James Harden might have one of the most controversial styles of play in all of sports. His ball-controlling, isolation style of play has ruffled the feathers of many people, from NBA players and coaches to general fans. The complaints vary from travels to lack of ball movement, and it is always brought up that the Rockets haven’t been able to advance deep into the postseason. However, Harden hasn’t had a ton of help in Houston, and has had to go through the Warriors the last five years. So is Houston unable to win with Harden, or has their time just not come?
The biggest defense of Harden’s style of play is that he scores the ball. He controls the ball for long periods of time, yes, but he often comes away with a bucket or an open look for one of his teammates. He certainly does pass well, as he averages 7.5 assists per game, and can drop a triple double on any given night. He has finished in the top-2 in MVP voting in each of the last three seasons, winning the award in 2017-2018. Many would agree that the only reason the Rockets haven’t won a title with Harden yet is because they had to play against one of the best basketball teams of all time, every year in their own conference. He is scoring in ways that were unimaginable before, and doesn’t seem to have much trouble putting the ball in the basket. So what is there to criticize?
While the Warriors may be responsible for the lack of titles in the past decade in Houston, Harden can’t be removed from all blame. In Game 7 of the 2018 Western Conference Finals, the Rockets missed 27 consecutive three-point attempts. That’s not all on Harden, and it’s tough to beat any team in today’s NBA by missing that many shots. However, Harden, and Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni, can make it harder for his teammates to score, because he can hold onto the ball for an entire possession, and the other guys on the floor have a tough time getting in rhythm when they don’t touch the ball for an extended period of time. It also causes Harden to tire more quickly, as his workload exceeds that of any player on the court. So, come playoff time, when you have to grind out game after game, by the end of the postseason, Harden can be worn down and not as effective of a scorer. Once that happens, it’s hard to tap into your bench because they haven’t done much for a very long time, and the Rockets can find themselves dead in the water.
However, the Rockets have found some help. By trading for Russell Westbrook in the offseason, they were able to bring in a point guard who gets up the court quickly, and can kick back out to Harden for catch-and-shoot threes. One of the most prolific scorers the game has ever seen, getting an open, standstill shot? Who would turn that down? By acquiring another player who puts pressure on the defense (sorry Chris Paul, but Russ creates a different kind of pressure), Harden has seen his usage rate go down, but his PPG, field goal and three-point percentage all go up. Although Harden has seen a slight increase in minutes per game this year, he has been more efficient and less ball dominant, and the Rockets seem to be benefiting from the change, as they are four games better this year (22-11) than they were last year at this point (18-15).
While all of these things seem to be good news and the Rockets seem to be trending in the right direction, and, as the cherry on top, the Warriors aren’t contenders this year. So, it would be shaping up to be the Rockets year, but LA had something to say about that, as they brought in Anthony Davis, Kawhi Leonard, and Paul George, to create two more superteams for the Rockets to battle it out with. However, the Rockets shouldn’t see this as an altogether bad thing. They have already beaten the Clippers once this year, and neither of those teams have all-star caliber guards to tire Russ and Harden out on defense. If Harden can be as efficient as he has been all year in the postseason, and Russ can shoot just a little bit better, they will be able to take any team to seven games, and with a talent like Harden, they will always have a chance to win.
No one can deny that what James Harden is doing is special. Unprecedented, really. However, to finally topple the best in the west, the Rockets may have to change their style of play for the playoffs. Harden can get you close, but he won’t be able to win a ring alone.