After his first year with the Houston Rockets in their 2012-2013 NBA season, it’s hard to argue the fact that James Harden has planted himself in the top 10 players in the league. Harden helped lead the Rockets to the eight-seed in the Western Conference and helped them put up a fight against a Russell Westbrook-less Oklahoma City Thunder team in the first round of the playoffs.
The 24-year-old Harden’s offensive presence is something defenses have to account for every night and, even then, have trouble stifling. In 78 games last season he averaged 25.9 points and 5.8 assists on 43.8 percent shooting from the field and solid 36.8 percent three-point shooting. He was proficient in almost every situation put in, ranking in the top-35 in terms of points per possession in isolation, pick-and-roll and hand-off sets, including being the fifth most productive player in the league last season as the ball-handler in the pick-and-roll.
However, Harden’s offensive impact on the Rockets often overshadows what he does on the other side of the ball. Sure, Harden averaged 1.8 steals and 4.9 rebound per game last season, but that obviously doesn’t tell the story. It doesn’t tell the story that Harden wasn’t particularly great defensively last season.
In terms of points per possession, Harden ranked 322nd in the NBA defensively last season, allowing 0.92 points per possession. Harden was especially poor in defending spot-up shooting, the set he defended the most last season. While defending spot-up opportunities on 38.5 percent of the plays run at him, he allowed 1.07 points per possession and allowed opponents to shoot 40.4 percent from three against him.
In fairness, Harden was solid against isolation sets, allowing just 0.72 points per possession, and in defending the pick-and-roll, allowing only 0.8 points per possession. However, Harden’s overall defensive numbers really show that he has a ways to go on that end of the floor.
Part of Harden’s ineffectiveness defensively was the fact that he had to exert so much effort on the offensive end of the floor and would save his energy on defense. Coming into this season with the addition of Dwight Howard, though, that’s something that should change.
Howard should be able to alleviate some of the load from Harden offensively. Not only will that open up Harden on offense even more and possibly make him a more efficient scorer, but it should allow him to focus more on his defensive effort than he did last season when he was playing without Howard.
If Harden really wants to make it indubitable that he’s one of the 10 best players in this league, he’s going to have to show more on the defensive end of the floor. The good news for him is that he should have the opportunity to show great improvement this season with the Rockets adding Howard.
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