Grounded in Houston: James Harden finally doing it with defence

Harden, always an elite offensive player, has finally committed to using his ability on the defensive end - and it's making him an MVP candidate, writes Jonathan Raymond.
James Harden of the Houston Rockets, left, goes for a loose ball against Klay Thompson of the Golden State Warriors, right, in their NBA game on Wednesday. John G Mabanglo / EPA / December 10, 2014
James Harden of the Houston Rockets, left, goes for a loose ball against Klay Thompson of the Golden State Warriors, right, in their NBA game on Wednesday. John G Mabanglo / EPA / December 10, 2014

If all one was paying attention to were Houston Rockets results, it probably would have been easy to miss that Dwight Howard missed 11 games.

While Howard was nursing a knee injury, the Rockets went 8-3 without their key big man. One aberrational loss to the Lakers and a pair of reasonable losses to the formidable Warriors and Clippers were the only hiccups for a Houston team that otherwise kept on clicking.

After Howard’s return on Saturday night in a win over Denver, the Rockets now sit 18-5, the third best record in the West. With Howard back on board and, presumably, healthy, the Rockets are even scarier.

When he has played, Howard has continued to look rejuvenated in Houston after a sluggish end to his Orlando days and one nightmare season with the Lakers. He seems comfortable and happy in Houston and playing at, if not quite the same level as his peak, a nonetheless undeniably elite standard.

“Dwight did fantastic ... it’s really hard to take that much time off ... and then just come back and have any semblance of rhythm at all,” said Rockets coach Kevin McHale after Saturday’s win.

And in the period Howard wasn’t healthy, James Harden played like one of the best players in basketball. If there is an early MVP race already forming, Harden surely is right in the middle of it with the likes of Anthony Davis, Stephen Curry and Marc Gasol.

Harden is still one of the most clever, fascinating offensive players in basketball. Few can match the creativity with which he scores – the hesitations and Eurosteps that make him devastating around the basket and a jumpshot that is generally quite good.

But his offensive game is actually a bit off this year – his efficiency is markedly down as he’s increased his usage reate with Howard out and scored the most points per game, 26.3, in the league.

Instead, Harden actually seems to be playing defence well for the first time in his career. Advanced defensive stats are always a bit tricky, but one – BasketballReference’s defensive win shares, pegs him the best defender in the entire NBA.

That’s almost certainly overselling it, but the Rockets as a team are holding opponents to 96.7 points per 100 posessions – the second-best mark in the league behind Golden State. Incidentally, it’s the exact same mark opponents are scoring against the Rockets when Harden is on the court.

That mark hasn’t been below 100 since his rookie season, and it has never been close to this territory. The broader profile indicates Harden is defending very, very well.

Harden’s always had the size, quickness and intelligence to be an elite defender. He just never seemed to care. Apparently all the years of derision toward that aspect of his game finally got to him.

Harden is hounding players these days, using all that length and instinct to swipe two steals and a block per game, constantly poking at the ball in one-on-one matchups and using his speed to converge in a flash in help situations.

His normal offensive efficiency should return with Howard in the line-up, and another scoring option brought into Houston’s fold wouldn’t hurt. If the defensive improvement and commitment are real, the Rockets could really have the MVP on their team.

The rest of the Houston roster is a little thin right now. Trevor Ariza isn’t hitting from three like he did last season in Washington, Terrence Jones has been hurt and Pat Beverley was hurt some too. Tarik Black is a nice player but has his limitations as he develops, Kostas Papanikolaou is even farther away and Isaiah Canaan has battled an injury. Only Donatas Motiejunas has looked like a consistently reliable supporting player.

If the Rockets can get some of those guys healthy and productive though, and if Howard remains healthy and provides about 90 per cent of what he could do in his Orlando days (and he has so far), Houston clearly have the top-end talent to consider themselves true title challengers.

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Published: December 14, 2014 04:00 AM

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