Is James Harden a Good Defender?

The basketball world regards James Harden as one of the most prolific scorers of this generation. Some claim his patented step-back three-point shot is a travel. Others praise him for his creativity and understanding of the game. Without a doubt, Harden is an offensive juggernaut.

But many NBA analysts and fans question his standing as one of the greatest players of this era for one reason: his defense. Is Harden a good defender? The only appropriate answer: His defense is underrated. Hear us out.

James Harden’s underrated defense

Blake Griffin of the Detroit Pistons drives to the basket, defended by James Harden
Blake Griffin drives to the basket, defended by James Harden | Tim Warner/Getty Images

Harden’s defensive responsibilities are different from other elite NBA players due to his offensive obligations. The Rockets offense is predicated on outscoring the opposition, and most of that labor goes to Harden.

In the era of load management, coaches must think outside the box to get the most out of their top players without overusing them and hurting the team.

Mike D’Antoni’s plan for Harden is simple. Limit the inefficient use of Harden’s energy on the defensive end by altering his responsibilities. Here’s how the Rockets use Harden efficiently on the defensive end.

Post-up defense

A few years ago, fans commonly saw highlights of Harden getting blown by when he attempted to defend guards on the perimeter. Many see him as a lazy defender. But those with a firm grasp of the game, as well as the Rocket’s offense, understand the reason for the gap in his performance on the defensive end.

Many are unaware that Harden has one of the highest usage rates in NBA history. With all of his offensive responsibilities, using the All-Star’s mental and physical energy to chase guard on every possession isn’t efficient.

As opposed to keeping him on the outside, the Rockets switched his defensive responsibilities to the post. He’s a lot more competent there due to his stocky build. Not only does Harden in the post help the team defensively; it also helps conserve his energy so he can continue his offensive dominance.

Harden’s off-ball defense

We can tell from Harden’s passing abilities that he has superb court vision. He can see what others can’t and capitalize on his opponents’ errors. That’s why Harden excels at off-ball defense. He has the ability to anticipate passes, pressure elite guards with double teams, and force role players to win games.

We can see evidence of this throughout the Rockets-versus-Warriors 2018-19 playoff series. Harden collected a total of 12 steals in the course of five games. While the Warrior’s won the series, Harden displayed his defensive prowess. He showed he’s better equipped to succeed defensively in a collaborative setting.

Help defense

Another area where Harden is effective defensively is on the help side. It’s no secret the Rockets give him the weakest assignments defensively. There’s a lot of thought behind that decision.

Using the 2018-19 Rockets-versus-Warriors playoff series example, when Harden had to play on-ball defense, he usually guarded Iguodala or Looney. Because there was no fear of their jump shots, Harden could play off them to assist with bigger assignments like Kevin Durant, Steph Curry, or Klay Thompson. This is where most of Harden’s steals occurred in the series.

What do you think? Is Harden really a bad defender? Let us know on our Facebook page.