It’s been a bad year for the Houston Rockets, there’s no doubt about it. Team chemistry is a problem, important players have regressed significantly from last season, and the team defense that helped get the Rockets to the 2015 NBA Western Conference Finals is nonexistent. That said, James Harden has been spectacular, especially since February’s All-Star Break. If you only followed the NBA via the always entertaining and never gun-shy ‘NBA Twitter’ population of social media, however, then you would be oblivious to just how spectacular.
On Sunday night the Rockets played another game typical of the 2015-2016 season, welcoming a double-digit deficit in the third quarter. It had a feeling all too similar for Rockets fans this season – one of hopelessness and disappointment. These kinds of games are responsible for the Rockets’ losing record (30-32) going into Toronto. However, as Harden facilitated his way to 40 points and 14 assists (with only one turnover), the Rockets managed to overcome an eighteen point second-half deficit and win the game.
The team’s performance – especially Harden’s – should be revered by the sports world, especially when considering the context of this particular game. The Rockets failed to complete a comeback in Chicago on Saturday and, per Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle, landed in Toronto at three in the morning on Sunday and hadn’t won a game in Drake’s metropolis in the last eight tries.
However, Harden’s excellent game is being overshadowed by the circulation of a Vine (the six-second video social media service) calling attention to a play where his defense was less than stellar. The play (which can be seen here) saw Raptors guard Demar Derozan driving to the hoop uncontested as Harden decides not to help and leave his man open for a corner three-pointer. Given the Rockets’ awful play this season, these kinds of videos have become prevalent and followed Harden throughout.
These videos fit the narrative that the media and basketball bloggers want to cultivate – a narrative that suggests Harden doesn’t always give 100% effort and that he might be the problem in Houston. It’s a narrative that solely places the blame for this nightmare season on the bearded superstars’ shoulders, and that’s not totally fair.
Should James Harden receive a chunk of the blame for this season? Sure, but his lack of effort and defensive breakdowns are not the primary factors – not anymore. Maybe Harden isn’t the leader he needs to be and coming into this season out of playing shape was a major factor in the Rockets’ slow start, and maybe the team’s dysfunctional chemistry is truly rooted in his teammates’ dislike of catering to his isolation style of play. However, Harden’s positive impact on the team can’t be doubted and the numbers support it.
According to ESPN’s real plus-minus metric, Harden is in the top 15 in real plus-minus, which measures a player’s on-court impact based on net point differential. Essentially, the Rockets outscore their opponents by five points when Harden is on the floor. That’s an offensive metric, which is Harden’s specialty, but his defensive metrics aren’t as bad as one might expect from watching all the Vine videos.
Per Fox Sports, Harden’s defensive rating is 107.7, which isn’t great (the lower the number, the better) but it’s the third best on the team – ahead of Trevor Ariza and Patrick Beverley, both known for being defensive specialists. In addition, this rating is comparable to another dynamic offensive superstar on a Blazers team one spot ahead of the Rockets in the playoff race – Damian Lillard. Yet, Lillard doesn’t get vilified for bad defense (albeit, he’s not as big of a target), nor should he. Individual defense is hard to quantify and these metrics are far from a perfect measurement, but they provide some insight into the unfairness of the narrative that is ‘supported’ by the vine videos.
James played 43 minutes in the comeback over Toronto after playing 40 in Chicago the night before, and the Rockets needed every bit of it. He’s one of the highest usage players in the NBA this season and hasn’t missed a game, while averaging the most minutes in the league (37.7 per game). And, despite the dangerously high minutes, he’s posting similar numbers across the board to last season – a season in which he finished second in the Most Valuable Player race. When considering all of that, is it really a surprise that he might have defensive lapses in games? It shouldn’t be, specifically since every NBA player in the league is guilty of it. The difference is that ‘NBA Twitter’ usually doesn’t have its lack-of-defense sights targeted on most other players.
James Harden is an easy target. Videos and this kind of negative attention have followed him throughout his tenure in Houston, and his rise to fame and superstardom has been made very, very public. Put the $300 million shoe contracts and the Kardashians aside… James Harden is balling this season. It’s time to cut him some slack.
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