Real Time Analytics

Why The Criticism Of James Harden Is Over-The-Top

Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

It’s easy to scapegoat the superstar when a team is struggling, and James Harden is no exception. The numbers, however, tell a different story.

Following a season in which they reached the Western Conference Finals, the Houston Rockets find themselves sitting in the seventh seed at 33-33. With 17 games left, they already have seven more losses than they did all of last season. The Rockets have been one of the most disappointing teams in the NBA this year given the expectations coming off last season’s success. There are many to blame in Houston’s organization; however, the majority of it has fallen on the shoulders of the team’s superstar shooting guard, James Harden.

Not even a year removed from finishing second to Steph Curry in the MVP race, there are a bevy of “experts,” writers, and fans quick to point the finger at Harden as the biggest reason for the Rockets’ struggles. The part of his game that receives the most criticism and is consistently the but of all jokes? Yup, you guessed it. His defense.

Defense is not Harden’s strong suit. Everybody from J.B. Bickerstaff to “Joe Six-Pack” knows that. The Rockets were well-aware of this when they acquired him from the Oklahoma City Thunder back in 2012. Harden won Sixth-Man of the Year in 2011 — was that because of his defense? No.

It’s because he is a prolific scorer and arguably the best shooting guard in the NBA today. He is a bona fide superstar on the offensive end.

He can get to the hole whenever he wants and has one of the best euro-steps in the game. His ability to create contact on his drives is a work of art, and has enabled him to get to the free throw line more frequently than anybody else in the league. Harden also has a lethal step-back mid-range jumper in his offensive arsenal.

Not only can he score at-will, but he is also tied for eighth in the league in assists (seven APG), bearing the responsibility of being the team’s primary ball-handler. One could argue Harden’s lack of effort on the defensive end is a consequence of the amount of energy he knows he has to put in on the offensive end.

Harden is tied with Jimmy Butler at the top of the league with 37.8 minutes per game.  Given Harden’s offensive production, the Rockets really cannot afford to let Harden sit on the bench long. The team’s defense gives up 105.7 points per game (26th in the league), so it isn’t good enough to withstand sustained scoring droughts.

After reaching the Conference Finals last season, Houston made it a priority to keep its core group in-tact. They succeeded in doing that and then some by acquiring Ty Lawson and Marcus Thornton. Prior to the season, many were picking the Rockets to, once again, contend with the Golden State Warriors for the Western Conference. But little has gone according to plan since the start of the season.

After a 4-7 start, the team fired their head coach Kevin McHale. Ty Lawson, the team’s most prominent addition of the offseason, and the piece that Rocket Nation thought would put them over the top, couldn’t stay out of trouble off the court and was an even bigger disappointment on the court. Injuries to Donatas Motiejunas and Terrence Jones, key pieces of last year’s run, have hindered them from finding their rhythm. It was reported that Harden did have at least a mild role in the firing of McHale, but regardless, he cannot be held responsible for the struggles of everyone else. 

Shown below are the points per game averaged by the Rockets’ key players the past two seasons:

2014-2015 (PPG)
2015-2016 (PPG)
Dwight Howard
Trevor Ariza
Donatas Motiejunas
Josh Smith
Corey Brewer
Terrence Jones
Patrick Beverley
Jason Terry

As you can see from the table, every single key player’s PPG have decreased from last season. Harden averaged 27.4 points per game for the 2014-2015 season, compared to 29 this season. He’s done this with just a minor increase in his field goal attempts from 18.1 to 19.7, so the opportunities for the others to score are still there. They just simply haven’t been as consistent or effective as they were a year ago.

Does Harden deserve to be absolved from all blame? No, absolutely not. At 26 years old, he still has room for improvement. For example, becoming a better leader is a part of his game that could definitely use some maturing. That being said, before scapegoating him for the Rockets’ struggles this season, go check out the numbers. While his shooting percentages are down a tiny bit from last season, he could still ultimately have an incredibly productive year.

One can’t say the same about his supporting cast…

Edited by Jeremy Losak, Jazmyn Brown, Jaidyn Hart.

What overall pick was James Harden in the 2009 NBA draft?
Created 3/12/16
  1. 2nd
  2. 3rd
  3. 5th
  4. 6th

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