Since ascending to superstar status after being traded to the Houston Rockets two years ago, James Harden has become a polarizing player in NBA circles. He has essentially developed into the poster boy for Bill Simmons’ “10 Percent Theory” around the league. In a June 2012 article about Russell Westbrook, Simmons writes,
“Even the best NBA players have holes; in a best-case scenario, they’re tapping into about 90 percent of their total potential, with the holes representing the other 10 percent. We can either dwell on the 90 percent or the 10 percent … and some holes are less glaring than others.”
While the negative discourse surrounding Westbrook has mostly dissipated, James Harden is currently at the center of a full-fledged smear campaign focused on both his defense and his habit of trying too hard to draw contact at the rim.
After this video went viral at the end of the season, James Harden’s name became synonymous with lazy defense and generally poor play on that side of the ball. While this criticism is accurate, I think it’s safe to say that the hate has gone too far when it comes to critiquing Harden’s impact on the court.
When it comes to Harden’s poor defensive play, the conversation shouldn’t be about how bad his defense is, but what effect his poor defensive play has on his team’s performance.
Last season the Rockets had the 12th best defense in the league, and they were essentially the same defensively whether or not Harden was on the floor. According to 82games.com, the Rockets were .5 points worse defensively per 48 minutes with Harden on the floor. While these numbers can be pretty noisy for guards (especially since Harden played a lot of his minutes next to Dwight Howard), there was not a noticeable difference in Houston’s defensive performance when Harden played.
If you look at Harden’s defensive stats provided by Synergy Sports, the numbers aren’t actually that bad. Last season Harden allowed his opponent to shoot just 38.4% from the field and 31.9% from 3. He was bad in isolation situations defensively, but he did ok in pick and roll situations and he was weirdly great at defending post ups (12.9% of his defensive plays, .58 PPP allowed, 8th in the league). He also stayed close to shooters and forced some turnovers, generating 1.5 steals per 36 minutes last season (although he gambled way, way too often). In addition, Harden allowed a 13.9 PER to opposing shooting guards per 82games.com.
Harden is bad on defense in kind of a weird way. It’s not that he’s too small or not athletic enough to compete, it’s that his lapses in concentration and lack of awareness leave him out of position. Harden isn’t being abused on a possession-by-possession basis, he gives up easy baskets on certain possessions. While this is obviously not a good thing, it’s better than constantly being overmatched and incapable. Due to the lack of shooting guard talent in the NBA, Harden doesn’t actually have that many tough assignments, and most of his job is watching spot up shooters. While he is bad at this, this is not nearly as detrimental to the team as having a bad defender guarding a team’s primary ball handler or having an incapable rim protector.
All of this is not meant to paint Harden as a good defender, it’s more about quantifying the impact Harden’s defense has on his team. From all the available evidence, I think James Harden is a clear minus on defense, but not to the extent that critics would have you believe. The Rockets nearly posted top-10 defensive numbers last season with Harden playing big minutes, and I think he can be hidden/overcome by the other players on the floor. Remember, it’s not how bad his defense is, but how his bad defense impacts the bottom line.
People get so wrapped up in discussing Harden’s defensive faults that they forget what Harden brings to the table on offense, where he is easily one of the league’s top penetrators. The Rockets have been a top-6 offensive team in both of Harden’s seasons in Houston, despite running a very basic offensive system in his first season built around simple high pick and rolls.
Last season Harden ranked 14th in PER among qualified players per ESPN.com and put up some great offensive numbers. Harden shot 61.4% in the restricted area on 368 attempts and was also 2nd in the league in free throw attempts per game at 9.1. Harden took the 5th most “above the break” threes last season (449) and shot a very respectable 36.7% on those attempts.
Harden was 5th in the NBA in scoring last season at 25.4 points per game and posted a big 27.4% usage rate. What separates Harden from a lot of the league’s other premier scorers is his ability to create shots both for himself and for his teammates, averaging 5.8 assists per 36 minutes last year.
At 6’5″, 220 pounds, Harden is an extremely unique offensive weapon; dominating in pick and roll, isolation, and transition situations. Last season Harden scored 1.24 PPP in transition per synergy and led the league in fast break points despite playing in only 73 games.
James Harden is also incredible in crunch time, as he dominated close games last season (defined as any game with less than five minutes to play with a margin of five points or fewer). In these situations, Harden’s usage rate increased to a ridiculous 39.3% and his true shooting percentage was 66.8%. He also dished out a ton of assists in crunch time, posting an Assist% of 39%. Harden managed to significantly increase both his usage and his efficiency at the end of games, leading to a net rating of 20.2 in crunch time.
Harden posted incredible offensive numbers last season, but what he does for the Rockets goes beyond just the numbers. In terms of the strategic aspect of the team, Harden is an offensive catalyst. Once you have James Harden on your team the entire floor opens up because of his versatility. He’s deadly in transition, he’s deadly out of the pick and roll, he can consistently beat his man off the dribble, and he’s both a powerful finisher and a solid shooter, both off the catch and off the dribble. He can do it all on offense, and that part of his game has become very underrated in the wake of his bad defense. James Harden is a one of a kind player.
Between the defense and the offensive flopping, James Harden has alienated a huge sector of the NBA fan base. Although his game has become hard to watch for some, he’s still an extremely effective player with a unique combination of skills.
Harden does bring negatives to the table as a result of his defense, but these negatives are greatly outweighed by his offensive production. As Bill Simmons said, we can either dwell on the 10 percent of the things a player does wrong or we can appreciate the 90 percent. Defense is half of the game, but it’s not always half of the equation. In my opinion, James Harden is a borderline top-10 NBA player, and the criticism of his game has been taken too far.
*All stats per NBA.com unless otherwise noted.