Mention James Harden's name outside of Houston or external of a group of Rockets fans, and you're likely to get any number of responses, the majority of them negative.
Naturally, you're going to hear about his defense. In fact, you hear about it so much, Harden's defensive play has actually drifted out of the realm of serious sports talk and into part of pop culture sarcasm. And it's not entirely undeserved.
The Harden no-defense videos are now infamous enough to appear on totally un-sports-related content sites, and the day-to-day numbers do seem to support that narrative.
Harden is sporting a defensive plus-minus of –0.3 for the season and a field goal percentage differential of +1.9 (which means players shoot 1.9 percent better against The Beard than their normal average). Neither one of those numbers are good.
But it's important to keep things in perspective.
Kevin Love has a differential percentage of +3.7. Jimmy Butler sits at a +1.9. Damian Lillard? He's at a +1.4. Kemba Walker is a +1.2. Brandon Knight sports a +2.1, and Reggie Jackson has a +3.6. That's just a few.
All of these players allow the person they are guarding to shoot varying degrees better than their normal averages. Most of them more so than Harden. A few of them much more than The Beard. It's just not as trendy or as cutesy or as popular on social media to rib those guys as it is to mock The Beard. I'm certain that Kevin Love's cherry-picked, poor-defense video looks just as atrocious as Harden's. He just doesn't play for the Rockets.
The Rockets' overall team defense has taken a hit this year as well. In fact, it's been one of, if not the primary reason, for the steep drop-off in the Houston record and why they stand squarely on the precipice of the lottery rather than a first-round playoff series.
The Rockets have slipped in defensive rating, dropping from the 6th-ranked 100.5 last season to a 22nd-ranked 106.1 this year. They also give up a full 6 points more per game, falling from a 17th-ranked 100.5 last season to a 27th-ranked 106.7 this year. Harden, as the primary focal point of the squad, and to stick by the major outlet and social media narrative, takes a large chunk of that blame. It is true that his defense has slipped from last year.
But that narrative conveniently ignores several facts.
First, the Rockets have three formerly elite-level defenders also not playing up to snuff. Patrick Beverley, Trevor Ariza and Dwight Howard, in theory, give the Rockets stoppers at each level of team defense -- the point, the wing, and the paint. The only problem is, each of those players have faltered as defenders this season as well.
Ariza's been just barely above average this year. His versatility is still there, and he's still adept at jumping the passing lanes, as his 2.1 steals per game, sixth in the NBA, would suggest. But his athleticism has taken a noticeable hit as he ages, and his defensive measurements have fallen as a result.
Beverley's defense (his former calling card) has tailed off more dramatically. His -0.6 defensive plus-minus is the worst of his career. As is his +0.2 differential percentage. He's not a terrible defender, but a formerly top point man harasser slipping to a below-average one is certainly going to have a ripple effect.
Howard still plays decent defense at times, as his +1.7 defensive plus-minus would suggest, but he also has a positive differential percentage (a bad thing, remember) and his days as an elite-level shot blocker and rim protector are behind him. We still see flashes. But the night-in, night-out consistency is just no longer there.
He's also looked worse as the season has dragged on, a possible sign of D-12 mentally checking out on his way to free agency as Houston's record slips further under .500.
The presence of these three players on the Houston roster was specifically designed to help take the load off of Harden. The Beard carries so much of the offensive responsibility and plays so many minutes for the Rockets, that surrounding him with positive defenders is essential.
Those defenders have all slipped. Yes, Harden has too, but the lack of defense in Houston is a team problem, not solely a James Harden one.
That immense offensive responsibility is another factor often ignored when analyzing The Bearded One. Harden's sky-high usage percentage of 32.3 percent is actually higher than last season's mark and is second in the NBA to only DeMarcus Cousins. His 38.2 minutes per game and 3,021 overall minutes lead the NBA by a large margin.
With Howard's offensive game slipping into a black hole of nothingness, the failure of the Ty Lawson experiment, and poor health of their only real post threat in Donatas Motiejunas, there's been literally no one else on this Houston roster capable of creating either their own shot or offensive opportunities for others. It's in this sense, in particular, where we truly see how underrated Harden is.
The Beard is averaging 28.7 points, 6.2 rebounds, and 7.5 assists per game on the year, which are all increases from his near-miss MVP year last season. His shooting percentage of 43.6 percent is almost identical to the 44.0 percent from last year. His steals stayed roughly the same (1.9 last year, 1.7 this).
His turnovers are up, however, and it does looks like he will indeed lead the NBA , which is an unfortunate side effect of the high minutes, high usage, and the lack of another play maker. Harden counteracts that by leading the league in free throw attempts (and shoots 86.2 percent from the line). While you would like to see those cough-ups go down, they come within the territory of Harden's role and responsibility.
Harden's been even better since the All-Star break. His post-break averages of 30.1 points, 6.4 rebounds, and 8.4 assists are truly off the charts, and it's a testament to his greatness as an offensive force that this otherwise terrible Houston squad was even in contention for a playoff spot to begin with.
They were lifted to this point solely by the nightly offensive dominance of The Beard, and remove Harden's 12.3 win shares from the team's record, and we're suddenly looking at a 50-plus loss squad, and the Lakers, Nets and Timberwolves as peer company. Something to think about when assessing whether or not Harden is truly underrated
Harden's taken a drubbing this year, as he's been crucified in the national media and pop culture, is regularly listed outside the top 10 in ESPN's Player Power Rankings, and even occasionally has some Rockets fans calling for a trade of the team's best and most dynamic player.
Working on my NBA awards ballot... Not sure I can put Harden on the 2nd or 3rd All-NBA team after this pathetic Houston season. Sorry James.— Bill Simmons (@BillSimmons) April 9, 2016
But even in a down year, Harden dwarfs some past MVPs — Derrick Rose's line in his 2010-2011 MVP season of 25.0 points, 4.1 rebounds, 7.7 assists, and 1.0 steal on 44.0 percent shooting is no match for what Harden is doing this season — and ESPN's failure to properly recognize one of the clear top 5 players in the league (I put him in top 3, personally) along with the constant criticism Harden faces and even the calls for a trade among his own fans, all combine to make The Beard the most underrated player on the Rockets.
No player is 100 percent perfect. They all have their faults. None of them are scrutinized quite to the same level as Harden. No, folks, Harden isn't overrated. He's now officially underrated.