By ANDY GLOCKNER
DENVER -- What started as modest murmurings through the first several weeks of the season escalated to full-blown discussion point last week, in part thanks to Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey posting a video on his Twitter feed. The nearly 11-minute compilation, unironically called "James Harden: The Hardest Defender," is a collection of Harden's savviest defensive plays from this season.
As you watch the video and see Harden body up on ballhandlers, jump passing lanes for steals and block shots in isolation situations, the surprising, perplexing truth starts to settle in. Harden, almost legendary in media circles for his personal ineffectiveness (and seeming indifference) on that side of the ball, is actually playing some credible defense this season.
That makes James Harden, already a first-team All-NBA talent and all-world scoring machine, into a potential league MVP, and the Rockets into legitimate NBA championship contenders.
"He's really gotten better and that's a credit to him," Houston head coach Kevin McHale said, talking about Harden's defense after the team's shootaround here Wednesday morning. "He's battling on every possession, he's getting in there, he's doing a lot of little things. The big thing is, it hasn't affected [him]. Believe me, there are days there he is tired. We put a lot on his plate, and we understand that, but he has an unbelievable tank for the game of basketball."
Before we get too carried away, Harden hasn't exactly morphed into a destructive force like Russell Westbrook on the defensive end of the floor, but he's battling nightly, having far fewer mental lapses, and currently is one of the league leaders in steals, harkening back to when he led the Pac-10 in that category while a star at Arizona State.
For further evidence of Harden's improvement and/or maturation on that side of the floor, Morey tweeted Wednesday about how the Rockets have the second-best defense in the NBA when Harden is on the floor. Now, while that may be true, the Rockets entered Wednesday with basically the same defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions) when Harden is on (96.7) or off (96.6) the court. Perhaps more surprising, that's the same exact situation as last season, albeit when the Rockets were a much less imposing defensive team. Houston's 2013–14 defensive rating was 103.1 whether Harden was on the floor or not, according to NBA.com's stats database.
That said, Houston's offense is nearly 16 points per 100 possessions worse without Harden on the court, and when you are a shot-making, foul-drawing, assist-dishing offensive machine like he is, just making yourself into a non-negative on the defensive end makes you one of the world's best all-around players. Harden has done that, and Harden now is that. And like numerous other players who were on the gold-medal winning U.S. FIBA World Cup team, Harden thinks exposure to that level of talent all summer has really helped him elevate his entire game for this season.
"This past summer really helped me out being with that team and winning the gold medal," Harden said on Wednesday morning. "Just being able to play at a high level and focus on both ends of the floor have helped me making my next jump.
"When you're around great players - which is rare in the summertime - for that long amount of time, and you're around great coaches, [from] Coach K to [Tom] Thibideau to Monty Williams, all great defensive-minded coaches ... you have no choice but to get better."
Chatting casually while seated courtside, McHale was quick to credit the presence of Trevor Ariza and Jason Terry on this year's team. He noted that while the Rockets have 10 players on their roster with two or fewer years of NBA experience, this is a more mature group than last season thanks to the presence those two and guard Patrick Beverley provide.
Combine that with Harden's incredible variety on offense, and a Rockets team that was marked down by many after losing Chandler Parsons and Jeremy Lin as part of a gambit to lure Chris Bosh from Miami as a free agent is sitting at 19–5 after a home-and-home sweep of the Nuggets. In Wednesday's 115–111 overtime win, Harden poured in 41 points (including 18-of-21 from the line) to go with 10 assists.
In the brutal Western Conference, that strong start carries no guarantees, but considering it has come without defensive anchor Dwight Howard for 11 games, it's awfully impressive. Having a guard with Harden's vast offensive repertoire also has enabled McHale to get a bit more creative.
"I think his post game is an area he can really grow, and he definitely can," McHale said of his star guard. "[But] he can shoot the 3, he can drive - he can drive to pass, he can drive to finish, he drives and gets fouled. So you can put him in a multitude of positions, which gives you some flexibility. We don't have the record we have right now if James is not playing at his level."
Like any superstar, Harden bristles slightly when you talk about a part of his game that's less than world-class, but in the end, he's pretty honest about his defensive reputation and what he's doing to improve it.
"On the ball, I was pretty good. It was just help-side defense, ball-watching, letting my man cut backdoor," Harden suggested about his struggles in past seasons. "Small things like that that are very noticeable, so this year I've eliminated most of those things, and [I'm] top five in steals right now."
It's easy to take isolated clips of anyone and make them look worse than they are, and while Harden's bad defensive moments were really bad (see his calamitous effort on a possession against Turkey in the World Cup for a particularly awful example), there was always the physical foundation to at least be competent on that side of the ball. He's doing that now, and as such, it's hard to find a player who's had a bigger impact on his team's success so far this season than Harden, who's adjusting well in his new home at basketball's apex.
"It just was a transition to me becoming, like you said, a superstar," Harden said about his personal rise to what McHale referred to as 'super-first-team All-NBA.' "Obviously, learning how to score was one of the major keys, [but] being great on both ends of the floor is very important."
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