James Harden is the most underappreciated player in the NBA. Yeah, I said it. That statement probably isn’t much of a hot take for Rockets fans, but in case you haven’t noticed, the rest of the league can’t stand James Harden and his “flopping, no defense” style of play.
I only became inspired to write this after I saw a silly video bashing Harden circulate on my Twitter feed earlier in the week. Instinctively, I responded to the account claiming that the video was a terrible way for them to explain their opinion. I was then bombarded by several other accounts that supported the video when I tried to argue that drawing fouls isn’t flopping, receiving arguments like this:
@ericspyros it is absolutely flopping when you're not intending to even try and shoot, just play basketball and quit worrying about fouls— Fan Essentials (@FanEssentials) September 13, 2016
So apparently, James Harden doesn’t try to shoot anymore, but rather flop his way to 29 points per game. Now, even before I had this long (you can find the rest on my profile) Twitter exchange, I knew that Harden wasn’t liked by non-Rockets fans. However, I hadn’t realized that the hate had become this severe.
There has been so much hate of Harden that an article asking why people hate him so much has been written. There has also been a popular YouTube video going around supporting Harden, and unsurprisingly, the comments section is a disaster. This is all a long winded background on why I felt the need to write this
rant article defending Harden and all he has done for the Rockets over the past four seasons. I’m going to first begin with Harden’s accomplishments with the Rockets, before attacking analyzing the criticism many have of Harden.
Harden’s accomplishments with the Rockets
James Harden has been a Houston Rocket since the 2012-2013 NBA season. In the four seasons Harden has led the team, the Rockets have won 14 playoff games, which includes a run to the Western Conference Finals. From 2000-2012, the Rockets won 16 playoff games, which did not include a Western Conference Finals berth. The Rockets have almost amassed the same amount of playoff wins during Harden’s first four years with the team as they amassed during the 12 seasons before Harden landed in H-Town.
Harden has been an All-Star every season with the Rockets, a two=time All-NBA First Team member (2014, 2015), an All-NBA Third team member (2013), and an MVP runner-up (2015). And he should have had four-straight All-NBA honors except for widespread media bias. In case you’ve been sleeping under a rock, not only have many argued that Harden should have won the MVP in 2015, but fellow NBA players voted him the player’s MVP that season.
The reason I listed all of those accomplishments is not because I’m practicing my Wikipedia style of writing, but because many like to point out Harden’s seeming lack of success with the Rockets. The Rockets have almost matched their playoff win total from 2000-2012 during Harden’s four-year tenure. Just to put that in perspective, there are 14 NBA teams that haven’t won a playoff series in more than four years. James Harden has led the Rockets to almost as many playoff wins (14) in his four years in Houston as the Pelicans (15) and Timberwolves (17) have as franchises!
James Harden has had success in Houston. He has won playoff games and series and individual awards during his four seasons with the Rockets. However, people still love attacking Harden and his poor, boring, “floppy” play. Let’s take a look at some other reasons why Harden is not overrated, but rather unappreciated.
Harden has been carrying the Rockets
Yes I know you’re probably sick of hearing this argument from Rockets fans. But it seems like the more we try and point it out, the less people actually listen. Now, yes, Harden did have Dwight Howard next to him for two-and-a-half of the four seasons Harden has been in Houston. But, I think we can all agree that Harden never had peak Dwight, and the final two seasons Dwight was in Houston were marked by injuries and a poor attitude.
Harden’s usage percentage (and minutes played) has increased almost every season with the Rockets, reaching career highs of 32.5% and 3,125 minutes this past season. However, Harden’s production hasn’t dipped during this time. In fact, Harden is third in the NBA in VORP (value over replacement player) since 2013, ahead of players such as Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Harden has increased his production across the board, averaging career highs in points (29 per game), rebounds (6.1 per game), and assists (7.5 per game) this past season, all while being left off the All-NBA teams.
