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Thursday, January 28, 2021

How High Will the Rockets Fly Without Harden?

The championship aspirations of James Harden's new team, the Brooklyn Nets, are much discussed, but it is interesting to observe Harden's former team as well. The Houston Rockets did not win a title with Harden, and they are not likely to win a title any time soon without him, but historically speaking an MVP-level player is typically worth at least 15-20 wins. Examples of this abound, including NBA-ready rookies Larry Bird and David Robinson, whose teams improved 32 wins and 35 wins respectively upon their arrival. Bird and Robinson were not entirely responsible for those win increases, but in both situations they were primarily responsible for turning around their franchises.

Harden received the 2018 regular season MVP, and he has finished second in the MVP voting three times (2015, 2017, 2019). If he is worthy of being considered a perennial MVP candidate then he should also be worth at least 15-20 wins.

After defeating the Portland Trail Blazers 104-101 tonight, the new-look Rockets are 5-3 since trading away Harden, a significant improvement from their 3-6 start to the season with Harden (Harden missed one game, a Rockets win versus Sacramento). After his final game with the Rockets--during which he scored 16 points on 5-16 field goal shooting as Houston lost by 17 to the L.A. Lakers--Harden publicly expressed his view that the Rockets were just not good enough. It is obvious that Harden quit on the team, and that the Rockets were not as bad as they looked with Harden, but it is also obvious that replacing Harden with Victor Oladipo is not a huge talent drop off, regardless of what the NBA's MVP voters may think.

This is obviously a small sample size of games in an unusual season dominated by the specter of COVID-19 and the associated health and safety protocols enacted by the NBA to attempt to complete an abbreviated 72 game schedule. However, the notion that the Rockets could be a good team without Harden should not be shocking to anyone who has followed Harden's career.

Harden has been putting up video-game level individual numbers for many years, but those numbers did not translate into consistent postseason success for the Rockets. Harden's Houston teams lost in the first round three times in eight seasons while making just two trips to the Western Conference Finals, and failing to reach the NBA Finals. As discussed in my analysis of Daryl Morey's Houston legacy, that is not elite level playoff performance.

Harden reminds me of Gilbert Arenas and Stephon Marbury, two players who put up gaudy individual numbers but who had very little positive impact on winning. After Arenas suffered an injury that caused him to miss extensive playing time and the Washington Wizards were not much worse without him, I asked Is Gilbert Arenas the Most Overrated All-Star in the NBA? Arenas' fans did not like that article, but they also could not refute the reality that even with Arenas the Wizards struggled to stay above .500. The record shows that Arenas did not have much impact on winning when he played, and the Wizards did not completely fall apart when he did not play.

There are players who score 30 points in a way that compromises opposing defenses and leads to team success, and there are players who score 30 points in a way that has little impact on team success. If you take Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant off of a team then that team is going to struggle unless/until that team acquires a legit MVP-level player (the 1993-94 Chicago Bulls did not collapse without Jordan primarily because the Bulls still had Scottie Pippen, arguably the best all-around player in the league at that time other than Jordan). If you take Arenas or Harden off of a team, that team can survive by either adding an All-Star level player, or possibly even by pooling the collective efforts of several good but not great players.

Marbury did not score as prolifically as Arenas or Harden, but he averaged at least 20 ppg and at least 8 apg in six different seasons, a feat exceeded only by Oscar Robertson, who had 10 such seasons. Robertson was a master of the all-around game, a basketball genius; Marbury was the antithesis of Robertson in every meaningful way. Marbury made the playoffs just five times during his 13 season career, and his final playoff appearance was as a little-used reserve for the 2009 Boston Celtics; as a starter he never advanced past the first round. Marbury had all of the physical tools--he was strong, fast, and durable--but he did not know (or care) how to play winning basketball.

To a lesser extent, Steve Nash falls into the category of overrated player, but with some important caveats. At his peak, Nash was legitimately an MVP-level player, and he had a Hall of Fame-caliber career--but there is no way he should have been a two-time regular season MVP while his far more impactful contemporaries Shaquillle O'Neal and Kobe Bryant each won one regular season MVP. MVP voters assigned a value to Nash's performance that is not fully supported by what happened on the court. Of course, Nash was a better teammate than Arenas, Marbury, and Harden, and Nash had a much better understanding of what it takes to win--Nash just did not have the physical capability to dominate a game all over the court to the extent that players like Jordan, O'Neal, and Bryant could while leading teams to multiple titles. 

During Nash's final season with the Dallas Mavericks (2003-04), Dallas went 52-30 in the regular season, and lost in the first round of the playoffs. Next season, the Mavericks replaced Nash with Jason Terry--a good player, but hardly an all-time great--and lost in the second round of the playoffs after posting a 58-24 regular season record. The Mavericks advanced to the NBA Finals in 2005-06 after going 60-22 in the regular season, and they eventually won an NBA title in 2011; Jason Terry was the sixth man for that team, but still ranked third on the squad in minutes played per game.

Meanwhile, Nash's Phoenix teams--which were stacked with All-Stars and All-Star caliber players, including Amare Stoudemire, Shawn Marion, and Joe Johnson--advanced to the Western Conference Finals three times in eight years but never made it to the NBA Finals.

If your former team can replace you with a solid player and have better results, and if you cannot lead a stacked team to at least one NBA Finals, then you are not the best player in the NBA. Most NBA MVPs won at least one title. The exceptions are Charles Barkley, Karl Malone, Allen Iverson, Steve Nash, Derrick Rose, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, and Giannis Antetokounmpo. 

The first three players on the list each led at least one team to the NBA Finals. Westbrook was the second best player on one Finalist, and Harden was the sixth man for that 2012 Oklahoma City squad. Rose's career trajectory was altered by injury, but he also won his MVP at least in part due to the negative narrative surrounding LeBron James after he quit in the playoffs before fleeing Cleveland for Miami.

Antetokounmpo is the only player from this group who is still in his prime, so he gets a pass for now--Michael Jordan and LeBron James each won multiple regular season MVPs before they won their first NBA titles, so it remains to be seen what path Antetokounmpo's career will take.

When the Rockets shipped out Harden, they did not get rid of a player who is worth 15-20 wins. If Oladipo and John Wall--who was initially acquired to play alongside Harden--can both stay healthy then the Rockets can continue to be what they were during the Harden era: a good team, but not quite good enough to win a title.

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posted by David Friedman @ 11:27 PM



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