Believe It or Not, James Harden Is a Good Defender
The Rockets are one of the best defensive teams in the NBA. Period.
This may come as a shock to some considering how awful their defense was last season, but believe it or not, Houston has truly been one of the elite defensive units in all of basketball this season.
Last season the Rockets allowed 103.1 points per game, the eighth-most in the NBA. They also posted a 106.3 defensive rating, which means for every 100 possessions they allowed 106.3 points. Houston has improved dramatically in both of those categories this season, currently allowing 95.3 points per game with a 100.1 defensive rating, both of which rank second in the league. Additionally, the Rockets currently rank second in defensive efficiency according to our metrics all while playing the ninth-hardest schedule in the league.
Although they were far from a good defensive team last season, Houston's defensive prowess should come as no surprise considering Dwight Howard anchors their defense. But Howard has only appeared in 12 of the Rockets 23 games this season. So how has Houston's defense improved so much last season despite Dwight missing nearly half of their games?
A lot the Rockets' team defensive success can be attributed to essentially swapping Chandler Parsons for Trevor Ariza. Parsons, who signed a massive contract to go to Dallas in the offseason, is not nearly as strong a defender as Ariza, who Houston was able to sign at a much lower price than the man he replaced.
Last season, Parsons posted a 108 defensive rating with 0.9 steals and 0.4 rejections per game, and his defensive rating and steals per game have actually both regressed this year. Meanwhile, Ariza has earned a 101 defensive rating-- keep in mind a lower number indicates a better rating -- this season with 1.7 steals per game, although he has averaged less blocks than Parsons at just 0.1 per game. In fact, Ariza's career low in defensive rating is 107, better than any rating Parsons has put up since his rookie year.
Patrick Beverley's locking down opposing point guards also plays a major role in Houston's defensive success. The Rockets' point guard was only available for 56 games last season after suffering a knee injury mid-way through the season, which definitely had a negative impact on Houston's defense. Beverley is one of the best perimeter defenders in the league, earning a 101 defensive rating with 1.2 steals and 0.4 blocks per game as a point guard. That said, Beverley has only been able to suit up for 11 of the Rockets' 23 games this season, which means Houston's defensive metrics should only improve over the remainder of the season.
While Ariza and Beverley have certainly helped the Rockets grow as a defensive unit, the player who has had the biggest impact on the Rockets' defensive success this season has been James Harden.
James Harden has been a great defender this season. Yes, that James Harden. In fact, not only has he been a great defender, he has actually been one of the best defensive players in the entire NBA.
For those of you who have yet to stop reading in disgust, here are what the numbers have to say about Harden's defense. The Rockets' star has posted the fifth-best defensive rating in the league at 97.7, is averaging the fourth-most steals in the league at 2.0 per game, and has earned the most defensive win shares in all of basketball at 1.8. He is also averaging 1.1 blocks per game, which ranks third in the league among perimeter players.
It is impossible to argue that Harden has been a plus-defensive player before this season, but his detractors seem to forget that the Rockets' guard is still a young player in this league. Defense does not come naturally to everyone -- it often takes time for a player to learn how to play sound defense, especially when transitioning into a new system.
It may feel like the Beard has been around forever, but this is just Harden's sixth year in the league and only his third year in coach Kevin McHale's system. If you watch Harden play this season, you can tell that not only is he giving more effort on the defensive end, but also he seems to understand his assignments and rotations better than in years past. He may not be the best defender in the league, but these significant improvements in his numbers are no fluke.
Although few realize how much he has improved as a defender, most would agree that Harden is one of the most valuable players in the league. He leads the league in scoring at 26.3 points per game, is sixth in player efficiency rating at 25.4, second in plus/minus at 7.8, and fifth in win shares per 48 minutes at .259. He also ranks third in our player power rankings with a 17.4 nERD.
The fact that Harden is asked to play such a massive role in everything the Rockets do -- he ranks fifth in the league with a 31.6% usage rate -- makes his progress on defense so impressive. Not many players in the league could lead his team in scoring and assists while also being its best defender. Harden has emerged as one of the best two-way players in the league and may be the leader in the clubhouse for the MVP at the quarter mark of the season as a result.