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James Harden’s case for MVP increases with his improvements on defense

James Harden is on track to win his second straight MVP award, and despite a historic run on offense, it’s the improvements Harden has made on defense that help his case for a repeat.  

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at Houston Rockets Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

After falling to the New Orleans Pelicans Tuesday night, the Houston Rockets ended the month of January on an embarrassing note. They played one of their worst defensive games of the season, as Houston allowed the Pelicans to score 70 points in the paint.

And with New Orleans playing without their All-Star big man in Anthony Davis, Houston’s lack of effort of the defensive end was unacceptable. However, despite ending the month on a sour note, the loss against the Pelicans did not stain one of the greatest runs in Rockets history.

While recording 37 points in the loss, James Harden capped off a historic scoring streak in the month of January. In the midst of injuries to several of Houston’s key players, Harden helped the Rockets stay afloat with an 8-6 record while averaging 43.6 points per game, the most by any player since Wilt Chamberlain averaged 45.8 points in March of 1963.

While leading the league in scoring by averaging 36.3 points per game, Harden has become a heavy favorite to win his second straight MVP at the conclusion of this season. So much so, Thunder’s star, Paul George, recently made his case for The Beard to repeat as MVP in an interview with Action Network.

As Harden continues to make his MVP case on the offensive end, the same can be said about his play on defense. In recent years, the negative narrative surrounding Harden’s defense is starting to become a tall tale of years past more than a current reality.

Unless you have been living under a rock the past seven years, we have all witnessed the embarrassing and hilarious Youtube compilations of Harden’s inadequate defense. Some of Harden’s failures were so outrageous, those who only watched clips were quick to name the star guard as one of the worst defenders in the league. However, Harden has taken great strides to become a respectable defender over the past three seasons.

First and foremost, Harden will never be a player in the running for Defensive Player of the Year. His perimeter defense will never reach the level of Gary Payton. Nor will the 6’5” guard ever have the ability to block shots in the likes of Hakeem Olajuwon and Dikembe Mutombo.

However, similar to his offensive game, Harden has a unique style all his own that has turned him into a solid defensive player in recent years.

Following the Rockets’ 121-119 victory over the Toronto Raptors, Alykhan Bijani of The Athletic posted an interesting tweet to describe how Harden has become a great defender down on the low post.

During Houston’s 103-98 victory over the Orlando Magic, Harden’s ability to step up on the defensive end exactly when needed was on full display. Following a shot to put the Rockets up by five, Harden ended the game with a clutch defensive performance down the stretch, while recording a season-high three blocks in the win.

One can also take a look at traditional stats to show the improvements Harden has made on the defensive end.

While currently first in the league in deflections (3.8 per game), Harden is also averaging a career-high 2.1 steals, which is fourth-best in the league this season. Prior to this year, through his first six seasons in Houston, Harden rarely cracked the top 10, averaging 1.7 steals per game.

To put Harden’s other defensive numbers into perspective, the reigning MVP currently has a similar defensive plus-minus (+0.7) as Kawhi Leonard, (+0.8) and better marks than Jimmy Butler, (+0.5), Kevin Durant (+0.2), and Klay Thompson (-2.2), to name a few. In fact, he’s third on the entire Rockets squad in that statistic, behind just Clint Capela and P.J. Tucker.

Regardless of the Rockets team regression this season, James Harden should win his second straight MVP award. Not only because he is having a historic year offensively, but he’s doing so while playing both ends of the court. That’s been a common complaint from haters about Harden throughout his career, and it’s simply not true any longer.

And with three months left in the season, Chris Paul back in the lineup, and the team anxiously awaiting the return of it’s rim protector, Capela, Harden’s defense very well could get even better as the Rockets make a final push towards the playoffs.