Harden’s style of play opens him up for criticism
Rockets fans will be honest: even sometimes they don’t enjoy watching Harden ISO all the time in hopes of drawing a foul. But here’s the thing: Rockets fans understand the effectiveness of Harden’s style of play. Harden is a monster driving to the rim. He’s so good at scoring around the rim that he essentially leaves defenders only two choices when he drives: foul him, or let him score. Often times, defenders choose to foul because who wants to give up an easy basket? However, that has led many to criticize Harden’s “flopping” and poor style of play.
I’m just going to say it here: drawing fouls is a skill. Knowing how and when to bait the defense in to a foul is hard to do, especially when driving to the rim at full speed. Harden is smart enough to realize that he can use the rules of the game to his advantage when he drives, leading to Harden being tops in free throws made and attempted the past two seasons.
I may be crazy, but I don’t remember anything close to as much outrage when Kevin Durant consistently led or was in the top three in free throws made and attempted each season. And if you argue that Durant wasn’t looking to get fouled, then you’re just wrong. Don’t forget: Kevin Durant perfected the “rip-through” move on his jump shots to the point where the NBA changed the rule.
Players understand the rules of the NBA; they know how to get their points. Harden (along with Daryl Morey) has done his research into the analytics. He understands that free throws are an efficient way to score. James Harden isn’t just a “flopper,” he is playing an efficient, successful style of basketball within the rules of the game.
James Harden’s defense is terrible... or is it?
Now we get to the part everyone expected to hear about in a James Harden article. We’ve heard the jokes about calling him James Haren because of his lack of defense, and we’ve seen the Vines and YouTube videos pointing out his lapses. I’m not going to sit here and defend Harden’s defense last season because, at times, it was embarrassing. Harden would take defensive possessions off, losing sight of his man and giving up easy baskets. But... can you really blame him?
Last season, the Rockets as a team were poor defensively. To go along with that, Harden spent almost all of the team’s offensive possessions trying to keep them in the game. Putting that much effort in on offense, while playing the most minutes in the league, really only allows Harden to catch his breath on defense. Now, I’m not saying that Harden should continue to take breaks on defense, because he shouldn’t. What I am saying is if you truly understand and appreciate what he had to do for the Rockets on offense, you would better understand his defensive lapses.
And, let’s just take a step back and put his defensive struggles in perspective. First of all, even last season Harden was consistently better than Damian Lillard on defense (Harden: -0.4 DBPM, 2.6 DWS vs. Lillard: -2.2 DBPM, 1.4 DWS). However, Lillard seems to get more of a pass for his poor defense than Harden. Why is that? Lillard didn’t play as many minutes as Harden, have as high a usage percentage as Harden, and didn’t put up better numbers than Harden.
Also, I need to bring up another player who seems to get a pass for his (often suspect) defense. And that’s Russell Westbrook. As you can see here, Westbrook’s defense during game 6 of the Conference Finals against the Warriors was not only pathetic, but costly:
Because Westbrook’s Vines are almost exclusively him performing monstrous dunks instead of his poor defense, Westbrook has the perception of being a good defender in the minds of many NBA fans. Harden doesn’t have many dunks that are Vine worthy, and no one is going to Vine his free throw attempts, so what does that leave people to Vine? Harden’s defensive lapses.
Finally,when Harden is truly fit and focused, like he was in the 2014-2015 season, he can be an average (dare I say a little above average) defender. That season he posted a DBPM of 1.0 and 4.2 DWS. And that’s all while essentially averaging 27, 7, and 6 per game.
Harden is underappreciated
Harden is the best shooting guard in the NBA (don’t @ me with your Klay > Harden takes) and in my opinion, one of the top five players in the league. Sports Illustrated has Harden at No. 7, and while I don’t fully agree with it, that still proves that Harden is a consensus top 10 player in the league.
Harden is a superstar in today’s NBA. Yes, he had defensive lapses last season and the team was filled with turmoil, but we may never know who’s fault it truly was for the locker room to breakdown as quickly as it did last season. What we do know is that Harden is a nightmare in the pick-and-roll, a great spot up shooter, an elite foul drawer, and has been carrying the Houston Rockets on his back for the past four seasons.
It’s time the rest of the league (and fan bases) started appreciating James Harden. Rockets fans already do, and that’s because he is a superstar in the NBA.