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Monday, May 13, 2019

Rockets Face Many Offseason Questions After Fizzling Versus Durant-less Warriors

Game six of the Western Conference semifinals at home versus the Kevin Durant-less Golden State Warriors presented a great opportunity for a Houston Rockets team that has loudly and repeatedly declared how prepared they are to dethrone the Warriors; indeed, there were no more excuses left for the Rockets to, at the very least, push the series to seven games.

Instead, the Rockets fizzled in what TNT's Charles Barkley called "one of the worst choke jobs I've ever seen."

ESPN's commentators had some interesting observations before Houston failed. Paul Pierce correctly called this a "legacy game" for James Harden--not because one game should be given elevated importance, but rather because Harden has already failed many times in the playoffs and this game may represent his last, best chance to lead his team to the NBA Finals. If Harden cannot win a home game against the Warriors sans Durant--and, it should not be forgotten, without starting center DeMarcus Cousins as well--then why should one believe that Harden will ever lead his team to the NBA Finals? On a different but related issue, Chauncey Billups said that he cannot stand watching Houston's isolation ball style of play and he asked his fellow ESPN panelists to wake him up at halftime. Billups is right that not only is this style horrible to watch but it also is not likely to ever produce a championship.

The Rockets are often lauded--and, laud themselves--as a team that chases each and every analytical advantage, and then pushes the envelope to exploit these advantages. One of the Rockets' "insights" is that the most valuable play in basketball is a foul on a three point shot. Yes, such fouls are "efficient" mathematically; it is not difficult to calculate that an .800 free throw shooter will produce 2.4 points per three free throw attempts. That equation, however, does not factor in the negative value of hunting such fouls, including but not limited to (1) distorting the overall functioning of the offense via excessive isolation play, (2) giving up a numbers advantage on defense if a foul is not called, the shot is missed and the shooter is lying on the floor (or whining to a referee) as opposed to getting back on defense and (3) potentially missing out on makeable shots while focusing more on deceiving referees by flopping as opposed to concentrating on shooting.

During the 2019 playoffs, Harden's minutes per game went up to 38.5 from 36.8 in the regular season but his numbers declined in most of the significant statistical categories: fewer points (36.1 ppg in the regular season/31.6 ppg in the playoffs), lower FG% (.442/.413), lower 3FG% (.368/.350), lower FT% (.879/.837), fewer assists (7.5 apg/6.6 apg). Most tellingly, his field goal attempts per game remained steady (24.5/24.0) but his free throw attempts per game plummeted from 11.0 to 8.9; that is just one piece of evidence suggesting that hunting three point shooting fouls is not a smart strategy and will not consistently work in the playoffs. In the playoffs, both the referees and the opposing teams are less likely to succumb to Harden's incessant flopping and flailing. Harden's "style" is fake, deceptive and antithetical to authentic basketball; just look at a video of his legitimate shooting motion in the three point contest and in game action when he is not being contested, and then compare that to the gyrations he does when his shot is being contested.

Harden can produce a breakout game or two during a playoff series but he has a long record as a playoff choker and he is best suited to being a number two option on a title contender, a role that his ego will likely never permit him to accept. This is not just about numbers, but about impact. Harden's game six numbers were not terrible but, as Jeff Van Gundy said, individual statistics mean nothing in a loss. Jalen Rose made an excellent observation of just one problem with Harden's game that does not show up in the box score but does show up in the won/loss column: when Harden does not have the ball in his hands, he walks up the court and he looks disinterested. Harden is focused on glorifying himself and inflating his statistics; if he were focused on winning, he would have stayed with Oklahoma City and then he could have been the third option on what probably would have become the NBA's next dynasty, with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook leading the way as prime scorer/all-around player respectively. Instead, Harden wanted to prove to the world that he could be the best player on a championship team--but, he has actually proven quite the opposite.

