A quick google search of “James Harden Bad Defense” will net you plenty of results, including one article titled, “Here Are 11 Minutes of James Harden Playing Terrible, Awful Defense.” It is a bleacher report article from April of 2014, that likened his defense to a series of bad dance moves titled “The Harden Shuffle.” The article even links you to a YouTube video that is an 11 plus minute compilation of Harden playing suspect defense. This type of analysis has followed James Harden throughout his career; lack of effort and skill on defense often overshadowing his immense offensive talent.
Harden and his Rockets teammates of the past did plenty to earn their reputations as poor defenders, creating some of the best lowlight reels YouTube has to offer. Harden was known for his matador defense, and his wrap-around attempted steals that more often than not ended with him being blown by and made to look bad by his opponent. As a team in Harden’s first 5 seasons in The Lone Star State, the Rockets never finished higher than 24th in the NBA in points per game allowed, and never higher than 21st in defensive efficiency according to teamrankings.com.
Something changed for the Rockets in the 2017-18 season, they added Chris Paul, but more importantly they started to give a concerted effort on defense. The impact was almost immediate; if you remember the Warriors were coming off of a 67 win season, their second title in three years, and were considered almost unbeatable. All the Rockets did was go 65-17, finish first in the Western Conference, and push the Warriors harder than they had been pushed in almost two years en route to a gut-wrenching game 7 defeat in the Western Conference Finals. Many believe the Rockets were a Chris Paul injury from the Finals. By the way, it was no coincidence that the Rockets quietly finished 7th in points per game allowed.
If you were watching, it was easy to see the shift that was happening in Houston. Harden was no longer a black hole on defense, even as he seemingly became one in offense for 2 plus seasons under Mike D’Antoni that saw his unassisted threes, isolations, step-back jumpers, and free throw attempts increase at almost cartoonish rates. Gone were the near nightly defensive lapses, the glaring examples of poor defensive positioning, and the overall lack of effort. In their place was an incredibly strong post defender who was elite at forcing bad passes and turnovers when his man drove to the rim.
Fast-forward to February 5th 2020, the day the Houston Rockets went all in on “small-ball,” by trading Clint Capela for Robert Covington. With the trade, the Rockets took the Warriors “death lineup” of all smaller players to the extreme by sending out a lineup with Covington as the tallest player to see the floor most nights, and he stands just 6’7”. Experts and fans salivated over the offensive potential of these versatile lineups; just how many threes could this team make in a game? Who are players like Javale McGee, Joel Embiid or Rudy Gobert supposed to guard when the rockets play 4 guards and PJ Tucker? Detractors worried about how badly they would get beaten on the glass.
What many overlooked, and a fact that has seemed to have been lost on most casual fans for almost 3 years now, is the elite defensive unit the rockets have built while they have been changing the math of the entire league with their barrage of threes. Sure Chris Paul is in Oklahoma City now and he was a big part of the Rockets resurgence on the defensive end, but they have added elite NBA defenders throughout this roster. PJ Tucker has been the most effective defender of Anthony Davis all season, someone who stands 6 inches taller than him. Tucker, Russell Westbrook and Daniel House Jr. all ranked in the top 100 in defensive win shares, and Robert Covington was first team all defense as recently as 2018. Believe it or not, none of them has been as good as Harden.
James Harden ranks 16th in the entire NBA in defensive win shares, led the league in steals, and has been arguably the best post defender in the Orlando Bubble. During the regular season, the lineup of Tucker, House Jr, Westbrook, Harden, and Covington rated as the 15th most efficient lineup in the league minimum 200 minutes played together. In the playoffs, sub in Eric Gordon for House Jr, and the Houston Rockets have the best defensive lineup in all of basketball, surrendering a paltry 82.9 points per 100 possessions. That’s a full 9 points better than the second best such lineup in the NBA. These aren’t your dad’s Houston Rockets.
These might have been your dad’s Houston Rockets Photo Credit: sportige.com/Associated Press
Or maybe they are depending on your age, but regardless, the narrative that James Harden is a defensive liability just isn’t true anymore and it hasn’t been for several years now. While everyone was busy watching him blaze a new offensive path in the NBA with his barrage of isolations and stepbacks, James Harden was quietly honing his defensive chops and leading a basketball revolution in Houston.
While small ball has created exciting mismatches for the Rockets offense and ushered in a new era of three point frequency and efficiency, it may have done even more for their defense. We are witnessing an evolution in the game, a renaissance of sorts that Houston is at the forefront of, and has been for some time. Going small has allowed them to create mismatches and has supercharged their defensive efforts, especially in the playoffs. While the questions still remain as to whether or not a James Harden led team can make the NBA finals, he shouldn’t have to keep answering ones about his defensive effort. These playoffs have gone a long way to change the narrative on Harden, as well as to prove the Rockets can in fact, win with defense.
Photo Credit: Troy Taormina-USA Today
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