I think those of you who have been with me since my pre-law school and law school days understand that with the introduction of ever-evolving life duties, I just am simply unable to maintain the pace of content consistency that characterized those earlier days of Red94. A rough week at work coupled with a medical procedure for my wife made the timing of this year’s West semifinals non-negotiable for my writing duties. Thus, my absence since Houston’s disposal of the Oklahoma City Thunder in Round 1.
I’ve had ample time to reflect now since the Rockets’ elimination on Thursday night in what I called the most pathetic, embarrassing display in Houston sports history. Those of you who join me regularly on Twitter already have been given a sneak peek into my current mindset. While I haven’t before today taken to longform, I’ve been following along in the background, observing the pulse of the fanbase and the larger basketball community regarding the so-very-public total humiliation of our dear local team. I don’t really have the emotional energy for this, given that our Game 7 tip-off was to be in three hours (at the time of writing), but the limiting constraints of Twitter have proven obstructive in my quest for catharsis.
What did Game 6 tell us about James Harden?
There’s been a range of opinions with regard to the implications of Thursday’s massacre upon James Harden’s status in the league. On one extreme, he’s a charlatan, decidedly fallen from the ranks of the elite (more on this later), and on the other, a strain of apologetics seeking to recuse the star guard, citing fatigue as the superseding factor. The latter is a very minority opinion, but one which must be addressed.
Make no mistake, Harden’s Game 6 was possibly the most bizarre occurrence I can remember witnessing in my 32 years on this earth. This was an elimination game, at home, against a team without by far its best player, and James Harden did not even attempt a field goal until the game was likely out of reach. That cannot simply be explained away as fatigue. Harden was either playing concussed or through some other unknown physical ailment (the flu?), or he’s suffering from something a lot deeper psychologically of which we don’t know about. But to ascribe that performance to fatigue is simply laughable. Fatigue is taking ten shots in the first half and missing short on all of them; fatigue is not loafing around as if having been drugged the night before.
I understand the motivation of the apologists. There’s is a pre-emptive strike against the inevitable attack on Harden’s legacy, his season, and his place in the league. But after the egg he just laid, I cannot blame anyone for ever questioning him again. Next year, when the Rockets are again on pace to win 60 games, and James Harden is in the midst of another historically great season, it will be perfectly valid to cite Game 6 as a counter to Houston’s title chances. Unless it comes out later that he was concussed (and one would think that would have already happened by now), until rectified, James Harden’s Game 6 was absolutely a legacy defining game. Such suspicion is not a hot take.
And why is psychology so readily denounced as pseudo-analysis? Why is saying that Harden choked or doesn’t have a certain degree of fortitude considered a hot take? Why is it that only some quantifiable factor such as fatigue can be the overarching determinant? This isn’t an attempt to diagnose or psychoanalyze James Harden. We don’t know what happened. But it very possibly could be the case that he simply crumbled under the pressure of the stage. We see it in every walk of life. Some people don’t perform well under tumultuous circumstances; others embrace the challenge. The movement to denounce psychological circumstances was borne in reaction to the culture of ascribing all outcomes to mental fortitude. “Kobe is clutch! Lebron is a choker!” The anti-intellectualism is sweeping. But in some cases, the charge can be valid. I don’t think its simplistic to say that maybe he just wilted under the pressure.
Should the Rockets trade James Harden?
There have been calls in some corners of the internet clamoring for the Rockets to trade James Harden. The rationale goes, if he inevitably retreats into his shell in big games, or just doesn’t care, this is all futile, and a complete waste of time. I think this extreme is also misguided. Harden is locked in long-term and has demonstrated over his body of work that the absolute floor on a James Harden led team is the 8th seed; if surrounded by an even moderately capable surrounding cast and an amicable lockerroom environment, the past three years demonstrate that 55+ wins are a likely outcome. Compare that to the track records of similarly regarded non-Lebron superstars and get back to me – Anthony Davis isn’t exactly a big winner.
We’ll stipulate that he isn’t consumed with basketball the way Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant were, or perhaps something psychological causes him to shut down and give up during big games. What really is the alternative? Trading him to the Lakers for D’Angelo Russell and hoping to build another 55 win team in the next five years? I think the odds of Harden figuring it out are greater than the odds of being able to tear it all down and build it back up during the span of time you would have had him in his prime. Setting the embarrassment of Game 6 aside, the Rockets will be back next season and will likely be even better. And James Harden will likely have another MVP season. This was only year 1 in the D’Antoni project.
Can James Harden be the best player on a title team?
The charge that Harden cannot be the #1 on a championship team is a similar charge which fails logically. I can sympathize with the sentiment that perhaps psychologically Harden does not suffice for a leadership role. But that’s already been stipulated. The charge here that I’ve seen thrown around is that James Harden does not have the ability to be the #1, ergo he is not good enough. This is a rather curious conclusion in light of the season James Harden just enjoyed and in light of the success the Rockets just had, finishing with 55 wins and having been on pace for most of the year to win 60 games, with the third best net rating during the season. The gap between leading a team to 55 wins (as Harden has done twice) and winning a title isn’t so gargantuan that it necessitates a player in a completely different tier than the existing alpha dog. That’s utterly preposterous and farcical. In essence, if you’re good enough to lead a team to that many wins, your abilities probably suffice to take said team all the way. Moreover, if it is the case that James Harden isn’t good enough, that would mean that unless you have Lebron James or say, Stephen Curry, you don’t really have a chance and should fold the franchise, an equally nonsensical line of reasoning. So Max Kellerman, I have no idea what the hell you were talking about with that take.
