Minnesota Timberwolves forward Corey Brewer had left Harden standing helplessly, hopelessly out of position. Brewer cut to the rim to take a Mo Williams pass for an easy layup, which could not have been more uncontested if Harden had handed him the ball at a State Fair shooting booth.
The moment did not just remind of the 51 points Brewer put on Harden and the Rockets in Minneapolis last season. It was typical of the 11 minutes’ worth of low-lights that had filled the YouTube video last season and made Harden’s reputation as a defensive traffic cone as indelible as a tattoo.
Brewer’s layup in Mexico City was marginally different. Rather than loafing, Harden seemed to be anticipating a pin-down screen that never came, leaving Brewer entirely unattended. But the result was the same.
There was, however, a wholly different reaction to Brewer’s layup and the clip it inspired this time around.
This play was not definitive. It was an anomaly. It was not an example of how Harden defends. It was an example of the stunning defensive inattentiveness he left behind, a reminder of how far he has come in the season’s early weeks.
“James' biggest improvement has been on the defensive end,” Rockets coach Kevin McHale said. “He's been solid for us. He's out there defending.”
Even just a brief look at statistics shows dramatic improvement. Harden’s annual defensive rating in his career (points allowed per 100 possessions) has been 104, 108, 105, 106 and 107. This season it’s at 96, 10 points per 100 possessions shy of his career average.
More telling, perhaps, is that change is not just a reflection of the Rockets’ improvement overall. Among the Rockets’ regulars, only Dwight Howard, who has been off the charts, has a better defensive rating.
That is misleading in one sense. Trevor Ariza not only usually matches up with opposing teams’ best wing scorer, usually taking that responsibility off Harden’s hands. Ariza is never out of the game when Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade, Kawhi Leonard or Kevin Martin are on the floor. That naturally makes his defensive rating worse than it otherwise would be (and just one point per 100 possessions worse than Harden’s.)
Still, Harden’s issues were never entirely about the talent of his opponent as much as his own carelessness. As with Brewer’s layup, it doesn’t matter who Harden was assigned to defend if he did not defend him at all.
Harden’s defense last season was either pretty good, or it was nonexistent. If his man had the ball, Harden was a largely solid defensive player. He was never confused as a lockdown defender, but when engaged, he could be effective.
By February, the Rockets increased how often they switched on screens, often putting Harden in matchups against big men who rushed to post him up inside. But with unusual strength for a shooting guard and a clear challenge, Harden was at his best.
His issues were when his man moved behind the ball. With Harden resting or just inattentive, he was often exposed for failing to get back defensively or pay attention on backdoor cuts, giving up layups and filling the video.
When the Rockets lost to the Trail Blazers in the playoffs last season, Harden vowed to improve defensively. He earned praise for his play in Spain during the World Cup and returned to Houston pledging greater “focus” on the defensive end.
With the Rockets opening the season with seven routs in their first eight games, they were second in points allowed per game (92.1) and first in defensive rating, allowing 93.7 per 100 possessions. The Rockets were first in opposing field-goal percentage (41.1 percent) and three-point percentage (28.8 percent.)
“It’s a transition to becoming a superstar,” Harden said of his improved defense. “You have to score the ball and play offense and you have to be able to be able to play defense as well. 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.”
To McHale, however, it is more than that. The Rockets were humbled by their loss to the Trail Blazers but also toughened by the experience. Harden had become one of the league’s top players, but with two first-round defeats since he had become the Rockets’ go-to star, he knew he had to be better, and the improvement had to come on the defensive end.
“You always see differences in players as they get older and they go through experiences,” McHale said. “We had a really tough first-round loss to Portland. In order to get tough in this league, you need to get some scar tissue. In order to get scar tissue, you got to get scarred. I think that's helped as much as anything.”
Offensively, the Rockets rely on Harden as much as ever. He leads in scoring and assists per game, and with the changes to the Rockets’ bench, he is getting more time with the second unit to serve as their catalyst too.
More than anything, however, he has gone from a liability to strength defensively, keying the Rockets’ early-season move from stuck in mediocrity on the defensive end to among the league’s best.
Most unexpectedly, Harden has even transformed a video glimpse at his defense from definitive to deviation.
Statistics courtesy of Basketball Reference.