Making fun of James Harden's defense is easy. He's been comically bad on many occasions. It's so easy to make fun of Harden's defense that even Harden himself does it.
But something funny is happening this season: Harden is leading the league in defensive win shares. At 1.04, he's ahead of Tim Duncan (1.03) and Kawhi Leonard, Marc Gasol and Trevor Ariza (all at 0.93).
Harden isn't having as prolific of a scoring season as he had in recent years. His scoring average is down from 25.9 in 2012-13 and 25.4 in 2013-14 to 24.4 this season. He's shooting 39.1 percent from the floor, down from 45.6 percent last year. But the Rockets are 10-3, good enough for third best in the West, and Harden's defense is a factor -- this time, for the right reasons.
Defensive win shares estimate the number of wins a player produces thanks to defensive ability. Last season, Harden had 2.7 defensive win shares. That was in 73 games. Through just 13 games this year, he's already at 1.04. And his defensive rating, an estimate of points allowed per 100 possessions, is also much improved. In his first five seasons in the league, Harden's defensive rating was 108, 107, 106, 105 and 104 respectively. This season, it's 97.
Harden told the Houston Chronicle he has stepped up his focus on the defensive end. "I have been able to anticipate what's next and I have been able to lock in," he said. "A lot of credit to my teammates and coaches. They have done a good job scheming and communicating."
Harden has stepped up and so has Houston, which leads the league in defensive efficiency as a team at 94.5 points per 100 possessions. Having Trevor Ariza (tied for third in the league in defensive win shares) on the team has certainly helped Harden, who has also seen an uptick in his rebounding, up to 6.4 per game from 4.7 last season.
"You have to score the ball and play offense and you have to be able to be able to play defense as well," Harden told the Chronicle. "I feel like I have the offensive part down pretty well. It's a matter of me focusing and being able to do both parts at a high level."
So far this season, Harden has done that. All jokes aside, Harden is improved on the defensive end.