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Monday, April 03, 2017

A Revealing Glimpse at the Houston Rockets Sans James Harden

Many 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.

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posted by David Friedman @ 10:08 PM



At Tuesday, April 04, 2017 12:11:00 AM, Blogger Nick said...

I agree with this article in principle, but it is worth noting that the Suns are pretty openly tanking, to an almost embarrassing degree (including benching their three highest-paid players for the remainder). It is unlikely they win another game this season , unless it is against a team that is also tanking, in some kind of reverse Mexican standoff. Not team that is trying to win a basketball game is letting Jared Dudley shoot 14 shots (a season high and 9 more than his season average, and the most he's shot in a game since 2014).

Basically, you're right about Harden, but drawing any sort of a conclusion about a team against this particular Suns team at this particular point in the season is the worst kind of small sample size. The observations about 2015, Arenas, etc. are spot-on, though.

At Tuesday, April 04, 2017 8:39:00 AM, Blogger Awet M said...

Another way to look at this:
The Houston Rockets are 11 games better than they were last year.
The Atlanta Hawks are 10 games worse than they were last year.
The common factor is quite obvious.

At Tuesday, April 04, 2017 12:38:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Houston changed coaches and added Anderson, Gordon and Lou Williams; the Hawks added Howard but lost Horford, Teague and Korver. I disagree with your apparent conclusion that Howard alone is the reason for the records compiled by both teams.

At Tuesday, April 04, 2017 12:42:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I made it clear that I am not "drawing a conclusion" based only on this game.

I just find it interesting and completely unsurprising that Beverley can put up Harden-like numbers in this system.

It is also worth noting that Harden plays high minutes and pads his numbers in blowouts and/or against bad teams.

At Tuesday, April 04, 2017 1:08:00 PM, Blogger Nick said...

I guess the nit I'm picking is that I don't feel like putting up those numbers against the current Suns really "counts."

Could he do it against anybody else? Maybe.He' could certainly put up 75% of those numbers given the same touches in this system agains most teams. But the Suns presently aren't a real NBA team.

At Tuesday, April 04, 2017 2:11:00 PM, Blogger Awet M said...

Agreed on all points. However. The crux of the matter is Howard. If he would just play the pick and roll like he used to with the Magic, like Capela right now, the Rockets would've been a better team all along.

Instead he prefers to get the ball on the low block - despite all the evidence to the contrary.

At Tuesday, April 04, 2017 6:19:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Sadly, it could be argued that as many as a fourth of the league's teams are currently tanking and several of those teams have probably been tanking all season (i.e., not just since they realized they would not make the playoffs). Tanking is a separate issue that I have addressed in several articles.

The dual points of this article are (1) that Harden's stats are somewhat inflated by D'Antoni's system and (2) Houston is fully capable of winning games without Harden. I understand that Phoenix is not a good team but the Rockets were missing three starters as well. I doubt that OKC minus Westbrook and two other starters could beat many teams, if any.

At Tuesday, April 04, 2017 6:26:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


When Harden arrived in Houston, the team's winning percentage barely increased. Houston's winning percentage jumped when Howard arrived. Houston beat LAC on the road in an elimination game six in 2015 with Harden on the bench in the fourth quarter--and with Howard playing a key role at both ends of the court. Howard had a huge impact in Houston. His impact or lack thereof in Atlanta has nothing to do with any of this.

Harden does not want to play with a co-star or in an offense that does not permit him to dominate the ball. Daryl Morey has admittedly gone all-in on catering to Harden's whims--and perhaps Morey has little choice, as it is unlikely that any star would want to come to Houston to play with Harden.

Thus, the "new" Rockets this year are built to cater to Harden and I predicted before the season that Harden would have huge numbers. What I did not expect was (1) Anderson and Gordon would stay healthy and (2) the Rockets would acquire Lou Williams for virtually nothing. D'Antoni's system works well against bad teams and against teams with little time to rest/prepare during the regular season but this system is not nearly as successful in the playoffs.

Before you knock Howard's impact in Houston, let's see if Harden ever makes it back to the WCF--and, if he does, let's see if he is on the bench or on the court at the critical moments.

At Wednesday, April 05, 2017 4:12:00 AM, Blogger beep said...

Give me a break with Harden, people forget D'Antoni made Chris Duhon look like legit starting PG, and he wasn't ever elsewhere.

On another note I read: "Lance Stephenson [...] apologizes for scoring when the Pacers were ahead over Toronto in the closing seconds."

What's the big deal? Shouldn't teams play to the end no matter the score?

At Wednesday, April 05, 2017 6:57:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I agree that in principle teams should "play to the end no matter the score" but in the NBA many teams that are winning a blowout observe an unwritten rule to accept a shot clock violation on the last possession of the game rather than attempt to score. I did not see what Stephenson did but there could also be an issue if he took a three pointer or did a fancy dunk, as opposed to simply taking a regular shot to avoid a shot clock violation; some coaches and teams understandably do not want to just accept a shot clock violation for no reason, because officially a shot clock violation is a turnover.

At Thursday, April 06, 2017 12:21:00 AM, Blogger beep said...

I am aware of this "rule". Sadly NBA becomes more and more a farce than serious business.


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