James Harden is off to a phenomenal start with his unstoppable scoring binges that has many comparing him to Wilt Chamberlain. While the Chamberlain reference is hyperbole at best, the point is well taken. Harden is scoring like crazy to prove a point. Having Russell Westbrook as a teammate isn’t going to change him. Harden is taking the same amount of shots as last year but shooting a lower percentage. His three ball has dipped from a year ago. But he’s going to the line 3 more times. (His turnovers are the second highest of his career). He is averaging 38 points a game. His PER is pretty identical to last season.
So what’s Harden’s problem?
Ever since Doc Rivers employed the double Harden strategy which caused him to turn the ball over, or to pass it to Russell Westbrook- exactly what Doc wanted- Harden has been complaining like a role player who doesn’t understand the NBA ecosystem. Superstars not named James Harden expect the double. Many anticipate it and know to go to plan B. The double is a compliment.
In the past, Harden has rarely had to deal with double teams late in games because doubling him meant Eric Gordon was wide open, or in the old, old days, Trevor Ariza. Teams didn’t want to take that gamble and so they played Harden straight up most of the time. But Russell Westbrook is a game changer because of what he can’t do late in games.
Make a jump shot.
Westbrook’s jumper has a viral flu. He is shooting 41% ( a ten year low) and 22% from three, a career low. His offensive rating hasn’t been this bad since he was a rookie. The last time Westbrook’s PER was below 18.0 he was 21 years old and Obama was in his first term.
So it makes all the sense in the world to force the Rockets to give Westbrook the ball and an open j. The odds are with Russ that he’s going to clank the ball off the rim. Because the Rockets are an iso team instead of a ball movement team and because they are at the bottom of the league in assists, they can be defended by coaches who know iso play is a gift to a defender. It puts stress on one player while the rest of the team is in watching superstar mode. Because Westbrook has failed in late situations, turning him into a shooter which in turn negates James Harden’s advantage is the most effective way to win close games.
It is this strategy that has Harden all into his feelings. After Doc employed his double, Harden sulked about the defense, as if Doc committed some kind of unwritten rule. The opposite was true. I remember MJ being doubled and passing it to Steve Kerr to beat the Phoenix Suns and win a title. I remember Doc doubling Kobe Bryant so Bryant had to pass it to Metta World Peace who made the three and won the title for the Lakers in a Game 7 epic matchup. The problem here is twofold. Harden resents being forced to give up the ball. And Westbrook can’t take advantage of mismatches.
Every great player is doubled. Steph Curry routinely faced double teams but because their offense was a ball moving offense the double didn’t hurt. It also didn’t hurt to have Klay Thompson and Kevin Durant open off a Curry double. Or, Draymond in the paint. Last year in the Finals when the Raptors went to a box in 1, a college trick, Steph just laughed it off. Harden isn’t laughing.
“The whole season they’re running double teams at me. I’ve never seen that in an NBA game where you’ve got really good defenders and someone else running at the top of the key.”
Harden admitting he’s never seen double teams seems to indicate he hasn’t watched the great scorers in the league. Alex English. Larry Bird. Michael Jordan. Kobe Bryant. Allen Iverson. Tracy McGrady. Vince Carter. The list goes on and on. All had to make a move before the double and when in the double pass out of it. (Or, if you’re Kobe say f*ck it and split the double to get to the rim).
Most superstars think of it as a compliment to their game when they are doubled. You can’t stop me one on one so you need a gang. But Harden is easily frustrated when he can’t do what he wants to do because, and this has always been the Harden problem, he doesn’t have something else to go to when he is doubled. He wants to score the ball all the time, or at the very least have the ball in his hands. When he is denied, he tries to blame the league for doing something to him.
But. The end justifies the means. If it works, as it did against the Clippers, it will continue to be implemented to thwart James Harden. That it annoys him makes it even that much more effective. NBA defenses are in his head.