By: Justin Lynch
Lynch is double-dipping in Houston this week to talk about the true reason why the Rockets are struggling.
The Rockets are a complete mess right now. They just fired Kevin McHale, and in their first game in his absence, they needed overtime to beat the Trail Blazers…at home. But don’t worry, I have a theory on all of this...
Players just don’t like playing with James Harden. If you have played a lot of basketball in your life ,I’m sure you have been on teams where there is one player who, usually has been recruited by the coach and is promised a whole bunch of things, and gets preferential treatment. Everyone talks about that guy. When anyone asks a question about the team they ask, “How good is...” or “Isn’t … the best player on the team”. And that player could be the best on the team and he could be really good, but players are all competitive and they all like to think they are the best.
Now, in the NBA, players have roles, and it is a necessity for players to understand these roles if they want to hang on the league (right, Dion Waiters). But these guys are still players who have been the best their whole lives, and now they are put in a situation where everyone is talking about someone else. Most guys get used to it, but there still can be animosity if the player in question is not a team player. For the Rockets, the first couple years with Harden were bliss. This Houston team rallied around the rise of Harden as an MVP candidate, they willingly got out of his way and let him do his thing.
But now that magic has worn off. Just watch the body language of the Rockets team when Harden has the ball. What you see is three guys on the perimeter, ready to shoot, just staring at Harden. You also see a big guy (likely Dwight Howard) in the weak side short corner, standing straight up watching the action like he is you or me. NBA players don’t want that role. No matter how team-oriented someone is, nobody wants one guy to be the show offensively. And yes, Harden is really, really good. And, you know what, Harden is among the best at creating for himself and his teammates in the lane, but, though Harden is good passer, he has stopped really passing.
Guys like Westbrook and Chris Paul will always look for the open man within the flow of the offense. They are always looking for the someone else or are trying to create a better shot for their teammate. When they pass, it seems natural. They do it within the flow of the offense. Paul will string out a pick-n-roll and find an open shooter in the corner, for example. Harden is different. He almost forces himself to pass in a way. He will have the ball on the perimeter and maybe jab step at his defender and then he will pause a moment, and then swing the ball back to the top. Now, this does not sound all that bad, but it is so artificial. Harden has not been passing within the flow of the offense this year like he has in the past. He’s playing as if there are two types of possessions: possessions where he tries to score by taking his guy one-on-one, and possessions that he says to himself, “I think I’ll let someone else get a shot here”. This is evident in the fact that Harden rarely gets the ball back after he makes a pass, and if he does it is late in the shot clock or after an offensive rebound with a new clock. It stops the flow of the offense because Houston is never playing in sync. It’s either Harden, or everyone but Harden.
And it’s not even entirely Harden’s fault. Harden is so good at scoring that he can take anyone off the dribble, so why should he default to playing within the offense? Harden is probably the best all-around offensive player in the league right now, other than maybe Kevin Durant. He doesn’t need the offense to succeed, so he simply does not use it. And, frankly, I’m not convinced that he would be better if he played within the offense.
But this brings me back to my point. The issue with how Harden’s one-on-one centric game is that it takes his teammates out of the game to a certain extent. At the very least it minimizes their ability to create offensively, and instead reverts the team into nothing more than spot up shooters. This is another reason why the Lawson trade has not worked out. Harden should not be taking a backseat to anyone, so how would bringing in a ball-dominant, driving point guard help the offense when shooters are the best thing for the offense as a whole?
The Rockets have more than just an offensive issue, though, they have a chemistry issue. When someone is playing a game that is designed to, in a way, neutralize the rest of the offense’s faults, the rest of the team can turn on that player. No one has ever talked about what a great locker room guy Harden is, though I’m sure he’s not bad. But anyone who has ever played basketball knows that when you have a guy coming down the court jacking up shots every time, you start to get frustrated. Guys start rolling their eyes when that player puts his head down because everyone knows the shot is going up. And when he doesn’t have the ball, guys are reluctant to pass it to him.
Late in Wednesday night’s game, Howard grabbed an offensive board and immediately looked outside to pass. He looked at Harden and instantly looked for somewhere else to pass to. He found Corey Brewer at the top of the key who missed the three. That is the result of playing with players who are out to get theirs. Their teammates get frustrated and start to play keep away with him. Guys are willing to put up with some ball-hoggery, if the player is making shots and the team is winning, but as soon as those shots start drawing iron, it’s a whole different story.
Furthering the effects of this is Harden has again reverted to playing zero defense. He took the internet outrage over his lack of defensive effort seriously last year, and he picked up his game. Now, everyone knows he can play at least decent defensively, but this year he has simply decided not to do that. You cannot play lackadaisical defense when every major shooting category for you is down (FG%, 3PT%, eFG%, True shooting) and the team has been the embarrassment of the league through nearly 15% of the season. There are reasons no one wants to play with Kobe and Carmelo. Both are ball-stoppers who force up shots and play no defense. Kobe used to be able to play defense, but he can’t anymore. Harden is of that same mold, except he’s a lot closer to Melo than Kobe.
Just look at the Rockets free agency efforts. Every single year, Daryl Morey does acrobatics with the salary cap to open max space to try to sign someone. Since acquiring Harden, they have really only signed Dwight Howard. They traded for Lawson and Ariza, and drafted other role players like Capela and Terrence Jones. They picked up Beverley from overseas. Aldridge would not sign in Houston and neither would Carmelo. Guys around the league just do not want to play with Harden, and if they did, the Rockets would have more guys willing to take the league minimum to chase a championship, like David West did for San Antonio this year.
We can talk all day about how good Harden is at drawing fouls, and we marvel over his points created when he drives, and how good he is in one-on-one, but I bet that Houston locker room is sick and tired of hearing Harden, Harden, Harden all the time. We always look at the team’s best player and a team’s coach when criticizing a team’s performance. Well, the Rockets fired their coach, but I still haven’t heard much about Harden. And maybe it’s the fact he scores so much, and maybe it is because he’s putting up great numbers. But I bet if you talked to a guy like Patrick Beverley off the record he would tell you that guys are frustrated with Harden. And I probably would be too.
Remember, Harden is really the only guy in the league who gets the entire spotlight on a contending team. Curry has Klay and Draymond. LeBron has Love and Kyrie. Duncan has Aldridge and Kawhi. Chris Paul has Blake and DeAndre. Harden has a past-his-prime Dwight Howard who the media does not want to give attention to and Ty Lawson who has was dumped by his former team after clashing with the front office and having off-the-court troubles. The rest of that Houston locker room is constantly being reminded about how much of the load Harden has to carry, and how if Harden weren’t on the Rockets they would be a lottery team. All of this stuff creates hostility in the locker room.
When Curry or Thompson are going off, everyone on that team is excited. When Marcus Smart goes to the ground all four guys sprint to help him up. James Harden drove to the basket last night, got fouled hard and slid into the stanchion. The guys on the court walked over and passively extended a hand to help him up. The Rockets players did not even act like they cared that Harden just took a hard fall. If that is not a sign that Harden is rubbing people the wrong way, I don’t know what is. What I do know is Harden is a great player, but I believe he is more in the way of a Carmelo Anthony than he is anyone else. The only difference is the media rips apart Melo for things that Harden can get away with. I can’t imagine that lasts much longer.