9. James Harden, Houston Rockets
By Matthew Way
James Harden is one of the most controversial players in the NBA. Coming off an MVP-caliber season in 2014-15, Harden landed at No. 5 in BBALLBREAKDOWN’s player rankings last summer. Then, the Houston Rockets took a massive step back, leading to much criticism about his playing style and leadership—dropping him to ninth in our player rankings.
Harden’s offensive production is a given, but a viral video showing extreme indifference on defense has been harder for him to shake than the toughest defenders. His effort improved in 2014-15 and the Rockets followed suit, reaching the Western Conference Final. Last year, laziness on that end returned to previous levels and his regressions was mirrored by the Rockets’ overall defense, plummeting from eighth the previous year in defensive rating to 21st.
With Harden responsible for so much of the Rockets’ offense, it’s not entirely surprising his defense is less than stellar. Teams often hide high-usage offensive players within their schemes, but the level of indifference displayed last year made it easier said than done.
The publicity has made Harden an even bigger target than equally poor defenders with teams making it a point to attack him off the ball through back screens and cuts:
At this point in his career, it’s probably too much to ask Harden to be anything more than passable. But frankly, the Rockets don’t pay Harden for his defensive abilities. He’s an elite offensive weapon capable of carrying an offense, especially in the playoffs.
In his last two seasons, Harden combined huge volume and elite efficiency to become one of the absolute best scorers in the league. His usage rate was over 31 percent and his true shooting percentage was over 59 percent, a rare combination. But even that wasn’t without criticism. Harden’s constant foul-seeking doesn’t make for the most exciting brand of basketball, and last year Harden saw his efficiency drop while his turnover rate rose to a career-high. Both criticisms are fair, but they also ignore the team he had around him.
Harden was the only Rocket who could legitimately create for himself and others, which wore on him all season:
“But everybody makes mistakes. I can look up the same amount of plays for myself as the other top guys in the league. So I don’t really worry, I don’t focus on it. And now with the more talent that’s going to release some offensive pressure off me, I’m going to be able to go out there and play both ends of the floor at a high level. It’s really difficult to go out there, play all 82 games, lead the league in minutes and have to do everything offensively. I mean, no one else had that weight on their shoulders in the league. So like I said, it doesn’t really bother me. I focus on what I gotta do and I just go out there and do it.”
The “more talent” Harden referred to is Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson, two offseason acquisitions that should certainly make things easier for Harden offensively. Both players space the floor well. Throw in Patrick Beverley and Trevor Ariza, and the Rockets finally have several legitimate three-point shooters to open up the middle of the court for Harden. Perhaps even more important is the ability of Gordon to take on some of the ball handling responsibilities. Harden has lacked a secondary ball handler throughout his time in Houston, instead having to share the backcourt with Beverley, who focuses more of his effort on the defensive end of the floor. Playing alongside some more talented offensive players this year should make Harden’s job a bit easier offensively, allowing him to play more of a point guard role rather than a do-it-all shooting guard.
“They’re more or less responsible for giving rhythm to the team, that’s what a point guard does,” Mike D’Antoni said after announcing the position change. “[Harden’s] going to be on the ball and he’s going to be distributing the ball and it will take some adjusting. He’s got a lot more responsibilities as a point guard. A play caller, a good basketball mind, he’s already telling guys we can do this we can do that.”
Keeping the ball in one of the truly elite offensive scorers in the league is a no-brainer. And, as gifted as Harden is as a scorer, he is also an excellent passer. Because of that, Harden’s transition to more of a distributor role should be relatively seamless. On top of using Harden more optimally, the move to a point guard role, having to set up his teammates more and understand where everyone is on the floor, should naturally improve Harden’s leadership skills. In the past, he’s had to do so much by himself that it would be easy for there to be a disconnect between he and his teammates. This year, though, Harden is focused on one thing: winning.
“People are definitely overlooking us, and we kind of have the underdog mindset, which is fine for us because we’re going to work that much harder, come together even tighter, and we’re all going to be on the same page,” Harden said. “We’ll let the chips fall where they may, but starting with this summer and into training camp, we’re going to be all-in. We’re going to have the same goal, and that’s to win. We’ll do whatever it takes.”
Playing a more optimal offensive role in 2016-17 should both improve Harden’s turnover issue and provide him with a bit more energy on the defensive end. If he does improve in both of those areas, the Rockets should thrive and many of the criticisms of last year will fall on deaf ears. And if that happens, we may see him jump back up into the top five of our player rankings next summer.
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