James Harden averaged 29.0 points, 7.5 assists, 6.1 rebounds, and 1.7 steals per game this season. He also led the league in total points, minutes played, free throws made and attempted, field goal attempts, was 3rd in Usage Rate, 3rd in Three-Pointers, and 6th in assists. Despite these stellar numbers, Harden is being mentioned as not being an All-NBA performer this season. Why? Well, according to BasketballReference.com he also broke Artis Gilmore’s 38-year-old record for turnovers (374) in a single season (the quietest broken record in this season of broken records). This gave Harden his 3rd season leading the league in turnovers (the most seasons of any player since 1977-78). He also led the league in field goals missed and YouTube clips of his poor defense. He is the “leader” of a Rockets team that even in the postseason looks as though it has never played a game together. They under-achieved and showed next-to-no commitment on defense. So, just how bad is James Harden’s defense and are we holding his defense against him unfairly?
Harden’s offensive numbers are numbers only a few in the history of the game have ever put up. They compare favorably to the all-time greats, but, defensively…not so much. Comparing Harden to the NBA’s other top scorers Curry, Durant, Cousins, Lebron, Lillard, Davis, Westbrook, DeRozan, George, and Leonard show us exactly how bad is Harden defensively and if the criticism is deserved.
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(Unrelated Side Note: Look at Kawhi Leonard’s numbers! Are you kidding me? He is simply the best two-way player in the game!)
Of the NBA’s top scorers, Harden is actually not the worst on defense. Damian Lillard and DeMar DeRozan both have defensive ratings as bad or worse than Harden and have a worse differential. The differential is the difference between how good someone is offensively compared to how bad he is defensively. In addition, Harden’s Defensive Box Plus/Minus is -0.4, but that is not as bad as Lillard’s -2.2 or DeRozan’s -1.2 DB+/-. The Defensive Box Plus/Minus is a box score estimate of the defensive points per 100 possessions a player contributed above a league-average player, translated to an average team. So players are not penalized for giving up more points based on their team’s pace. Likewise, the Defensive Rating is normalized for pace and calculated per 100 possessions.
So, the numbers do support that Harden is a below average defender. That said, Harden ranked 13th in the league in minutes per game, 1st in total minutes, and 3rd in Usage Percentage. His team asks him to do so much offensively (basically create every opportunity for himself and his teammates) that it is understandable that Harden needs to rest sometimes. So why don’t we see YouTube videos on ESPN to embarrass Lillard and DeRozan and their porous defense? Afterall, Harden is 16th in the league in steals per game, while DeRozan is 63rd and Lillard is tied for 96th just ahead of Alonzo Gee and Garrett Temple. For Lillard’s sake, let’s hope he’s not 2nd in the league in scoring next year or who knows what kind of defensive low-light clips will surface.
Conclusion, James Harden is bad defensively and makes for a convenient lightning rod, but he’s not even the worst defender among all-star caliber players. I think Harden becomes a target because he is the antithesis of winning-playoff basketball. Winning coaches say it all the time, that to win in the playoffs you need to play defense and take care of the basketball. Steve Kerr’s phrase that the Warriors regurgitate over and over is “make the simple basketball play.” Harden doesn’t do any of those things. He has to have the ball in his hands constantly, turns the ball over at a record pace (by over-dribbling or making bad passes), and then settles for tough shots, expending all of his energy on offense. As a result his defense is non-existent. James Harden’s basketball style racks him up lots of impressive stats, but he is a loser who doesn’t make his teammates better and unfortunately for Harden, the voters for individual awards are starting to see that. Worst than that, so are his teammates.