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A look at James Harden’s defensive development

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Four and a half years removed from a reputation-inducing low-light reel going viral, how has James Harden’s defense changed?

NBA: Playoffs-Golden State Warriors at Houston Rockets Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

In the four and a half years since the now-infamous James Harden defensive low-light reel went viral, a lot has changed.

Primarily, Harden has elevated himself to a perennial MVP candidate, proving he can be the driving force of a historically efficient offense.

But despite the nightly brilliance, Harden’s also gained an unshakable reputation on the less-sexy end of the floor, causing fans to feed into their own confirmation bias and readily await to critique each and every defensive misstep they can catch.

Only, Harden isn’t a bad defender anymore.

Sure, there’s still the occasional blow-by, where Harden gets caught watching or swiping, but what do you expect from one of the highest usage players in NBA history? It’s no accident he posted one of the lowest average speeds in the league this past season. A player of that offensive caliber handling that work load almost has no choice but to economically and judiciously conserve their effort.

That’s why the Rocketsidiosyncratic switch-heavy defensive scheme intentionally limits difficult scenarios for their MVP. Instead of having to chase his defender around pin-downs or ball screens each and every play, the Rockets’ system allows Harden to switch a greater proportion of their actions and instead prepare to defend what has become his best defensive play type: the post-up— allowing him to conserve both his physical and mental reserves.

The less actions Harden has to navigate, the easier his job becomes possession-to-possession and ultimately, night-to-night.

However, the beauty of running such a scheme with a basketball savant like Harden is that he gets comfortable in it, adjusts, and learns to thrive.

Without as much on-ball responsibility outside of the post, Harden plays rover more often, disrupting opposing passing lanes and drives. And, as he’s gained more experience in this role, his impact has steadily improved. Per NBA.com, this past season Harden finished second in the league in combined steals and total deflections, while also ranking 13th in loose balls recovered— all career-highs.

When asked about Harden’s instincts in his unique role, former Rockets’ defensive coordinator Jeff Bzdelik told Yahoo Sports’ Seerat Sohi:

“He’s an intelligent guy. He knows his positioning well. That’s why he’s able to get those deflections, steals and he knows how to defend in the post. His intelligence allows him to anticipate, and the anticipation gets him in position in a quicker, positive way. Because he scores so much, a lot of that is overlooked.”

However, despite all the organizational assistance, Harden still doesn’t grade out exceptionally well in catch-all defensive metrics, and the Rockets’ defense has consistently performed better with him on the bench for years now. Why is that?

Well, simply put, despite being a truly excellent post-up and scheme defender, Harden is mediocre-at-best in high-effort scenarios.

In particular, per Synergy Sports, over the past few seasons, Harden has struggled to defend above league average in “spot-up” scenarios (ie. any time an opposing player shoots or plays “off-the-catch” on the perimeter) despite them comprising the greatest proportion of his defensive possessions.

Consistently, Harden has improved as a one-on-one defender, putting up a fight when he is mono-a-mono and in a defensive stance. But energetically taxing play types such as spot-ups, where he has to closeout with a hand up, react in real-time, and shuffle his feet, are his Achilles heel.

This trend continues in scenarios when Harden cannot switch and has no choice but to conventionally defend a ball-screen. Much like the spot-ups, navigating this action successfully by avoiding the screen and quickly getting back in front of one’s man requires a ton of effort and practice.

Unfortunately, Harden colliding with the screen or lazily making his way over the screen comprises many of his pick-and-roll possessions the past few seasons— both of which have resulted in relatively efficient offense for opponents.

Surely, there are other minor deficiencies in Harden’s defense, but overcoming this high-effort handicap is the primary hurdle remaining in finally shedding his old defensive reputation and maximizing his fit in the Rockets’ scheme.

Considering the improvement Harden’s made both in the post and off-ball since the infamous low-light reel hit the web in 2014, it’s well within the realm of possibility these skills continue to develop.

If he does, the Rockets title chances get that much stronger as they can augment their unique defensive style and tinker with other looks.