Nov 30, 2013; San Antonio, TX, USA; Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) and forward Dwight Howard (12) react against the San Antonio Spurs during the second half at the AT&T Center. Houston beat San Antonio 112-106. Mandatory Credit: Brendan Maloney-USA TODAY Sports

Houston Rockets: Can James Harden, Dwight Howard Win A Title As 'Cornerstones'?

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After imprudently minimizing the relevance of their teammates to the media, James Harden and Dwight Howard have recently elicited a plethora of negative reactions from NBA fans. The Houston Rockets experienced a disappointing offseason after failing to lure optimal-caliber talent: LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, and Chris Bosh.

To make matters worse, the Rockets lost key rotation players in Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik in trades designed to clear cap space for the aforementioned superstars and also lost Chandler Parsons to free agency. To any sensible observer, it is clear that the Rockets roster has diluted over the summer (despite the signing of Trevor Ariza).

To Howard, however, the Rockets won’t skip a beat in this upcoming season, since he and James Harden are apparently more than capable of carrying a team together, via the Associated Press:

“It won’t affect us at all,” Howard of Parsons signing a three-year, $45-million deal with the Dallas Mavericks. “We have myself and James. We have the best center and the best two guard in the game on the same team.”

James Harden agrees with Dwight Howard’s interesting sentiments, per CSN Houston:

“Dwight (Howard) and I are the cornerstones of the Rockets,” said Harden. “The rest of the guys are role players or pieces that complete our team. We’ve lost some pieces and added some pieces. I think we’ll be fine next season.”

The false bravado that Harden and Howard are displaying is provocative, but in reality, can James Harden and Dwight Howard be counted on to lead the Houston Rockets to a NBA Championship as the “cornerstones”?

James Harden

Harden had another solid season — offensively anyway — and he’s arguably the best shooting guard in the league. He posted averages of 25.4 points and 6.1 assists per game on 45.6 percent from the floor. Albeit an adequate 3-point shooter and strong finisher at the rim, his shot chart reveals that he heavily favors his left hand; thus, rendering Harden as a somewhat predictable offensive player.

 

Shotchart_1407806615376Outside of the left elbow and the corner 3, Harden accumulated average shooting percentages from every other area on the floor, at best. Strong defenses can easily exploit his weaknesses.

Last season, Harden feasted against teams with poor defenses, averaging a 114 offensive rating against bottom-20 defenses and a 105 offensive rating against the top 10. Additionally, the fact that Harden gets to the free-throw line at a high rate masks a lot of his offensive deficiencies.

Many of Harden’s possessions are heavily predicated on whether or not the refs discern to send him to the charity stripe — and he’ll take drastic measures to get those foul calls; snapping his head back and flailing his arms at the slightest hint of contact. Harden’s flopping even earned him an NBA record: most points ever scored (27) for a player who made two or fewer field goals.

Unfortunately for Harden, his offensive tactics don’t translate well in the playoffs, where defenses are heavily enforced and referees are reluctant to blow their whistles. Consequently, during the last postseason, Harden was forced to rely on his errant step-back jumpers as his shooting percentages from the field dipped to a horrendous 37.6 percent.

Defensively, Harden is like a revolving doorHe quickly loses sight of his man off the ball, trudges around screens, and simply watches as his opponent blows by him.

Perhaps the only type of energy that Harden will exert on defense is a last-attempt poke at the ball while his man blows by him, as if to wish him luck on his journey to the basket. James Harden seems to resemble the typical egocentric American: lazy, disinterested in venturing outside of his or her comfortable domain, and arrogant as a result.

Perhaps Harden feels as though he’s so good at what he does that there’s no need for him to ameliorate his weaknesses — but the fact of the matter is that his lack of defense may negate some of his offensive production, and it has a corrosive effect on his team’s efforts to legitimately contend in the Western Conference.

Dwight Howard

Howard, like Harden, is arguably the best player in the game at his position, and one quick glance at his stats can help justify that sentiment. His ability to finish at the rim on offense, protect the rim defensively, and rebound with ease is especially valuable to Houston’s mediocre team defense.

