A Revealing Glimpse at the Houston Rockets Sans James HardenMany people who pump up James Harden as the NBA MVP claim that Harden has little help and that his Houston Rockets would be a poor team without him. Harden plays heavy minutes and, until Sunday night, had not missed a game this season, so there have not been many opportunities to observe this team sans Harden.
On Sunday night, though, we saw the Rockets not only without Harden but also without starters Trevor Ariza and Ryan Anderson. If the Rockets are truly a team that lacks talent and depth, then the loss of three starters should be a fatal blow even against a poor team like the Phoenix Suns--but Houston handled Phoenix rather easily, jumping out to a 25-10 lead en route to a 123-116 victory. Eric Gordon moved into the starting lineup in Harden's place and produced 22 points, six rebounds and five assists. Meanwhile, Patrick Beverley shifted to point guard and inherited Harden's role, leading Houston with 26 points and nine assists while adding eight rebounds--a more than passable replication of Harden's regular season averages. Beverley was actually more efficient than Harden, shooting 11-19 from the field while committing just two turnovers. He also had a game high +14 plus/minus number.
This does not mean that Houston is better without Harden or that Beverley is as good as Harden--but it does suggest that (1) point guard is a stat-padding position in Coach Mike D'Antoni's offense and (2) the Rockets are not some sad sack group that is being carried by Harden; any point guard who plays for D'Antoni is going to have elevated statistics and the Rockets would be quite good in this system with this roster even without Harden.
What is interesting about this is that when Harden played in a completely different system under a different coach and with a different roster Houston also showed the ability to thrive without him: the Rockets trailed the L.A. Clippers 3-1 in the 2015 Western Conference semifinals before the Rockets rallied to win three straight games, including a pivotal game six road victory during which Harden shot 5-20 from the field and sat out all but a few seconds of the fourth quarter as his teammates desperately fought to stave off elimination. I cannot think of another occasion when a supposedly MVP caliber player who was healthy and not in foul trouble spent so much time on the bench in the most critical moments of his team's playoff run. Houston Coach Kevin McHale sent a clear message that he believed his team had a better chance to win with Harden on the bench than with Harden on the court--a decision that won the series but ultimately cost McHale his job, as Harden came back the next season out of shape, unmotivated and clearly disinterested in listening to anything that McHale said.
Also, it is important to remember that the Rockets barely improved after Harden's arrival; the Rockets' winning percentage during Harden's first season with the team inched up from .515 to .549, which is roughly equivalent to three wins in an 82 game season. The jump to a .659 winning percentage the following season (2013-14) coincided with the acquisition of Dwight Howard; the Rockets enjoyed homecourt advantage in the first round versus Portland but lost in six games. Then came the fluky 2015 run to the Western Conference Finals, followed by the horrible 2016 season that culminated in the firing of two coaches and the overhaul of the roster; the Rockets now have a great regular season coach, Mike D'Antoni, who employs a system that works well against bad teams and against teams that do not have the opportunity to prepare but works much less well against good teams that have time to prepare during a playoff series.
We have seen the Harden-type script fool media members before: Gilbert Arenas was a high-scoring guard who supposedly was an MVP caliber player who was indispensable for the Washington Wizards--until he missed almost an entire season due to injury and the Wizards essentially posted the same winning percentage without him that they posted with him.
Also consider Carmelo Anthony and the Denver Nuggets. Anthony was supposedly the driving force behind the Nuggets making the playoffs year after year--at least until the Nuggets traded him for several role players and then posted the best regular season winning percentage in the franchise's NBA history (the franchise's subsequent collapse can be directly linked to the departure of a great General Manager--Masai Ujiri, who promptly turned the Toronto Raptors into a contender--and a very good coach, George Karl).
Again, the sample sizes for the Wizards sans Arenas and the Nuggets sans Anthony were large, while the sample size for the Rockets without Harden is small--but it has been my contention for four years that Harden's impact on team success is overrated and the evidence that we have supports that thesis.
Anthony, Arenas and Harden are elite scorers; in a given season, each of them could properly be considered an All-Star or even an All-NBA Team level performer--but their defensive ineptitude and their ineffectiveness as leaders renders their impact on team success to be much less than is often assumed by casual fans or by media members who frequently do not possess the capability to accurately analyze the sport.
posted by David Friedman @ 10:08 PM