Glance at a list of the NBA's top statistical defenders and the usual suspects leap forward -- Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jimmy Butler, Anthony Davis, Rudy Gobert, Marcus Smart. Nestled at the top, however, is a name that you might instead expect to see on a list of the league's worst defenders.
The Houston Rockets guard is known for his incredibly efficient, occasionally frustrating, historically prolific scoring, while his meme-worthy defense has been the frequent target of unrelenting NBA Twitter for years.
So it's truly interesting, almost shocking, that as of this writing he was allowing 0.727 points per possession as a primary defender this season, according to Synergy Sports Technology, which is good for second -- yes, second -- in the entire NBA for players who have logged at least 200 defensive possessions.
The initial reaction is obvious: There's something wrong with the stats. Yes, it's true that advanced statistics can sometimes be misleading and always need to be taken in context, but if you look at the names around him, it's clear that this figure -- opponent points per possession -- has done a fairly accurate job of labeling players who are generally considered to be good defenders. Here's a look at the top statistical defenders in the league, according to Synergy.
*Figures accurate as of Dec. 11
|Min. 200 possessions||Possessions||PPP|
James Harden, Rockets
Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks
Daniel Theis, Celtics
Jimmy Butler, Heat
Last season, the same list included defensive stalwarts like Derrick Favors, Pascal Siakam and Myles Turner. This year, with the possible exceptions of Murray and Len, every player on the list above is considered to be an above-average to elite NBA defender. It's fair to say that Harden, despite being second on the list, would not be in the same category as his top-10 cohorts if you asked most NBA fans.
So what's going on?
As with any metric, it's always best to look at the video to see why the numbers have turned out the way they have. With Harden, a few things stand out.
Harden's post defense is elite
This has been known in NBA circles for years, but a combination of tremendous lower body strength and quick, precise hands makes Harden extremely difficult to score on in the low post, even against much bigger opponents. Yet, for some reason, he continues to be posted up more than almost any other player in the league. According to Synergy, Harden's man has tried to score on him out of a post-up on 38 possessions this season, and he's allowed a staggeringly low 11 total points. That's 0.289 points per possession, head and shoulders above the next-best post-up defender. Only Dwight Powell and Lauri Markkanen have been posted up more often, and they're allowing 1.026 and 0.872 points per possession, respectively.
Because of the Rockets' switch-heavy defense, teams often perceive an advantage when they find Harden guarding a taller player. This is simply not the case. Not only is the post-up one of the least efficient ways of scoring, but Harden is also one of the worst guards in the league to try to exploit. Just watch as Raptors forward Pascal Siakam, a very good post player by the numbers, is repeatedly stonewalled by Harden.
Word to the wise: Stop trying to post up James Harden. Just like "fetch," it's not going to happen.
The Rockets cover for Harden extremely well
Jeff Bzdelik is the architect of the Rockets' switch-heavy defense that took them from a good team to a title contender, and even though Bzdelik has moved on, much of the same principles apply. Houston protects Harden by usually putting him on the other team's worst offensive player, and then orchestrates a sequence of switchy defensive gymnastics to allow Harden to play an area rather than a man -- almost like a reverse box-and-one. When it works, it's a thing of beauty.
The Rockets' coaching staff and players have seen enough of Harden to know his limitations, and the supporting cast is willing to put in a little extra work to cover for him. Harden's isolation defense has been elite -- he's in the 88th percentile, allowing 0.586 points per possession -- and that's partly due to the help he receives. He generally moves his feet well and is smart about not fouling (possibly because he's so good at drawing fouls himself and knows how to avoid common foul-baiting tricks), but he occasionally lets his man go by him and attempts to steal or block the ball from behind, hoping he'll have help at the rim. He usually does, but sometimes mixups lead to easy layups. You can see Harden airing his frustrations with his teammates after allowing an easy bucket to Minnesota's Robert Covington.
Overall, however, the Rockets defense has been good -- and it's been because of Harden, not in spite of him. After a rough start, Houston is ninth in the league, allowing 106 points per 100 possessions over its last 15 games, according to NBA.com. They've gotten used to covering for Harden, and are utilizing his strengths while attempting to hide his weaknesses. And speaking of weaknesses ...
Lackluster closeouts are a problem
Harden's effort on closeouts is ... not ideal. While he's in the 80th or higher percentile in other defensive situations such as pick-and-rolls, post-ups and isolation, Harden is in the 56th percentile on closeouts. This can be a misleading stat because often the player closest to a wide-open shooter is considered the primary defender, and therefore the made basket goes against him. But looking through the video, you can see that while Harden is good at contesting 3-point shooters without fouling, he sometimes doesn't even attempt to close out.
In a league where 3-point shooting is at a premium (Harden and the Rockets know this better than most), closing out hard on shooters to run them off the line or force them to make an extra pass is essential. Again, Harden often does a decent job at this, but the times he doesn't truly stand out.
If you're looking for an unsustainable anomaly in Harden's incredible defensive numbers, this could be it. Right now the players Harden guards are averaging 0.889 points per possession on "unguarded" catch-and-shoot attempts, according to Synergy, and are shooting just 41 for 141 in those situations. League average on unguarded catch-and-shoot is about 1.161 points per possession, so over the course of the season Harden's opponents might start to make more open shots, causing a dip in his defensive efficiency.
Some of this is by design, though. If Harden is helping on a drive to the basket and leaving a low-percentage shooter open, the Rockets will live with that. As the old adage goes, he's open for a reason. But still, you'd like to see a little bit better effort from Harden on closeouts, particularly with knock-down shooters.
A clear trajectory
Despite his outstanding defensive metrics, nobody expects Harden to be Kawhi Leonard on that end of the floor. The biggest issues from previous years were his lack of effort and confounding absent-minded lapses that were replayed ad nauseam.
It appears that those days are now safely in the rear-view mirror. In the 2015-16 season, Harden was in the 18th percentile for defensive players, according to Synergy. In 2017-18 it jumped to 45th. Last year it was 88th. This year, so far, it's 96th. You can't ignore positive momentum that strong.
Despite some occasional mistakes, which are tolerable considering the monumental load he carries offensively, it's evident that Harden has improved tremendously as a defender. His status among the league's elite may wane, but calling Harden a good defender -- particularly in the context of the Rockets system -- is in no way egregious.