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In Defense of Houston Rockets’ James Harden

Apr 7, 2016; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) celebrates after scoring during the third quarter against the Phoenix Suns at Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports
Apr 7, 2016; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) celebrates after scoring during the third quarter against the Phoenix Suns at Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports
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The James Harden led Houston Rockets are unlikely to make the playoffs despite Harden’s numbers being up from last season.

According to the numbers, Houston Rockets’ James Harden is having the best season of his career, averaging 28.6 points, 7.5 assists, and 6.3 rebounds.

Harden’s Rockets, however, sit as the ninth seed in the Western Conference, and will most likely miss the postseason entirely. As a team that was three games away from making it to last season’s NBA Finals, how is it that an improved Harden results in a worsened Rockets?

During the Rockets-Mavericks game on ESPN Wednesday night, ESPN analyst and former Rockets head coach Jeff Van Gundy mentioned something about Harden that doesn’t get enough attention.

Speaking about Harden being the league leader in turnovers, Van Gundy noted that no team in the league relies on a single player as much as the Rockets rely on Harden for offense.

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To the casual observer of Rockets’ games, Harden is a ball-dominant guard that teammates don’t like to play with. In truth, Harden has the ball in his hands so often because nobody else on the Rockets– besides the recent exception of Michael Beasley– can generate offense on their own.

Because Harden is the only player capable of producing offense, the ball must always be in his hands. Anyone who watches the Rockets regularly knows this to be the case. In fact, the rest of the Rockets are so inept at producing offense it has resulted in Harden playing the entire second half of a multitude of games as the Rockets finish the final stretch of their season.

Of course, Harden playing an undesirable amount of big minutes has been the case all season with Harden averaging more minutes per game than any other player in the league at 38.2.

The word “everything” is often used as hyperbole, but make no mistake–on offense–Harden has to do everything for the Rockets.

Harden’s heavy load is the reason why the Rockets traded for point guard Ty Lawson during the offseason. Unfortunately, things didn’t work out.

Despite Harden having to do everything for the Rockets, Houston has managed to remain a potent offensive force because of Harden’s elite nature.

Where the Rockets have experienced the most significant drop off from last season is on the defensive end of the ball. Ranking 6th in the league in defensive efficiency last season, the Rockets now rank 22nd.

For some perspective, of all the teams that are considered championship contenders, the lowest ranked team in defensive efficiency is the Oklahoma City Thunder at 12.

Playing defense as poorly as they have, the Rockets never stood a chance at being as good as they were last season.

As the Rockets’ best player, most fingers point toward Harden as the reason why the Rockets are so awful on defense. In part, I agree. In order for an entire team to put forth maximum effort on defense, the team’s best player must set an example. That being said, there is no way Harden’s effort on defense is as bad as it is depicted in taken-out-of-context viral videos that show him taking a break on a single defensive possession during a random game.

@moisekapenda
Jeff Van Gundy: "Some knucklehead will post Harden's bad defensive play and ignore all the outstanding things he does."

— Chris & Garcia (@chrandgar) April 3, 2016

The blame for the Rockets’ defensive struggles has to fall on the entire team. Be it that the group of guys on the roster are incapable of developing the chemistry necessary for solid communication on the defensive end, or that the coaching staff is ineffective at producing a more defensive minded team, it is absurd to think that James Harden is the sole reason the Rockets are terrible on defense.

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Sure, Harden could play better defense, but if you were to plug another league leading scorer– Curry, Durant–into Harden’s position with the Rockets, the Rockets’ defense would still be just as bad.

As Harden demonstrates night in and night out, a single player can carry the load on offense. It’s not the ideal situation, but it is possible. On defense, it is a different story. A single player is incapable of stopping five guys. Solid defense is a team effort.

As the team’s leader, Harden deserves some of the blame, but I think it is unrealistic to assume that Harden could improve enough on defense that the entire team would do the same. It’s not that Harden is incapable of being a better defender; it’s that great defenses rely on more than a single player.

With the Rockets standing a slim chance of making the playoffs, it looks like it’s going to be a long offseason. Lets hope the Rockets use this summer to find a defensive minded head coach with a proven track record.

Next: Are these Rockets choke city 2.0?

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