Have the Rockets surrounded James Harden with enough to win a title?

James Harden #13 of the Houston Rockets (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
James Harden #13 of the Houston Rockets (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images) /

With the Daryl Morey and James Harden tandem now over, it’s worth wondering whether the Houston Rockets have given Harden enough talent to win a title.

Former Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey pulled off the trade of the century when he reeled in James Harden from the Oklahoma City Thunder, in a trade that was centered around Kevin Martin. Prior to Harden’s arrival, the Rockets were engulfed in mediocrity, as they were too good to land the top pick in the NBA Draft, but not good enough to make the postseason.

Harden’s presence on the roster instantly changed the fate of the franchise and set them up for a great future, as the Rockets would go on to make the postseason for eight consecutive seasons, despite having three different coaches during that span. During those eight postseason appearances, the Rockets were only eliminated in the first round three times, including twice to the top-seeded teams in the highly-contested Western Conference.

Harden won the MVP during the 2017-18 season and has been named a finalist for the award in each of the last four seasons. But despite a highly successful run for Harden and Daryl Morey, one thing remains absent from both of their resumes: an NBA title.

With Morey now gone and yet another peak season for Harden having gone to waste, the question must be asked regarding whether Morey surrounded Harden with the sufficient amount of talent to deliver a title to the franchise. The answer will vary depending on who you ask.

Take ESPN’s Max Kellerman, for example, who was speaking on the matter, when asked to compare Harden’s lack of titles to that of Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo on ESPN’s morning show First Take.

“How many teammates has Giannis ever had like Harden has had? Chris Paul and Russell Westbrook?”

Have the Houston Rockets surrounded Harden with enough talent to win a title?

Harden has certainly been surrounded with star power, as Russell Westbrook is a former MVP and two-time scoring champion, and Chris Paul and Dwight Howard are both surefire Hall of Famers, while also being two of the greatest players at their respective positions.

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So why didn’t Morey and Harden walk away with a title, in that case? There are several reasons, but one of the major causes is simply injuries, as the Rockets’ closest chance to winning a title was in 2017-18, when they finished with the best record in franchise history. The Rockets also finished with the top seed in the Western Conference, only to have their title hopes thwarted by an untimely Chris Paul injury during the Western Conference Finals.

The Rockets’ best season with Dwight Howard was during the 2014-15 season, in which they finished with the second seed in the West and reached the Western Conference Finals, despite Howard battling injuries and missing 41 games.

The 2019-20 season saw a similar story as it pertains to Harden’s superstar pairing suffering an injury, as Russell Westbrook got injured, which many believe to be attributed to the superstar guard testing positive for the novel coronavirus and being unable to train like his usual self.

But beyond the injuries, the Rockets were compiling super duos in a “Big Three” era, as each title team from 2012-2018 featured at least three future Hall of Famers. This was especially the case with the Golden State Warriors, who were the Rockets’ biggest and most consistent arch-enemy, dating back to 2014.

The Warriors eliminated the Rockets from the postseason in four of the Rockets’ last six postseason appearances, and it’s understandable, considering how they had four Hall of Famers, before inking a deal with Kevin Durant in 2016.

The reality is that Harden and Morey not winning a title is more of a matter of circumstance, which can oftentimes be described as an excuse, but it’s factual that Harden’s star teammates have suffered fateful injuries, in addition to the fact that the NBA has been marred with super trios (prior to the 2019-20 season), which the Rockets never compiled alongside Harden.

The Harden-Westbrook pairing is still far too early to assess, in part because of the aforementioned injury Westbrook suffered in 2019-20. But it goes without saying that the Rockets’ best chance of capturing a title is with both players being fully healthy, which hasn’t been the case with any of the stars that Harden has been paired with during his time with the Houston Rockets.

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We’ll have to see if that happens in 2020-21.