How much of the Houston Rockets’ problem is James Harden?

At 22-13, and fifth in the West, the Houston Rockets have thus far performed below expectations.  When that happens in professional sports, much of the blame typically lies at the feet of the star player.  Six Red94 writers got together to discuss the case of James Harden and some of the problems in Houston.

Rahat: Richard Li’s latest piece has really got me thinking.  The Rockets have one of the worst crunch-time offenses in basketball and this is a continuation from last season.  And of course, the Rockets’ crunch time offense essentially is…James Harden.  Michael Pina wrote a piece earlier in the week on Harden’s ever-evolving offensive game.  But the rest of us have written extensively on his lack of even feigning effort on the defensive end.  How much of the problem in Houston right now is Harden?

Rob: It’s easy to get sucked into focusing too much on Harden’s flaws, but I think we are generally a little quick to criticise him. You only have to look at the box score from Friday’s game against the Knicks to realise how valuable a player he can be – 37 points on 19 shots is going to take a lot of negatives to counter-balance! The grumbling starts when he goes through an offensive funk, and suddenly there are a few games where he doesn’t quite have the ballast to set on the scales against his poor defense and late-game mismanagement. The Rockets are unfortunate enough to have been going through one of those periods recently, and that’s why we’re starting to feel more down on him than we should be.

John: I’ve long felt that expectations for Harden are simply a little off. He’s been sucked into a “superstar” concept which is now demanding him to do things he’s never done consistently; things that his team’s schema is putting low on the priority list anyway. Namely: defense, and half-court offense. If the Rockets’ offense retards a bit in crunch time, it’s probably because that’s when teams are most likely to fall back on them and prevent the break. Harden isn’t to blame for his team’s lack of quality offensive sets. Once they have some—will they ever? or will they just stubbornly stick to their court-pressing ideology?—I’d love to see how he’s able to utilize some more intricately spaced teammates once he’s double-teamed. And the defense—he can’t be expected to defend terribly well, he just can’t. Effort is essential, but the Rockets are best off hiding Harden like he’s Steph Curry. He’s never been a strong defender.

Richard: Friday’s game was a convenient eye test for the data. Starting at 3:41 left in the 4th quarter, the Rockets were never down and never led by more than five. Here’s the sequence of offensive possessions:

1) Harden brings up ball, iso, drives and is fouled;

2) Harden brings up ball, is left alone by Knicks, hits three-pointer;

3) Parsons has ball after TO, passes to Brooks, who passes to Harden, iso, hits jump shot;

4) Brooks brings up ball, passes to Harden off his screen, iso, passes back to Brooks with one second left on clock, Brooks misses three-pointer;

5) Harden brings up ball, iso, ball stolen.

6) The last possession is interesting. The game is tied at 100 with one minute left. Brooks receives the inbounds. He dribbles and there’s a moment in the backcourt when Harden turns and squares himself to Brooks, clearly expecting the ball. Brooks hesitates for a half second, then continues dribbling up the court. He drives and misses a layup.

I think the frustration with Harden (and heroball in general) is that he is most effective when playing within the flow of the offense. That’s where his 37 points come from. However, during crunch time, that flow is broken and he puts the team in ineffective scoring positions by dominating the ball. If he scores in these circumstances, that’s the exception, not the rule.

Just looking at the above sequence of events, Parsons only touches the ball once because he was first to it after a Knicks turnover. Howard never touches it. Garcia never touches it. Defense becomes much easier to play when one already knows who’s going to shoot and what type of play will be run. I really wonder if Brooks keeping the ball on that last possession was out of frustration, though I’d feel better about it if he passed it to someone else instead of shooting it himself.

Paul: Richard discussed what happened in crunch time regarding the end, but I’m interested in Harden’s defensive effort Friday, especially with Shumpert shooting 6-6 from the 3 point line. And there we saw a lot of the problems we know about Harden.  He has a tendency to just lose his man when they don’t have the ball.

That said, like I discussed earlier, so much of defense comes down to communication, and it’s not happening.  Here’s a screenshot of moments before the second Shumpert 3:

I really do not know what is going on in here.  Yes, Melo has the advantage on Parsons in the post – Melo really did a number on Parsons in that game.  But you have Dwight Howard in the paint, and we want Melo to take shots outside the paint.  Lin’s weak double team doesn’t help there, and it leaves Udrih wide open.  And what is Harden doing in general?  It’s obvious what happens here.  Melo kicks out to Udrih, who swings the ball over to Shumpert.  Harden realizes what’s going on then, but Chandler sets enough of a screen that he can’t get there in time.

So, true, on one level, we can throw it up to “Harden ball-watching” like we all know happens way too much.  On the other hand, five Rockets in the paint against a New York team that likes to shoot the three and is actually good at it unlike us ( Worrell mentioned in the broadcast that Houston was the worst three point shooting team during the month of December)?  That’s just bad team defense, which is beyond the fault of any one of those players.

