The James Harden Blues

The distortion of time being what it is, it doesn’t seem that long ago since James Harden was acknowledged by his peers on a Las Vegas stage. In July, Harden accepted an award for all the right reasons, validated for the year he had just completed, awarded a trophy as the Players MVP, finally able to bask in some sort of glow for carrying the Rockets when no one else could, when Howard was injured and their cast of three point shooting role players depended on him.

How things change is what is reflexively said at times like these but more accurate a phrase would be oh, how things stay the same.

James Harden has not changed overall. His attention to defense which spiked last year as he actually paid attention to the other end of the floor rather than using it as an opportunity for a mini vacation in-game, has reverted back to its normal negligence. Other than that, it is business as usual for the best shooting guard of his era. A lot of ball domination and ball holding and finishing at the rim. An endlessly numbing amount of trips to the free throw line blur the vision. A 29 point average. And none of it has mattered. None of it.

The Rockets, who were in the Western Conference Finals last spring, who pulled off that miracle upset in the semi-finals, are a very average 10-11 and are in a fight for the 8th seed. They are 7-6 in the Western Conference. They are 2-3 in the division. Yes, they have won three games in a row. But two of those teams won’t make the playoffs (Sacramento, New Orleans) and the other team, the Mavericks, are hardly contender material.

The Rockets are 24th in field goal percentage, 25th in 3-point percentage. They are 23rd in defensive rebounding. They are 21st in assists. They are at the top of the league in turnovers. They are at the bottom of the league in defense, only Sacramento and New Orleans are worse- the same Sacramento and New Orleans of their last two wins.

There is nothing about this ship that is averting disaster.

Naturally, when things happen that are preposterous and no one call really explain why, there has to be a fall guy, a blame. James Harden is carrying that burden. Months after NBA players acknowledged he was the best, he is now being trashed and burned.

Repeatedly on Inside the NBA when the Rockets are a topic of analysis, Shaquille O’Neal says no one wants to play with James Harden.

Even as an All-Star, James Harden has never been universally adored. He’s a dominant scorer but weak in so many other things. He’s not a leader. He’s not a defender. He froze in the NBA Finals. Of his peers, Harden’s overall critique is always harsher because of all of his flaws and because he plays with Dwight Howard whose game has continually regressed since he left Orlando.

Klay Thompson gets better reviews than Harden because he has a sweet shot, he defends his position and he plays with Steph Curry. Jimmy Butler defends, scores and has filled in nicely in the Derrick Rose injury years that continue to haunt the once upon a time superstar, and Butler does it in a composed, disciplined hard nosed way. Bradley Beal is a scoring phenom and shot maker and paired with John Wall is a blur on offense. Other than Harden, those are the best shooting guards this era has to offer and every one of them has a teammate that is universally accepted for their NBA two-way game.

The Harden-Howard combo was always going to be one hard to stomach. Harden doesn’t play defense and Howard doesn’t play offense. Structurally, that seems to make sense. They can lean on each other’s strengths to overshadow their weaknesses. But, team chemistry is far more complicated. Perhaps if Howard was a defender on the perimeter helping Harden or overshadowing Harden, their tandem would have useful benefits. But Howard can’t help Harden on the wing when he turns his head and misses cuts or overplays his man and simply doesn’t try. And Harden can’t help that Howard is no better an offensive player in year 12 than he was in year five. So they are stuck with each other’s weaknesses, wearing them like badges of honor but it is the basis of their sinking ship.

The Rockets offense is three-point shot addictive. And this year they are terrible three point shooters. Failure of that magnitude means the offense is James Harden’s problem and it is James Harden’s fault. Unlike Steph Curry who legitimizes his teammates with his ball handling, Harden legitimizes his own talent.

These are the Rockets shots distributions:

  • James Harden: 20.7
  • Trevor Ariza: 11.0
  • Marcus Thornton: 9.8
  • Terrence Jones: 9.4
  • Dwight Harden: 8.7
  • Ty Lawson: 7.0

Charles Barkley echoed the sentiments of Shaq. Harden holds on to the ball, he doesn’t make players better. That is a classically passive-aggressive way of saying Harden is selfish instead of selfless.

Perhaps on paper the acquisition of Ty Lawson was supposed to heal Harden’s inability to let go. The results say the opposite.  Harden has attempted 21 shots this year, a career high, while Lawson, who came over from Denver with high hopes and a boat load of arrogance, is reduced to a role player waiting for the ball when he can get it. And doing it from the bench. It would be one thing if Harden was taking 21 shots and shooting 46% or 47%, or if he was Kobe Bryant 2009-10 who took 21 shots, drained 45% of them and won a NBA title. But Harden is shooting 40%.

In the first game since the Kevin McHale firing, these were the shot attempts:

  • James Harden: 29 shots
  • Ty Lawson: 8 shots
  • Dwight Howard: 5 shots

Against Dallas, these were the shot attempts:

  • James Harden: 23 shots
  • Terrence Jones: 12 shots
  • Trevor Ariza: 10 shots

What has changed? Or, perhaps the better question, is can anything change? James Harden has the third highest usage rate in the league. He has the most isolation plays, something the Rockets coaching staff is trying to fix. It’s a riddle: how do you make an isolation player not an isolation player?

Players transform after the age of 30. Harden is 26 years old and has been in the league long enough for everyone to get a sense of who he is as a player. If Dwight Howard has been consistently unable to adapt to anything different since year four, why would Harden?

The problem here is how Harden defines his brand of quiet leadership. He thinks leadership is aggression and doing more, more shot attempts, more points, more trips to the free throw line, more minutes, more of a burden placed on himself. But a true leader, does less. And then he receives more.

That lesson is one Harden still has to learn.

photo via llananba