Erik Williams-USA TODAY Sports Pictured: Houston Rockets guard James Harden
Betting odds: Houston Rockets at Utah Jazz
- Spread: Jazz -2
- Over/under: 216
- Tip: 10:30 p.m. ET
- TV channel: TNT
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James Harden is having a career season.
Also, a not great one.
That pretty much sums up the Rockets.
Harden is averaging a career-high in points at 30.6 points per game, on the second-best effective field goal percentage of his career (54.5%), with his third-best assists mark, with the most steals of his career, with the highest usage rate of his career.
That’s incredible, and it’s a testament to what Harden is doing every night to try and pull the Rockets through.
However… it should also be noted that Harden’s defense has fallen back to 2015-16 levels.
Harden’s defense is a complicated subject. When your every mistake is blown up and plastered on Twitter, narratives form and they’re hard to break. I’ve watched nearly every second of Harden’s individual defensive minutes the past two seasons, and I can tell you with confidence that overall? — he was fine.
He has issues, but he’s a tremendous post defender whose strength just befuddles guys. His on-ball defense was active and engaged. His rebounding efforts were much higher the past two seasons, and his close-outs — if he didn’t lose his man — were pretty good. He was fine, and the data largely bore that out.
That hasn’t been the case this year. The defense is a full five points worse per 100 possessions with him on the floor this year. That’s the same differential as last year, but the numbers are worse, going from “not great but manageable when you have a historic offense” last year to “this is a battle every night.”
As a result, the Rockets are outscoring opponents by only 1.8 points per 100 possessions with Harden on the floor. Last year that figure was 10.1.
Now, defense isn’t defined by your lowlights. There will be possessions where Harden plays great defense the entire time, denies the ball, it goes somewhere else and they score anyway.
And there are possessions where Harden doesn’t play good defense and completely loses his guy but the ball never finds his man and someone takes an ill-advised shot anyway. Lowlights are not a great way of judging a player.
But when we notice the same trends over and over, it’s an issue. And Harden is back to poor close-outs on shooters, which is why he is in the… 14th percentile guarding spot-up options defensively.
Stuff like this:
And this, where he just elects not to run the shooter off. Sure, it’s a calculated gamble and all, but it just looks bad:
And this, where, OK, he’s not going to stop John Wall. But last year or the year before, he competed here instead of essentially wishing John well on his way to the basket.
On some plays, he’s just slow:
These things matter. The Rockets are 9-14 against-the-spread this season, as bookmakers continue to believe they will right the course. Specifically, the defense matters because Houston is 4-10 on the season when facing an opponent with an offensive efficiency over 105.
Thursday night’s game features the Rockets taking on the Jazz, who not only sports a 106 Offensive Rating on the season but over the past five games has seen that number creep up to 109.
They’re coming off one of their best ever offensive performances in franchise history vs. the Spurs. Houston is an underdog (+2) for just the fifth time this season, having gone 2-2 previously. However, vs. teams with an Offensive Rating over 105?
You guessed it: 0-2.
Harden is having another prolific offensive season, arguably his best in terms of sheer workload vs. production. But there’s also clearly a cost to his effort level. And while Houston’s defensive issues go much further than Harden, it’s indicative of the type of season they’re having.
The Rockets are trying to stay above water through sheer force of offensive will, whereas last year their offense fed their defense and vice versa.
Sustainability is a legit concern at this point. Harden is doing what he’s doing offensively and not doing what he’s not doing on defense because of what’s asked of him offensively.
The workload is a problem, and while his offensive performance is downright noble, his defensive drawbacks are nearly washing it out.
Harden’s putting up historic numbers but isn’t in the MVP conversation. Why not? Because the Rockets are too imbalanced to focus on what Harden is doing. Everyone’s too busy wondering where last year’s defense — which included Harden — has gone.