The Houston Rockets need to ditch James Harden isolation plays entirely

Houston Rockets James Harden Russell Westbrook (Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images)
Houston Rockets James Harden Russell Westbrook (Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images) /

With the Houston Rockets in dire need of adjustments, it’s time for them to lean on Russell Westbrook instead of the struggling James Harden for now.

Whether it be due to a nagging thigh injury, being in a shooting slump or both, it’s clear that something is up with James Harden. After averaging 37 points per game for a majority of the season, James has dropped to 24.7 over the last nine, including a season-low 12 points at Minnesota followed by 18 in a Wednesday loss to Portland. Whatever the reason for the dropoff, the Houston Rockets may be better off riding Russell’s hot streak until James gets back into rhythm.

Over the same nine games, Russell Westbrook has averaged 34 points and 8.6 rebounds per game. Given that the Rockets are just 3-6 in their last nine games, some might think Westbrook carrying the team just leads to losses, but I don’t buy into that argument.

The biggest reason the Rockets have been struggling as of late has been their lack of defense. Over their 3-6 stretch, they’ve been giving up 118 points per game. Only the Atlanta Hawks and Washington Wizards are giving up more points per game over the course of the season. With an unreliable defense, Mike D’Antoni‘s club has to have a virtually perfect offense to have a chance in today’s NBA.

Unfortunately, the leader of Houston’s offense, James Harden, has had awful shooting nights recently. Harden has had field goal shooting numbers of 5-of-18, 3-of-13, 9-of-29 and 9-of-34 all this month alone. With so many of those being 3-point attempts, those misses are often twice as bad since missed threes have a greater potential to be turned into fastbreak points for the opposition.

As of Thursday, James is currently ninth in the league in touches, averaging 84.4 per game, while averaging 5.86 dribbles per touch, which is the fourth-most in the NBA. Russell is 18th in the league in touches per game with 77.7 while averaging 4.2 dribbles per touch. This statistic is very telling, as Harden’s dribbles show how much iso ball is still being played for him.

Simply put, James Harden plays too much isolation basketball that ends in poor long-range shots, and it’s been happening for years. It’s not that surprising that when James, Russ and Clint Capela recently sat out against the Utah Jazz, the team’s ball movement looked the best it has all season.

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A big part of the Rockets’ strategy going forward needs to be less of a reliance on James dribbling the ball and making something happen and more reliance on Westbrook’s playmaking. At times where Russell is not on the floor, James should look to mix up his offensive strategy instead of catching the ball from inside the halfcourt line and trying to beat double teams with the dribble.

Harden needs to run without the ball, post up and even act as a decoy for shooters like Eric Gordon or Ben McLemore at times. The fact of the matter is, all 29 other teams in the league know what’s going to happen when James is dribbling and dribbling outside of the 3-point line. He is either going to shoot a stepback 3-pointer or use a screen to drive to the basket. While his stepback three is unstoppable, his percentage on that shot shows that opponents are wise to give him that shot.

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It’s time for Mike D’Antoni to show some variety in his offense and not rely on superstar play. It worked to perfection against the Utah Jazz and it can work again if applied correctly.