Dwight Howard’s bulky stature and freaky athleticism enable him to barrel his way to the hoop. Additionally, the pick and roll best accentuates his athleticism near the basket as the roll-man.

Ironically, Howard is averse to the pick and roll play that suits him best, and prefers to post up the majority of the time. His predictable post moves, inept footwork, passing deficiencies, and low basketball IQ preclude him from exhibiting a productive game in the post. 

Per MySynergySports, 53.1 percent of Howard’s possessions were post-ups, but despite his physicality, they squander many possessions for the Rockets. He turned the ball over at an extremely high rate (20%) and scored a measly 0.77 PPP (points per possession) while attempting to post up last season, which ranked 128th in the league. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the leading scorer in NBA history – who accumulated most of his points via post-ups — touched on Howard’s predictability in the post:

“Dwight is an extraordinary athlete, he has incredible athletic ability, but basketball is a game where the most important muscle you use on the court is the one between your ears. Dwight’s basketball IQ is not up to speed for him to be a dominant player. He has problems at both ends of the court, he doesn’t have a go-to move. I had to prepare Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum to play against Dwight in the playoffs in 2009 for the World Championship and it was an easy job, because if you take certain things away from him he doesn’t have an answer for it. So he needs to develop some skills, at both ends of the court, that would enable him to consistently contribute to a winning effort, and he hasn’t done that.”

Contrarily, only 7.1 percent of his possessions came as the roll-man, where he was ranked third in the NBA with a highly efficient 1.31 PPP. Perhaps the NBA’s rich history of post-dominant big men (including Kareem) has aroused Howard’s desire to be in the same class. 

Emulating the NBA’s greatest big men would be commendable if he embellished the qualities that are needed for success in the post, but in this scenario, it’s arrogant of Howard to hinder his team by estranging himself from the play that he prospers in, just to satisfy his own ego.

Nonetheless, Howard was able to score 18 points per game last season on a highly efficient field goal percentage of 59 percent, as most of his baskets depend on his teammates setting him up for easy looks close to the basket. Howard’s shooting touch is exposed at the line, however, where he only makes about half of his free throw attempts annually.

This flaw is also detrimental to his team during the winding minutes of a tightly contested game, and the playoffs are replete with close games. In game one of last year’s first-round match up between the Houston Rockets and Portland Trail Blazers, the Rockets were up 11 in the fourth quarter as they looked to take a 1-0 lead over the Blazers.

The Blazers exploited Howard’s poor free throw shooting with the help of the Hack-A-Howard strategy — intentionally fouling the big man — and it sparked a 10-0 run for the Blazers. Howard missed four straight crucial free-throw attempts, and the Blazers effectively stole game one from the Rockets as the momentum shifted in favor of the Blazers.

As a formidable rim protector, Howard also exhibits glaring weaknesses on the defensive end, which the Blazers had used to their advantage during the 2013-14 playoffs. On defense, Howard is known to camp out underneath the basket and wait for an opportunity to alter any shot that comes his way – a grueling tactic considering Dwight’s physicality.

Yet according to last season’s statistics, he still isn’t the best rim-protector in the NBA.

LaMarcus Aldridge absolutely roasted the Rockets with his turnaround jumper in the mid-range during the Rockets-Blazers first-round series last May. With Omer Asik too slow and Terrence Jones too small to contain Aldridge, Howard should have stepped up and put an end to Aldridge’s obliteration, but he seemed insistent on serving the role of a refrigerator under the basket.

As the first or second option on the Rockets, Dwight’s self-induced restrictions and limitations as a player prevent him from elevating his team to the championship level. Not only does his heavy reliance on his athleticism limit him as a player, but it will also likely curtail his longevity, as Howard probably only has one or two more good seasons left on his odometer.

The Rockets’ early exit from last year’s playoffs will continue to be a theme in Houston, lest their two main players attempt to be more versatile.

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Tags: Dwight Howard Houston Rockets James Harden

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