James Harden is the most underrated player in the NBA. There, I said it.
Alright, that should get some boiling, but this is not mere click-bait. The criticism of Harden has gone from fair to hyperbolic, and that culminated last season when he failed to make the All-NBA team. His season was the best in NBA history of anyone who ever failed to make the squad, and that’s indisputable if you approach things with an open mind.
There are fair things to criticize Harden for. No player is without fault. But more than any player in the league, Harden has become defined by his flaws and in spite of his tremendously successful measurables.
We often look at peripheral things like “aesthetics” or a performance in a playoff series at the expense of everything else. And that can often lead to very strange things indeed. For example, I asked Twitter who they’d rather build a team around, Harden or Kyrie Irving. And the results don’t reflect what the numbers suggest they should:
Who would you rather build a team around?
— Kelly Scaletta (@KellyScaletta) October 12, 2016
That’s not to knock on Irving, but Harden’s game is on another level. It just doesn’t look as pretty and he doesn’t have the benefit of being teamed up with LeBron James.
Let’s look at the whole Harden, not just a video montage of his defense, to see just how special of a player he is.
Consider this: Harden’s season was the 36th in history where a player averaged 25 points, six rebounds and six assists.
Here are the players who have done it and how often:
And here is how those seasons break down by All-NBA Teams:
Of the 35 times it’s been accomplished, Harden is the only one to miss the All-NBA team. Furthermore, of the previous 35 to do it, only five have missed the First-Team All-NBA team. And of the five times that happened, four of the occurrences came when the player’s team failed to win in the playoffs.
The only other time in history that a player put up those kinds of numbers, led his team to the playoffs and didn’t get First-Team All-NBA was LeBron James in 2006-07. The starting forwards that year were Dirk Nowitzki (who won the MVP) and Tim Duncan (who finished fourth). James finished fifth.
So it’s not like that was the league throwing shade at James; it was just that three of the five best players happened to be forwards.
Nor is it like Harden achieved his numbers by “chucking”. His 59.8 true shooting percentage places ninth among the 36 25/6/6 seasons.
And if we just view those who bested his actual averages of 29.0 points, 7.5 assists and 6.1 rebounds, the only three who have done it are Michael Jordan, James and Oscar Robertson. If we factor in true shooting percentage, only Jordan and James are there, and only once apiece. While that does get a little cherry-picky, it’s still pretty impressive.
Statistically, Harden’s was the biggest slight of all-time. So there must be a good reason for that, right? Wrong.
But there are other things the haters will bring up to counter the stats, suggesting that he holds the ball too long and takes his teammates out of the offense, that he is all isolation all the time — and that’s inefficient — and that he doesn’t play defense.
In general, he’s not a “leader.”
Most of those criticisms should be manifested in things like plus-minus if they are true. If he’s really the one holding the team back, they should play better without him.
But do the numbers reflect that? Over the last two seasons, the Rockets have outscored their opponents by 460 points with Harden on the court. Comparatively, they’ve been outscored by 162 points when he’s been on the bench. That’s a 622-point swing.
There is absolutely no ground to claim that he doesn’t make the Rockets a better team. He emphatically does. And frankly, that number barely touches the reality because he plays so many minutes.
Last year, the Rockets had a net rating of +1.2 with Harden. But without him it plunged to -5.3. The offensive rating fell off a cliff, going from 107.2 to 99.1. And sure, the defense was improved a smidgen when he sat (1.6 points), but that’s nothing compared to the 8.1 points per 100 possessions lost when he wasn’t playing.
You can argue that no one in the NBA did more to carry his offense than Harden did.
Consider this: According to NBA .com, Houston scored 6,989 points while the Beard was the court last year. He personally scored 2,376 of those. And according to the passing dashboard for the Rockets, his teammates made 243 threes and 456 twos off his passes (whether he was credited with an assist or not). That’s another 1,641 points. In addition, Harden contributed another 123 secondary assists (a minimum of another 246 points) and 49 free-throw assists (a minimum of another 49 points). That means he added 1,936 points by his passing.
Combine that with his scoring, and he accounted for 4,312 of the 6,989 points the Rockets scored while he was on the court, 61.2 percent of them. And he did this on a team where only one other player totaled more than 1,000 points (Trevor Ariza had 1,025).
The canyon of a chasm between Harden and the next best offensive player on the team is well beyond anyone that was on the All-NBA team, and arguably anyone in the league.
There may be aspects of leadership that are more abstract and which are fair to criticize him for. But there’s no denying that when he’s on the court, the Rockets are a much better team because of him.
Now that the Rockets are undisputedly his team, we can evaluate him more on his intangibles, rather than how well he coexists with Dwight Howard, who hasn’t seemed to be able to coexist with anyone.
I’m not going to try to paint Harden as a great defender, but the reputation as the worst defender in the league is just wrong. Yes, there are highlight reels of him playing defense, but bear in mind that he was on the court for 12,321 defensive possessions over the last two years. That’s over 700 more than anyone in the league. His teammate, Ariza is second. Andrew Wiggins is third with 864 fewer possessions than Harden.
Point being, if you have a video montage of even 100 plays last year, it’s still less than one percent of Harden’s defensive plays. It’s ridiculous to evaluate him solely on a YouTube videos that show times where he gave up on a play or got beat, particularly if it’s to illustrate he’s “lazy.”
To illustrate this, let’s compare Harden with three other guards, one with a “good” defensive reputation (Klay Thompson), one with a controversial one (Russell Westbrook) and one with a poor one (Kyrie Irving).
Let’s look at three things for each player to get a bead on how active they are and how successful they are.
While Harden does give up the highest differential in field-goal percentage, he’s also by far the most active defender of the three. In fact, Harden was first among guards and fifth in the league overall in shots contested (meaning he was the closest defender on the play). He defended 20.3 percent of all opponents’ shots and accounted for 24.0 percent of the Rockets’ steals while he was on the court.
Now, there are a lot of variables in that particular soup, but at the very least it belies the notion that he’s lazy and beaten on every play. If those things were true, he wouldn’t be the closest defensive player on so many shots. He wouldn’t be swiping all those balls.
His DRPM is below average, even for his position. He’s not a plus defender, but he’s 49th out of 92 shooting guards and only seven spots behind Thompson. Irving, however, was 73rd among 79 point guards. But there’s no viral video montage, so he must never get beaten.
No, Harden is not a good defender, but he’s not a lazy or horrible one. And there are times when he’s impressive. He switches well and guards the 4 surprisingly effectively because he’s so long and strong for his height.
And when you combine the fact that he’s the most ubiquitous defender with the onus he bears on offense, it’s impressive as a total package. Calling him lazy is preposterous.
No, his game is not pretty. He draws a lot of fouls. He exaggerates the contact which makes a pseudo-flop. But it is effective. There are certainly prettier players — all of those mentioned above for example. But there aren’t many in the league who carry their team as much as he did last year. And it’s time NBA fans saw the positives and stopped defining him exclusively by his negatives.