Conclusion on James Harden
In summary, it seems that people are conflating the issues. The apologists are going to one extreme in defense against an outright indictment on James Harden’s total worth. It can be the case that James Harden is deeply flawed, and perhaps doesn’t care enough, after registering the most pathetic performance I can remember from a superstar player, and simultaneously be the case that he could seek redemption (i.e. is not fatally flawed), and can still be a perfectly reasonable building block for this team going forward the next five years. Those are not mutually exclusive ideas.
So what next for the Rockets?
Game 6 wasn’t some discussion-ending indictment on D’Antoni/Morey’s system. You don’t get to wave the “I told you so” card when you said they’d miss the playoffs or barely squeak in playing this style, after they vastly exceeded all expectations. The system definitively works – it produced one of the greatest offenses in NBA history. And the defense was actually passable, contrary to early prognostications. Now, perhaps they’ll need to add some wrinkles. (Many have noted that at the highest levels, when disciplined defenses lock in and chase shooters off the line, a few long 2’s might be best served). Or more plausibly, perhaps they just need more talent. Game 6 was a disappointment not only because of the humiliating fashion in which it went down but because the team’s own success created such lofty expectations. On paper, is this a group anyone would have besmirched for failing to reach the conference finals? Don’t let the (conveniently) ever-evolving narrative fool you. This isn’t that talented of a group. They just play well together, love playing together, and fit perfectly together within a system, led by a genius at the head of the machine. No other player other than Harden has ever even made an All-Star team.
I don’t know if James Harden will ever lead the Rockets to the promised land. But I do know he’ll come back even better next season, with even deadlier moves (the way he has every single year), and play a better point guard. With a healthy and happy James Harden, the Rockets will be knocking on the door for 60 wins, yet again.
Patrick Beverley and Eric Gordon will both be back, hopefully as mainstays in the backcourt for the duration of the Harden era. I called the trio the perfect complementary group with the perfect blend of talents. Beverley is back to his peak defensively and has taken vast strides at expanding his offensive game. After a dazzling start, Gordon’s production slipped over the course of the second half of the year. Given his injury history, that was possibly to be expected. But one thing I did not like, as I noted earlier in the postseason, was the marginalization of Eric Gordon after the Lou Williams acquisition. Used primarily as a playmaker for the second unit before the trade, Gordon was relegated to the role of spot-up shooter after Houston brought in Williams. I wonder how much that decline in engagement impacted Gordon’s shooting. As for Williams, he was an explosive piece who took the Houston bench to new levels. If Houston needs his salary figure to create space for a significant addition, it will be difficult to see him go.
I’ve said for months now, the Rockets need an Ariza upgrade. It might finally be time to take Old Yeller out to pasture. His defense has slipped noticeably, and his shooting is erratic (Game 6 notwithstanding). Most disconcerting is his complete and total inability to do anything with the basketball beyond taking an open shot. When Ariza catches, and can’t make a secondary play for himself, it mucks up the offense completely.
Clint Capela must grow up. He had grown moments this postseason, protecting the rim like a mad man, but he can’t get abused inside the way he did by the Thunder bigs if the Rockets want to take the next step. But of even greater immediacy are the stamina concerns which plagued Capela all year, and of which Zach Lowe and Sam Amick spoke at length in Lowe’s most recent podcast. (After the Nene injury, there was worry within the Rockets braintrust regarding Capela’s increased workload and whether his energy levels could be sustainable at over 30 minutes a night). Simply put, the Rockets need Clint Capela to be able to play over 30 minutes a game. This will be even more imperative if they are unable to afford to bring back Nene.
And this lastly brings us to Ryan Anderson, the most perplexing, mercurial piece to the Rockets’ puzzle. As you all know, I absolutely abhorred the signing when it was made, but he justified the rich contract to which he was signed over the course of the year – lineups with Anderson were routinely amongst the best in net rating in all of basketball. But the second highest paid Rocket almost completely disappeared in the playoffs, particularly at home where he almost could not buy a shot. The Rockets are pretty much stuck with this contract. The only way they could unload him would maybe be a two-way dump, like to the Knicks for Carmelo Anthony (a swap which would present its own problems). Houston might just have to ride this out.
I usually don’t watch the series after the Rockets are eliminated. It’s too draining. But soon, the rumors will begin swirling of free agent interest. Can they convince Blake Griffin or Gordon Hayward to jump ship? The Rockets need a talent upgrade. Can they make the math work?
We’ll likely never know what happened to James Harden during Game 6. Had he been injured, we’d probably already know. But that Game 6 was a performance I’ll probably never forget, for all the wrong reasons. And that’s perfectly fine. That doesn’t mean the Rockets and Harden can’t move forward.