Rahat: Okay, okay, we seem to disagree on this.  Here’s a question: Ethan Sherwood Strauss created quite a bit of a stir over at ESPN in a recent 5-on-5 predicting that the Rockets will trade James Harden in 2014.  I think that was meant facetiously, but do you guys think it could ever happen?

Rob: Morey is too much of a pragmatist not to have scenarios where Harden could be traded. However, I think it would take exceptional circumstances for him to even consider it. There are maybe three reasons why such a trade would happen:

1) Someone offers the Rockets a better player. But there aren’t very many of those, and even fewer who are on the trading block. Kevin Love is the only player I can think of who could be in the conversation over the next few years, and it’s debatable whether he would be an upgrade.

2) A young player develops on the Houston roster who provides a similar calibre of play to Harden but with better defensive potential, rendering Harden obsolete. There isn’t really anyone in the frame at the moment though. Parsons’ game is too limited, and we don’t have any front-court prospects on the horizon. Unless someone talented but with ‘red flags’ drops to us in the draft, I don’t see this happening any time soon.

3) Harden says he wants to leave, and/or makes it clear that he will not resign at the end of his contract. But I don’t think the first part of that is likely to happen any time soon, and we don’t have to worry about his contract nearing expiry for several seasons yet.

So while I won’t say ‘never’ (in fact, given the way things are going in the NBA I find it highly unlikely that he won’t be traded eventually, even if it’s 10 years down the road), he’s not going anywhere in the short term.

Paul: I largely agree with Rob.  Kevin Love is the only remotely possible scenario I could think of where Harden is traded, and even then I’d place the odds of such a deal at 3%.  At best.

To me, these are the players who I think Morey would trade Harden for: LeBron.  Durant.  Davis.  Maybe George.  Not Curry.  Not Aldridge.  Not even Wiggins.  Ignoring Harden’s contributions, let us not forget where the Rockets were before that trade occurred.  The Rockets are going to ride Harden as far as he takes us, and as frustrated as I was with the New York and Sacramento game, it’s still likely going to be a good destination.

Rahat: I agree with you there, Paul.  Morey wouldn’t trade Harden for even the top pick in this draft, in my opinion.  He’s just 24 and one of the most brilliantly gifted offensive players in this league, (maybe in this league’s history if putting emphasis on efficiency.)  I participated in a panel on ESPN earlier this summer in which the crowd ranked Harden as the fourth best player in basketball.  Given that his defense may have even regressed this season, I think that ranking is far too high.  A paradox, because I’d only trade him for LeBron, Durant, Davis, or maybe George.

To answer my own question, despite what I just said above regarding his value, Harden embodies this team’s biggest problems.  He is their crunch-time offense, and their crunch-time offense is brutal.  He is their weakest link defensively, and perimeter defense is their downfall.  As it stands, I don’t think there are more than one or two West playoff teams Houston could beat in a series with Harden playing the way he has.  (See: the way the likes of Redick carved him up.)

What’s the solution?  As just established, you can’t trade him – he’s just far too brilliant offensively to get anything resembling equal value.  How do you get it across to him to bend his back on defense and move the ball in the closing minutes, or, at the least, use a damn pick from time to time…?  How do you get that through his head?  Luckily, he’s just 24 and historically, we’ve seen other examples of great wing players learning to trust their teammates as they mature.  Unfortunately, that usually comes with a coaching change.  (The defense is another issue altogether.)

I like Kevin McHale as a guy and he’s pretty much the perfect coach to have for Dwight Howard; Dwight Howard also possibly would not be here were it not for Kevin McHale. That’s why it pains me to predict that McHale won’t be around for the duration of the Harden era.  It’s just a lot easier to change coaches than star players.  It will be interesting to see how the Rockets end their season.

Eric:  As frustrating as it is to watch Harden in crunch time, just imagine where the Rockets would be without him.  The team wouldn’t even be in many games late if it weren’t for his scoring.  During the past few games Harden has started hitting some big shots in the 4th quarter and has been the reason we eked out some wins.  The Rockets won’t trade Harden.

The solution rests with McHale, as someone else needs to be the ball handler late in the game and the Rockets need to move the ball.  Instead of Harden dribbling the shot clock down to seven seconds and taking whatever is his best shot (while the d collapses on him) the ball needs to be moving around the horn and inside out.  If Howard could get some set plays late in games it could take a lot of pressure of Harden to play hero.  For some reason Houston is unable to consistently get the ball in to Howard in a deep position late in games.

McHale needs to facilitate/empower a PG that can direct play and distribute in the final minutes of the game (Lin?).  And, they need to keep pushing the ball, even though each possession is critical.  As Harden takes almost all of the blame for pounding nails, the responsibility also rests with McHale and his teammates.  McHale is experiencing a learning curve relative to Harden’s and McHale’s struggles are exhibited through Harden at the end of games.  McHale goes before Harden if it’s necessary.  Though I’m impatient, I hope McHale and Harden can grow into their roles successfully.

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