Should James Harden be blamed for the Houston Rockets failing again?

Houston Rockets James Harden (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
Houston Rockets James Harden (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images) /

The Houston Rockets seemed ready to finally go all the way under James Harden, but instead crashed and burned before reaching the third round.

While the public tries to frame James Harden’s inability to lift the Larry O’Brien trophy as a personal failure, it is, in fact, an indictment on the shortcomings of the Houston Rockets organization.

Harden has been the best most durable superstar in the NBA since his arrival, but the Rockets organization hasn’t helped in what is now a 25-year title drought. So should the blame really be put on James Harden for the team falling well short once again?

Is Harden’s style of play to blame?

There is a sentiment that the way that James Harden plays is preventing the Rockets from winning a championship. When did having the NBA’s best scorer make it hard to win a championship? What’s even funnier is that none other than Kobe Byrant, before his tragic passing, echoed this exact sentiment.

Kobe Bryant believes James Harden and the Rockets won't win a championship with the style of play we're seeing on his scoring tear. (via @Rachel__Nichols)

— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) February 4, 2019

“I’m not a fan of in terms of winning championships, I don’t think that style is ever going to win championships,” said Kobe.

Kobe, COME ON, MAN! Kobe Bryant is the patron saint of high volume scorers and has five championships to show for it. Michael Jordan, the league’s greatest scorer, has six titles! Those two have combined for 11 championships since 1991. That means a third of the championships won since the 90s have been teams that feature two best scorers of their generations, which Harden is for his.

The argument that Harden’s ball-dominant style is to blame for the Rockets’ lack of a title is a lazy analysis and completely misses the underlying point. Harden needs to have the ball that much for the Rockets to win because his teammates just aren’t good enough.

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People forget this, mostly thanks to Nike and the Jordan brand’s incessant campaign to paint Michael Jordan as basketball Jesus, but the same criticisms we pile on Harden were once piled on Jordan himself.

Jordan’s high usage was long viewed as being bad for his team and the reason the Bulls couldn’t win the big one. Jordan’s usage rates the three seasons before winning his first championship were 33.7 percent, 32.1 percent, and 34.1 percent. His usage rate in his next three, title-winning seasons was 32.9 percent, 31.7 percent, and 34.7 percent.

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However, the narrative completely changed from “Jordan’s style can’t win” to “Jordan learned how to share the ball.”

his scoring numbers dropped slightly, it wasn’t because he stopped having the ball an enormous amount of the time, it was only because the Bulls didn’t need him to be so unbelievable every game to win a title.

Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant came into their own, and Jordan finally didn’t need to be Atlas to hold the Bulls’ championship hopes afloat.

The Bulls won three straight championships, and suddenly everyone forgot that Jordan’s style was too ball-dominant to be a champion.

Did Jordan really change much as a player? No, the team around him simply matured into a title team. Blaming Harden for being the best scorer in the league misses the point. Harden needs to be the best scorer because the Rockets roster just isn’t quite good enough.

But Harden chokes in the postseason!

James Harden has had his fair share of postseason failures, especially in elimination games. There is no excuse for this, and it is a real and obvious mark on his legacy. However, Harden hasn’t exactly been poor in the postseason.

Yes, his effectiveness falls, but that’s largely true for everyone. Playing all of your games against playoff teams will hurt your statistics, and James Harden is not immune to that. Expecting him to become better suddenly is as realistic as expecting the wish you made on your sixth birthday to come true.

Except, this year, that’s exactly what Harden did over his 11 playoff games in the bubble.

                                       WinShares/48      TS%      USAGE%      AST%       PPGRegular Season               .254                  62.6%        36.3%         35.9%      34.3Playoffs                             .272                  63.2%        32.9%         39.7%      29.5

Harden did precisely what people have been asking him to do for years, and it worked. He dropped his usage and increased his efficiency, but his teammates were not good enough against the Lakers.

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You can blame Harden for the Rockets’ exit, but this was his finest postseason in Houston. What changed? Harden was finally able to maintain his ability to get free throws from the regular season into the postseason, which had plagued Harden throughout his time in Houston.