James Harden is a superstar by almost any objective measurement. He’s spent the year scoring at will, flattening the intrigue out of close games by turning them into blowouts, demoralizing and humiliating some of the best defenders in the word, unofficially establishing himself as one of the league’s 12 best players, and officially starting in his first All-Star game in a ridiculously deep Western Conference.
He’s a one-man stampede in transition, a volcanic eruption waiting to happen whenever isolated on the perimeter, and only two or three guys make scoring points in the NBA look easier. If sandpaper and velvet had a baby, Harden is how that baby would play basketball. His signature step back jumper is so deadly and beautiful, it makes you want to blow air kisses at a complete stranger.
His game is tough and elegant, and combines all the boring elements of an assembly line with the pure adrenaline rush that accompanies gravity-defying dunks, courageous forays into the paint, and pull up transition threes that don’t make a lick of sense until white nylon starts to dance above the rim.
These few paragraphs hardly do justice to Harden’s nightly brilliance as his team’s best offensive player. His post game is underrated and especially effective against smaller guards. His pocket pass makes professional seamstresses cry tears of joy. Watching free-throws can be boring, but Harden apologizes for it by consistently making plays only a select few can. He doesn’t get credit for being one of the most aesthetically hypnotizing players of the past three years, but that’s okay. Credit is overrated. So is being associated with hypnotism.
But all in all is he deserving of a 1st team All-NBA nod? Let’s stack the candidates side by side.
For the two guard spots, we have James Harden, Dwyane Wade, Chris Paul, John Wall, Goran Dragic, and Stephen Curry duking it out. Tony Parker and Russell Westbrook–last year’s 2nd team All-NBA backcourt—miss the cut due to a variety of maladies, and Damian Lillard and Kyle Lowry deserve appreciation, but not for 1st team All-NBA this year. How about Kyrie Irving? LOL. (For fun, here’s how those other guys match up.)
Paul and Kobe Bryant filled the void last season. Bryant is obviously out of the running, and Paul may not be the best player on his own team anymore. He’ll also end the season having missed roughly 20 games, but could still end up leading the league in assists and steals per game. Paul could easily have one of the first-team spots locked up…again. He’s really good.
Wade’s played nearly 150 fewer minutes than Paul, but his unbelievable efficiency mixed with context (he’s really good, just disinterested in the regular season) puts him on the list. Wall, Dragic, and Curry are all having special years, but comb through the stats above for a few minutes, and from various angles you’ll see that none surpass Harden.
A grand total of 10 players in league HISTORY have averaged as many points per game as Harden currently is while posting a True Shooting percentage as high. Chris Mullin is the only guard. We’re talking about all-time efficiency right now. Harden’s scoring ability isn’t great, it’s freaking delirious. He’s also Houston’s best passer, by a wide mile. Outside of LeBron James, Kevin Durant, and probably Dwight Howard (more on that at some point in the future), how is Harden not a lock for this team?
His case is tighter than a vault, right? Of course Harden should be there! What could possibly hold him back? Now feels like an appropriate time to bring up the other 50% of NBA basketball: defense.
There are legitimately hundreds of examples where Harden’s lackluster defense directly leads to a basket by the other team. Here’s one from a recent win over the Charlotte Bobcats.
Houston’s entire defensive focus shifted to one side of the floor once Charlotte put Josh McRoberts in the post against Patrick Beverley, and it forced Harden to essentially be aware of two players at once: McRoberts and Gerald Henderson. If Chandler Parsons or Dwight Howard slide over to double, Harden would need to cover their guy, either an open Michael Kidd-Gilchrist or Al Jefferson. Neither of his teammates actually moved, though, so Harden comes off looking foolish, and fuel is added to the narrative that he’s sacrilegious to the Basketball Gods whenever the Rockets need a stop.
All this true, but often removed from the proper context. Yes, defense is very important, and players who aren’t good at it are less valuable than those who are. But to what degree does it matter on a Rockets team that allows 0.4 fewer points per 100 possessions with Harden on the floor? It matters that Houston could be even better, yes. And as contenders for a title, that small amount could add up to the difference between a playoff win and a playoff loss.
But to downgrade Harden from “Brilliant Offensive Maestro” to “Titanic Defensive Liability” every other time his name is uttered doesn’t seem right, and in the end it shouldn’t dislodge his place as one of the two best guards in basketball.
The Bobcats scored two points on Henderson’s shot. Harden dropped 37 on 19 shots.
Defense matters, but truth be told, the positive impact a historically efficient high-volume scorer has should outweigh his negative defensive shortcomings. Harden rarely guards the opponent’s best player, and on some possessions his assignment doesn’t even touch the ball. We talk about how significant defense is—earlier in this article it was referred to as “50% of the entire game”—but chastising Harden before acknowledging the scoring and playmaking duties he carries on a nightly basis is unfair and misguided.
Oh, also! Basketball isn’t black and white. Gray areas exist, even within the most specific categorical subset. There are so, so, so many possessions in a season, and in a perfect world each play in every game would get its own detailed transcript. Unfortunately, there isn’t enough time for that.
If someone is slapped with an “awful defender” name tag, they’re rendered as some amorphous blob that lies on the court and gets stomped on throughout the game. Harden makes some pretty egregious errors, but it’s not all bad, and that’s an important thing to remember, just as not all his offense is a decorative tour de force. He makes mistakes with the ball! Sometimes he takes 10 needless dribbles and hoists up a bad shot. Sometimes he plows into a defender who was in position long enough to sign a few autographs before drawing a charge.
This is a bit of a ramble, but the overall point is that every player has good plays and bad plays, and not all possessions be weighed equally in the basin of an 82 game regular season. Harden is not the greatest defender who ever lived. He doesn’t play both ends of the court like several of the all-time two guards we like comparing him to. But calling Harden a designated hitter or one-dimensional threat is like walking in the desert and getting agitated by the lack of snow. If he’s a designated hitter, Harden averages 14 RBI per game on an off night. Right now offense is his thing, and he’s fantastic at it. For the purpose of being a 1st team All-NBA selection, judge him on his strengths while understanding they make his weaknesses so much easier to live with.