James Harden's bad defensive reputation is mostly undeserved
You might have seen a meme or even a sarcastic video compilation lamenting James Harden's defensive abilities, his defensive effort, or lack thereof. It might also be fair to wonder whether Harden's issues on defense signal a bigger problem for a Houston Rockets team battling for the top seed in the West, one that has NBA title aspirations.
That said, given that the Rockets rank a respectable eighth in NBA defensive BPI, how much of an impact could Harden's defense truly have? Putting aside the lowlight reel for a second, is it possible his deficiencies on that end of the floor have been exaggerated?
Using NBA Advanced Stats powered by Second Spectrum, we can now take a deep dive into how effective Harden is in a variety of defensive situations and provide an overall report card on his specific defensive skills. To take it a step further, since we have data going back to 2013-14, we also can see how much Harden might have regressed.
We graded Harden's performance against other NBA guards, with average performers in a given area getting a C. Players in the top 25 percent in a skill get a B, and an A is awarded only for a player in the top 5 percent.
Defending drives: A- (current season), B+ (previous seasons)
There's no denying that Harden allows opponents to blow by him at high rates, and that has helped make for a lot of provocative video making him look bad. The reality, however, is that Harden always has been a solid performer against drives.
The high blow-by rate (which would have received an F if we were grading that skill) helps obscure the fact that Harden does a good job of forcing kickouts and bad passes; he has created turnovers this season on nearly 7 percent of drives. Also this season, he has been able to pull his grade up to an A-minus by performing at a higher level when opponents drive right and reducing their scoring efficiency when they get a shot near the basket.
Defending pick-and-roll ball handlers: C+ (current season), B+ (previous seasons)
Those who refuse to yield from the notion that Harden is a minus defender can take heart: Harden's performance against the pick-and-roll has indeed declined in 2017-18. During his B-plus seasons of the past, Harden allowed the ball handler to get shots on only 39 percent of plays, scoring 0.89 points per shot. This season, opponents are getting shots on 42 percent of plays and scoring 1.1 points per shot.
The slide here might be related to an increase in ball-hawking from Harden. He has increased the number of turnovers that he is creating on pick-and-rolls, but gambling has not paid off overall for the Rockets. When Harden goes for the turnover and fails, the ball handler has a more open path to the paint.
Playing post defense: A- (current season), B (previous seasons)
Again, the data indicates Harden has been a solid post defender his entire career, and he has really stepped up his performance in that realm this season. The improvement here appears to derive from Harden finding greater comfort in the left post. In previous seasons, he struggled on the left side, allowing a scoring rate that would have earned him a failing grade.
Harden's increased 2017-18 performance on the left side of the court has had a subtle positive impact on the Rockets' defense overall. In previous seasons, he needed double-team help on 11 percent of posts on the left side, while this season, he has dropped that rate to 4.5 percent.
Overall defensive grade: B (current season), B- (previous seasons)
Once you account for the fact that Harden defends as many pick-and-rolls as he does drives and post-ups combined, Harden is a solid B defender this season. That's a slight increase from last season -- and significantly better than the memes suggest. He is far from a lockdown defender, but Harden is above average, and when paired with Chris Paul -- who grades out as an A defender overall -- the Rockets' defense is not elite but solidly in the top 10. And that standing is key -- no team outside the top 10 has won an NBA title since the Lakers in 2000-01.
All data used is provided by Second Spectrum and NBA Advanced Stats.
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