If Harden is who Daryl Morey insists he is--a "foundational player"--then he has to propel his team to victory at home against a shorthanded opponent. Plus/minus numbers are "noisy," and most people do not understand their limitation or how to properly use them but it is interesting that in the must-win game six at home Harden had a -10 in a game that the Rockets lost by five points. Take out the meaningless three pointer that he hit with 24 seconds left--if you don't think it was meaningless, look up the analytics for win expectancy for a team trailing by eight points at that stage of the game, which was the scenario when Harden padded his stats before heading into the offseason--and his plus/minus was -13 (irrelevant "noise" like that is just one example of why plus/minus is only meaningful to compare lineups in large five on five sample sizes, or when accompanied by detailed, objective observations of what happened and why it happened). During the portion of the game when the outcome was decided, Houston was losing by double digits at home with Harden on the court--and this is the pattern in Harden's playoff career, not the exception.

This series, with the Warriors being down two starters, represented Houston's best chance to advance to the NBA Finals; last year, the Rockets enjoyed a 3-2 edge over the Warriors and had homecourt advantage but they used Chris Paul's injury as an excuse for their seven game loss, conveniently ignoring that even without Paul they built halftime leads in game six and game seven before choking. This year, the injury shoe was on the other foot, and the Rockets still failed to get the job done.

Remember that Houston is obligated to pay more than $85 million to Paul over the next two seasons.  Morey has maneuvered himself into a financial corner and is essentially committed to ride or die with the notion that the Harden-Paul duo can lead the Rockets to a title--a notion that has little realistic basis. Morey has done a decent job of surrounding Harden and Paul with complementary players but no matter how much lipstick you put on this pig, it is still a pig; Morey will likely change the supporting cast again but supporting players cannot fill the giant gaps created by the weaknesses in Harden's game and Paul's game.

Before wrapping up this summary of Houston's predictable playoff failure, it is worth circling back to the beginning of this series. After game one, there was much talk about officiating and "landing area" and other nonsense that had little to no effect on the result, so it is worth noting that (1) James Harden's game is built around traveling, offensive fouls and trying to trick the officials and that (2) Houston often grabs, pushes and holds on defense, relying on officials to let the contact go because the Rockets are using undersized lineups. Also, for all of the allegations that the Warriors benefited from certain calls/non-calls, the biggest benefit that happened in this series favored the Rockets: Chris Paul was not suspended for game three after bumping a referee near the end of game two.

Paul has a long history of confronting referees during games and belittling them in his postgame comments but he is considered a big star and so the NBA league office is reluctant to discipline him the way just about any other player would have been disciplined. Sirius XM Radio’s Lionel Hollins, a former NBA All-Star and a former NBA head coach, advocates that the NBA league office empower referees to eject players who are blatantly disrespectful and he mentioned on air that when he was on the Competition Committee he implored the league to apply its rules and standards equally to all players. Hollins believes that the double standard that protects stars from being ejected and/or suspended has resulted in an overall worsening of player conduct toward referees.
The bottom line in the one-sided Golden State-Houston rivalry is that the Warriors (1) are more focused, (2) they are mentally and physically tougher, and (3) they have a defensive mindset that enables them to get key stops down the stretch. James Harden is Houston’s best player, and he does not embody any of those traits, which is why his team does not exhibit those traits when those traits are most needed.

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posted by David Friedman @ 11:26 PM



At Tuesday, May 14, 2019 12:11:00 AM, Blogger Awet M said...

Well said. Chris Paul also happens to be the president of the NBPA, which makes him even more powerful and intimidating on the court. He's not just another player, and his inside knowledge of the referees empower him to control them, abuse them when necessary.

He is a great player, and one of the best ever to play the game, but at the same time, he has been his own worst enemy - his leadership skills is generally overrated, because he has not been able to get the most out of his teammates (Lob City, anyone?), his health has failed him at the worst time in the past, and now his time as an elite player has come to an end.

I recall Coach Phil Jackson saying that he did not want to be around Kobe Bryant when he stopped being Kobe Bryant. Who wants to be around a player of similar ilk when he's clearly past his prime, but acts like he isn't?

At Tuesday, May 14, 2019 3:09:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I sure wouldn't want to be one of those individuals who were proclaiming Harden as one of, if not the greatest offensive player ever and I can't even imagine the mental gymnastics they must be going through right now. Harden wasn't even close to being the best offensive player in these playoffs, much less the best ever. Does anyone with even half a brain think that Harden is legitimately the greatest offensive player in Rocket history? Is any sensible person taking him over Moses Malone or Hakeem Olajuwon at the height of their powers? Harden's numbers this season really caused people to lose their minds and develop amnesia when it comes to context and the history of the game.


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