Just about every NBA fan has heard about the lack of effort James Harden shows on defense. A high percentage of those people have seen the low-light of James Harden not contesting a play that almost every NBA player would instinctually contest. There is no denying the existence of these plays, but Harden has played 18665 career minutes, and his defense in all that time has actually been fair.
First, let’s look at the facts. James Harden has yet to miss the playoffs as a pro, and the current 18-7 Houston Rockets are going to make the playoffs barring a catastrophe. These playoff appearances don’t just mean first round exits either; Harden has made the NBA Finals and the Western Conference Finals twice. If a player with Harden’s unbelievably important role (27.3% usage for his career and over 31.3% each of the past three seasons) didn’t play defense, then his teams wouldn’t have been nearly as successful as they’ve been.
In fact, in Harden’s eight seasons, his teams have finished in the top ten in defensive efficiency twice, and they were average or above average in five of those eight seasons. It is impossible to win 50 games in five different seasons like Harden has (including the winning pace Oklahoma City was on in the lockout 2011-12 season,) without playing some defense in the modern NBA.
As for Harden’s individual defensive achievement, there is more than most players have. Harden’s 1.5 career steals per game isn’t off the charts, but it shows he is playing the passing lanes. His 1.7 steals per game with Houston is a more accurate indicator of the production with his current minutes load, and it’s even more impressive.
People nowadays like to say that going for steals on the pass is ultimately counterproductive because a failed steal attempt displaces one from inbetween his opponent and the basket, but going for steals and forcing turnovers are the defensive identity of fast teams like the Rockets and Thunder teams Harden has played on. Especially when Harden had Dwight Howard to protect the rim behind him, playing the active defense Harden did was not hurting Houston.
Harden is actually in some elite company for his defensive achievements. For one, Harden finished 10th in the entire NBA in defensive win shares in 2014-15 with 4.2. Also, Harden is in historic company for cumulative production. Of all players’ seasons since the 1979, only eight players have fouled less per game than James Harden, while having at least 36 minutes per game, 1.5 steals per game, a usage percentage over 30, and at least 2.5 defensive win shares in a season. Those players are LeBron James, Allen Iverson, Michael Jordan, Tracy McGrady, Larry Bird, Dominique Wilson, Dwyane Wade, and Kobe Bryant.
With the exception of Wilson and McGrady, those are all-NBA level defenders. James, Iverson, Jordan, Bird, and Bryant are MVPs. Despite this, Harden’s defense is seen not only as counter-productive to his team, but one of the worst in the NBA.
I ran another search query for players in the 2016-17 NBA season. I limited the results to players who play good minutes (at least 34 per game,) and match Harden in the best statistical categories of defensive efficiency – meaning the player has at least 1.0 defensive win shares, 0.9 defensive box plus/minus, and a defensive rating lower than Harden’s 107. Only three other players in the entire NBA do all of those things while getting Harden’s 1.7 steals per game or higher: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Anthony Davis, and Otto Porter.
This is not to say that Harden should be NBA All-Defense, but defense is not something that is taking away from James Harden’s performance. His offense is at an unbelievable level itself, but his defense is not getting in the way of his offensive mastery. The argument that Harden shouldn’t be MVP, All-NBA, or in consideration for those awards because of a notion that he “doesn’t play defense” is moot.
Besides Russell Westbrook or LeBron James, nobody in the NBA could sustain Harden’s level of production on both ends of the court in Harden’s high usage role on Houston. Even Westbrook and James have been unable to match Harden in their current roles on Oklahoma City and Cleveland, respectively.
Harden stands out even on his own Rockets team as one of their better defenders. Harden is 4th in defensive rating and defensive box plus/minus, 2nd in steals, and 1st in defensive rebounds (157) and defensive win shares. Harden is already responsible for 32% of his team’s total points, and he is contributing more so than any other Rocket on defense as well.
James Harden is likely not finished making (or not making) the defensive plays that make one laugh, but know that for every time he screws up on defense, James Harden is playing a high level of team basketball on both ends of the court that results in his team to be so successful as the 17-8 Rockets are so far.