and ability to hold his ground. Bigger opponents are rarely able to move Harden off his spot.

The Rockets have limited the number of times Clint Capela switches onto guards because the Rockets have one of the smallest frontcourts in the league, but when Harden is involved in the play, the Rockets routinely let him guard opposing centers because of what he’s been able to demonstrate.

Harden is second in total number of post-ups defended of any player (not just centers) and in the 98.5 percentile of post defense for the entire NBA, which is fourth-best in the league. When the Rockets switch, opposing teams assume they have an advantage on Harden but, going by the numbers, it’s advantage Rockets more times than not.

Harden is among the league leaders in steals and deflections

For many years, Harden has been among the league leaders in steals. He has been in the top 10 in the category since 2017 and has also been one of the league leaders in deflections. This shows Harden is engaged on the defensive end and not just taking plays off, as the narrative frequently states.

Active hands and playing the passing lanes lead to easy points on the other end, especially this year with the Rockets being one of the top teams in pace. This year, Harden ranks sixth in steals and eighth in total deflections.

Harden’s steady climb in overall defense

There have been years in the past that Harden’s defense was among the league-worst. Harden was in the 18th percentile for defensive players according to Synergy in 2015-2016. These numbers, though, have been on a steady rise. In 2017-18, Harden was in the 45th percentile and last year he jumped up to the 88th percentile.

This year, he’s elite at 96 percent. This type of ascension can’t be ignored.  Harden’s effort and attention to defense are shown in the numbers and are noticeable when actually watching games.

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Harden’s defense has been the main ammunition for his detractors throughout his entire Rockets career. Four years ago, this idea may have passed the test, but going by the numbers and the eye test recently, this false narrative should go the way of MySpace and corded telephones.