Harden's Playoff Bricklaying Reveals Cracks in Houston's "Foundation"The Oklahoma City Thunder made the right decision when they declined to offer a maximum contract to their third best player; instead, they traded James Harden to the Houston Rockets. The Thunder improved their winning percentage from .712 in the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season to .732 in 2012-13 and they finished first in the West after finishing second in the West in 2011-12. Their 60-22 record represents the franchise's best regular season since 1997-98 and the fourth best regular season in franchise history. Harden could have stayed in Oklahoma City and blossomed into this decade's Manu Ginobili--an All-Star for a perennial championship contender--but he wanted more money and he wanted to prove that he is not just a very good player but that he is a great player.
Houston General Manager Daryl Morey called Harden a "foundational player"; it is not clear what exactly that phrase means but it is clear that Harden is not a franchise player/elite player--i.e., he is not someone who can be the best player on a legit championship contender. A franchise player/elite player should be worth 10-20 wins over the course of a season but the Rockets only improved their winning percentage from .515 to .549, equivalent to less than three extra wins over the course of an 82 game season. Harden's increased scoring average impressed media members and fans but Harden's play had very little impact in the won/loss column.
After the trade, I declared, "Harden is a very good player but all of his weaknesses will be exposed in Houston if the Rockets expect him to be a franchise player. Harden is not an All-NBA First or Second Team caliber player. He is not someone who can draw double teams over the course of an 82 game season and then carry a team deep into the playoffs as the number one option. He is not Shaquille O'Neal, Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant or LeBron James."
During the regular season, Harden averaged 25.9 ppg, shot .438 from the field and committed a league-leading 295 turnovers (3.8 tpg). In the playoffs, Harden slightly increased his scoring to 26.3 ppg but his already inefficient game became much more inefficient: he shot .391 from the field and committed 4.5 tpg. NBA championship teams are typically led either by dominant big men (Shaquille O'Neal, Tim Duncan, Hakeem Olajuwon) or versatile perimeter players who possess size, speed, scoring ability, superior passing skills and the ability/willingness to guard multiple positions (Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James). Once every three decades or so, an ensemble cast of very good players wins a championship (1979 Sonics, 2004 Pistons); the 2008 Celtics combined the two models by blending together three past their prime Hall of Famers with a young, upcoming point guard and a deep supporting cast of excellent role players.
Numbers rarely tell the complete story about a player or a team and it is true that many great players turn the ball over a lot--but great players make up for those turnovers by being very productive and efficient. Harden does not have the skill set of an elite player; despite his high scoring average, he is a limited offensive player: he shoots free throws and three pointers well but he is not a postup player or an accurate midrange shooter, so if the defense crowds Harden at the three point line while also being prepared to take a charge and/or block his shot in the paint then he is not particularly effective. When has a perimeter player with those skill set strengths and weaknesses led a team to an NBA championship? Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James could score from anywhere on the court, they consistently drew double teams that created wide open shots for their teammates (even on plays for which they were not credited with assists) and they defended much better than Harden does. What about Dwyane Wade? Wade won the 2006 NBA Finals MVP primarily by driving full speed to the hoop and throwing himself into defenders much like Harden does but the similarities end there; Wade had a much better midrange jumper and a much better postup game than Harden, Wade had open lanes to the hoop because Dallas Coach Avery Johnson elected to double team Shaquille O'Neal and Wade, to put it charitably, benefited from some very sympathetic officiating. O'Neal was not as dominant as he had been a few years earlier but he was still an All-NBA First Team center and he produced 28 points, 16 rebounds and five blocked shots in Miami's series clinching 95-78 game six win over Detroit in the 2006 Eastern Conference Finals. Wade had 14 points on 6-15 field goal shooting in that contest, plus a game-high 10 assists. It is understandable why Coach Johnson decided to clamp down on O'Neal and force Wade to make plays. Although everything came together perfectly for the Heat in that championship series, in the next four seasons the Heat won 44, 15, 43 and 47 games and they failed to advance past the first round of the playoffs. Then LeBron James and Chris Bosh joined the team, Wade accepted a reduced role and the Heat made it to the Finals twice. Even though Wade has a better postup game and a better midrange jumper than Harden, Wade's reliance on bulling his way to the hoop has taken a toll on his body, forcing him to miss games and reducing his effectiveness/consistency. So, if Harden is fortunate to team up with the current equivalent of a declining but still potent Shaquille O'Neal and he can arrange for the 2006 Finals' officiating crews to show up for Houston's playoff games then perhaps he can lead the Rockets to a championship; otherwise, a diet of 43-47 wins and a string of first round playoff exits is a reasonable expectation for Houston in the next several seasons. It is also reasonable to expect that if Harden continues to play the same way then his body will prematurely break down much like Wade's body has been breaking down for several years.
Harden is 23 years old. Is it possible that he will develop into an elite player? Perhaps, but he is already a four year veteran. After four seasons, Jordan had already won two scoring titles, an MVP and a Defensive Player of the Year award. Bryant came to the NBA straight out of high school but by his fourth season he was both an All-NBA player and an All-Defensive Team player and by the time he was 23 he was an All-NBA First Team performer who had played a key role on three championship teams. James also came to the NBA straight out of high school and by his fourth season he had made the All-NBA First Team and led the Cleveland Cavaliers to the NBA Finals. Morey asserted that Harden is already a "foundational player" and he paid Harden accordingly; Harden is a very good player but he will have to do a lot of work to live up to Morey's praise and that maximum level contract.
posted by David Friedman @ 8:07 AM