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Over Utilization of James Harden is Reason Rockets Are Losing

By Tamberlyn Richardson
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An alarming trend has surfaced with James Harden wherein the Houston Rockets only win if he scores over 40 points and obtains close to 40% of the teams’ total points.

Obviously this poses a major problem as that type of production isn’t sustainable through a season, nor should any team want a single player to be responsible for that much of the teams production. Sure, he had no choice last season with the team mired in injury. But with a relatively healthy roster along with newly inked free agents and rookie additions the Rockets are deeper than they have been in years. So why is James Harden still playing like they aren’t? And, why isn’t the team netting the same results?

Part of the problem appears to be because Harden either isn’t bothering to play defense or is only playing for intervals during the game.

Following his 50 point effort versus the Philadelphia 76ers on Friday (November 27th) and the team winning by the narrow 2 point margin I decided to examine his numbers more closely in terms of how different the Rockets perform in wins versus losses.

There are obvious (and alarming trends). The most notable is Harden scores close to 20 points more in the Rockets wins with Harden accountable for nearly 37% of the point production. Conversely in the Rockets losses he takes half as many free throws, shoots the three ball over 10 percent less effectively and accounts for a more practical 22.8% of the teams’ scoring.

The other big factor which Anthony Nguyen has pin pointed recently in his articles is the fact it appeared Harden didn’t show up in shape to training camp. His numbers have been progressively getting better as the season progresses which gives his argument merit. I do recall he limped onto the court at the Player Awards this summer and heard news he had badly sprained his ankle. This alone, could have set back his summer workouts.

But the most glaring issue remains chemistry on this seasons team. Prior to McHale’s firing the player’s only meeting produced two pieces of news. The first implying McHale had lost their ear which new comer Ty Lawson basically broadcast to the world by saying the coaches were telling them what play to run, but his wishes were being ignored. Shortly after that revelation McHale was sent packing.

The second was the three anonymous players who told Sam Amick and Jeff Zillgitt of USA TODAY Sports the team is unhappy with James Harden on and off the court.

While players tried to keep details of the meeting private, two themes emerged, three people told USA TODAY Sports on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the situation. Harden’s play and aloofness have frustrated teammates, and McHale took the brunt of the blame for the team’s play. Practices were not resulting in improved play in games.”  – Amick and Zillgitt, USA Today

The problem becomes  for the team to reach anything close to last season’s production they’ll need to trust each other, but with 3 different players anonymously letting the beard out of the bag if you will, that doesn’t seem like it’s about to happen anytime soon.

I’m not sure what happened between James Harden and the rest of the team or more accurately a good portion of the team, however it’s evident just watching the Houston Rockets body language on the court something is amiss. Players are not impressed with the bearded one and many would say they have a point.

Winning a game by 2 points to the worst team in the Association is nothing to brag about especially when your main player had to score 50 points (over 43% of the scoring) to do so.  I watched the players very closely Friday night and it’s  obvious something is off. Certain players are rolling their eyes at other teammates, or throwing their hands in the air and others are demonstratively animated with some teammates and ignoring others.

It feels like this has become a battle of sides and I’m not sure any coach can fix that. Harden is still choosing when he feels like defending and continues to not take care of the ball, turning it over 9 times to Philly. That fact to me is more of a talking point than him scoring 50. In the last 2 minutes of the Philly game Harden almost coughed up the ball because he chose to iso dribble it instead of utilizing the rest of the players on the court to move the ball. He missed key free throws and defensive assignments and was rolling his eyes walking around like he was pouting. Hey, he’s the guy who won out with the big sponsorship contract from adidas this summer and told anyone who would listen he was the real MVP. I’m not sure I disagree with that statement, but that was last season.

This summer while Harden has been basking in his new found celebrity, the guy who DID win all the hardware (Stephen Curry) spent the summer improving his game to make both himself and his team better. It feels as if there is an odd role reversal at play with Curry and Harden. Steph is playing like he’s the one motivated by losing and looking like a live incarnation of a video avatar and Harden is acting like what most of us expected from the young team who won the title would given the celebrity that comes from reaching the mountain top.

Since I have no additional “real” information I’m left with the rumors floating around and utilizing “the eye test” to determine how bad things are with the players. To that end, there definitely appears to be tension between Harden and some of the other players. If the losing continues Morey may have no choice but to make a trade in order to shake things up. You can bet he’ll keep Harden given his age and upside, even if the entire roster is anti-Harden.  And if the issues stem from Harden’s inability to mesh on or off the court with Dwight Howard it becomes logical to trade the big man given his pending free agency and age.

If this were to happen, again it would seem like an impulsive and unnecessary move. Furthermore, in fairness to Howard it’s not as if he’s getting any offensive sets run for him. A quick look at his game log also provides some shocking details. In the 11 games Howard has played he’s only had double digit touches in 5,  of which the team won 3. However, in his past 6 games he is averaging  just 5.8 touches per game! He’s shot over 50% in all but one of those outings, but more importantly why is he only touching the ball 6 times a game when Harden is averaging over 20.8 touches per game. I’m not a genius by any means, but 50% field goal percent in my book beats 40% every day (and that’s also on a good day for the bearded man). Which has me leaning toward Howard being one of the disenchanted players.

Surely Howard recognizes he’s not on the same level of Harden in terms of his versatility, but in the same vein Bickerstaff and Harden must also recognize running a minimum of 10 to 15 plays for the big man can’t really hurt the team either.

Beside would a trade of Howard truly solve the problem? Or does it point to the fact Harden is “acting” out. If Morey appeases the bearded man and does make a trade of someone (again likely Howard)  and suddenly Harden is willing to play defense isn’t that only serving to give Harden all the power?  It establishes the fact that basically anytime he doesn’t like how something is going the franchise will condescend to what his wishes are. That’s hardly the way you build a strong cohesive unit.

There is a possible silver lining for the Rockets awaiting as early as this coming Tuesday, December 1st when a doctors appointment with Donatas Motiejunas will update on whether he can rejoin the team in full contact practices. That alone, could literally turn the Rockets season around simply by the versatility he offers, especially on the offensive end of the floor.

Motiejunas offers such an unusual treasure trove of options, the Rockets can feature him in the role of a center or a power forward. He can be utilized as a stretch four in the starting line-up alongside Dwight Howard. However as much as he logically would fulfill a starting role on any team his ability to hit from the perimeter might necessitate he come off the bench as a center  to play with Terrence Jones.

The uniqueness these two fourth year players provide is either can play in the post or hit shots from the field. DeMo specifically is a great ball handler which would allow the team to work inside out and offer Ty Lawson two bigs to run pick and roll offense with or feature in a run and gun fast paced transition game.  The plethora of options available once Motiejunas returns is mind boggling.

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As much as DeMo’s return will open up options for the team and Bickerstaff it could also serve to bury the existing issues the team is dealing with presently.

Suffice to say the overriding issues may disappear once DeMo returns and gives the Rockets back their full options, but it won’t wipe away the damage that’s already been done. It’s kind of like ripping a favorite piece of clothing. You can mend it, but the scars from the sewing no matter how invisible will always be there. Down the road when the team is in a stressful situation I can’t help but wonder if the chemistry problems and the disconnect existing now between Harden and his teammates won’t raise their ugly head.

For Clutch City fans I’ll hope good news is forthcoming regarding Motiejunas, but the reality is until the Rockets players resolve their issues and James Harden decides to become an MVP candidate on both ends of the court they won’t be winning anything.

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