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Grading James Harden's Defensive Performance in 2019-20

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Every season seems to bring a new flurry of debate regarding James Harden. 

The Rockets' superstar has been picked apart for his usage, shot profile and playoff shortcomings for much of the last half decade, creating what is a tiresome conversation surrounding a player of his caliber. Harden's usage and shot diet have led to some of the greatest scoring seasons in NBA history. He hasn't reached the Finals, though losing to Steph Curry and the Warriors is no true shame. Painting Harden as anything other than one of the greatest scorers of the 2000s is disingenuous at best. 

The conversation of Harden's place in the league's hierarchy is more interesting when considering the other end of the floor. Detractors claim Harden is a sieve and a turnstile, dialing up clips of backdoor cuts and sleepy rotations. Harden's acolytes (hello, Daryl Morey) aren't shy in their pushback. They'll cite his impressive defensive metrics in the post, arguing that Harden is an impact defender in the Rockets' system. So how has Harden actually graded out as a defender in 2019-20? The answer lies somewhere in the murky middle.

Harden's reputation as a poor defender isn't necessarily unearned. He sported the worst defensive rating among Rockets' rotation players in 2014-15, and he was better than only Ryan Anderson in 2017-18 and James Ennis in 2018-19. The metrics weren't the sole driver of the narrative. There are no shortage of clips highlighting Harden's defensive mishaps, with energy and effort standing out as the main culprit. 

All-NBA players don't necessarily need to be impact defenders to compete for a championship; just ask Curry. But Harden's defensive intensity (well, lack thereof) has felt at times infectious, plaguing Houston's title chances. But while we haven't seen a complete 180 in 2019-20, Harden has made marked strides this season. 

The 2017-18 MVP has been a middle-of-the-pack defender in Houston's rotation this season, shaving his defensive rating by nearly three points per 100 possessions compared to last year. And some of the more granular metrics help Harden's case. 

Harden has allowed just 0.65 points per post-up in 2019-20, the second-best mark of 50 players with at least 50 post possessions defended. He's also been an effective pick-and-roll defender. Harden allows just 0.78 points when defending the ball-handler in a PnR, ranking 31st of the 164 qualified players. Houston often schemes Harden away from the league's top guards, but that caveat doesn't dismiss the metrics. Harden has been an effective defender for significant stretches this season.

Let's not make Harden out to be Tony Allen anytime soon. He's improved his defensive prowess with boosted intellect and effort in recent years, and his sheer strength makes him a forceful post defender. But leave Harden on an island, and an effective scorer can feast. Harden has allowed 0.89 points per isolation attempt this season, the seventh-worst mark among 24 players with at least 75 isolations defended. Giving Harden a taste of his own medicine has been a common attack against the NBA's isolation king. 

Perhaps Harden won't be snagging any All-Defense honors anytime soon, and the stubbornness of public opinion may always cloud his standing as one of the top players of the 2000s. But 2019-20 has featured a different defensive Harden than in year's past. If the NBA resumes the season, Harden's defensive growth could make a major impact in Houston's Finals chances.