I was watching some old Youtube clips of Steve Francis this past weekend and reflecting back on that dark era in Rockets history. When he came in, that rookie year, he was just an absolute sensation, viewed as almost a new-age Isiah Thomas. He couldn’t handle a zone defense or run a fastbreak* to save his life, but we ignored that – he was breaking ankles and making posters, a walking triple-double with one of the most exciting games in the league. We ignored his flaws assuming he’d mature. As he had never actually played point guard, it was reasonable to assume he’d learn the position with time.
*Someone always expresses bewilderment upon my making this statement, citing Francis’ catalog of open-court slams. What I mean when I say Francis couldn’t run the fastbreak is that he didn’t run it in the role of a point guard. If he was alone, he’d take it in for the slam, which is fine, but if there were any defenders back, his natural inclination was to go to the wings rather than keeping the ball in the middle of the floor as a point guard is taught to do. This is why it was oh so ironic when he basically described himself as a shooting guard in one of his more infamous quotes, regarding what the team should do with the #1 pick, saying, “With Lamar running the break, and me and Cuttino on the wings, it’s over.”
But of course, he didn’t learn the position or improve. He eventually was traded for Tracy McGrady while he actually still held value. The Magic let him play the way he wanted, and his numbers improved, but when they too cut back his role, again his game couldn’t adapt. Steve just wasn’t a point guard and didn’t know how to be one. If he wasn’t the focal point of the offense, he couldn’t really bring much to the team. (I’ve made the comparison to Jeremy Lin many times previously).
This brings me to James Harden. He’s one of the three or four best scorers in basketball, so good that he basically was able to single-handedly assure a playoff berth in the loaded Western Conference. But will he ever bend his back on defense? Will he stop pouting and be a leader? We made excuses for Harden too, like we did for Francis. 2013 was his first as a go-to option, he didn’t have the energy to play both ends. But then after getting Dwight, things didn’t improve. His effort levels improved over the season, before reaching ridiculous lows in the playoffs against Portland. Not giving effort defensively in the postseason is unforgivable.
Harden will be turning 25 this season. I pointed out recently that 25 was the age at which Tracy McGrady was last considered a true superstar, deeming it a reminder of how short opportunities can last. Many of you rushed to Harden’s defense, pointing out McGrady’s reliance on athleticism, completely missing my point. What I’m trying to say is that windows are often shorter than they seem; anything can happen, for any reason, not just injury. The Wolves didn’t think Stephon Marbury and Kevin Garnett would clash; the Magic probably didn’t see Shaq leaving Penny behind. Things happen.
As acknowledged, James Harden’s game will age gracefully. But will he ever “get it” during Dwight’s prime? It’s tempting to say Harden’s just 25, giving us a 7-year window, but we actually have a team right now, due to Howard, that can contend. This team would undoubtedly be better if it weren’t getting a complete ‘0’ defensively from one of its wing slots; Howard won’t always be around. I hope Harden gains some urgency before that window slams shut. The Rockets can’t control free agency, but they can help themselves in other ways.