Drafted 3rd overall in the 2009 NBA draft, James Harden came into the league to be instant offense and did just that averaging 9.9 ppg in his rookie season.
Now, his offensive prowess has him in the same breath as Michael Jordan, Wilt Chamberlain, and Kobe Bryant on a consistent basis.
The Beard has:
- 30+ points in his last 29 games (something only he and Chamberlain have done);
- averaged 43.6 ppg for a full month (again, something only he and Chamberlain share); and
- has the second most consecutive games scoring 35+ ppg.
James Harden even scored 304 consecutive points UNASSISTED. That might be the definition of "carrying a team."
However, this article isn't about what he can do with the ball. This is about the long-running rhetoric that "James Harden doesn't play defense."
At one point, Harden capitalized on the jokes by addressing the issue in a Foot Locker commercial:
This season Harden went from poking fun at his reputation to poking balls away from opponents. Harden is averaging a career-high 2.2 in steals (top 3 in the NBA) and blocks (top 5 amongst guards). Harden is also averaging a career-high 3.3 fouls per game.
That might seem like a neutral stat and admittedly some of those fouls might be charging and on the offensive end, however, this shows an additional effort and energy overall.
Even when Harden tied Kobe's record for most points by an opponent at Madison Square Garden, he did it by getting a stop on the defensive end.
Earlier this year as the Rockets were trying to seal a victory against the Raptors in a potential NBA Finals preview, Harden closed out the game by stopping former NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard on the final possession.
James Harden closing out games on defense, shuts down Kawhi. pic.twitter.com/OKKO9dkyaq- Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) January 26, 2019
The stop on Leonard was in primetime and proved that Harden could be clutch on the defensive end.
Austin Rivers, a new addition to the team and son of the defensive-minded Doc Rivers, took note on Harden's efforts saying "He played good D man... James has actually been playing solid defense since I've been here, to be honest. That whole defensive liability thing with him is dead - from what I've seen."
Harden also constantly discusses defense in postgame interviews and his teammates are vocal about his potential to be an effective defensive player.
Harden's teammates acknowledge he can offer defense when necessary, however, it's not always his top priority to be a lockdown defender and it shouldn't be. That said, Harden's defensive improvement is noticeable and should be commended. The most important defense Harden provides is his offense.
The amount of energy it takes for a team to try and stop one of the most versatile scorers in NBA history takes a toll on a team which is evident by the Rockets rise in the standings. Houston was at the bottom of the Western Conference earlier in the season but thanks to Harden's output, the Rockets are positioned to battle for home-court advantage in the Playoffs.
Similarly, Harden's next defensive showcase will have to be in April and beyond. Historically, critics have doubted Harden's ability to score, to lead a team, and to play defense. With Harden on the verge of repeating as the NBA's best player, the media should be cautious in noting what Harden "can't" do and look at everything he "can" achieve.
A healthy Chris Paul and contributions from the new cast of Rivers, Kenneth Faried, and Iman Shumpert just might be the winning mix for Houston to go from an offensive threat to a legitimate Championship threat.