Houston Rockets: James Harden’s brilliance masking teams’ flaws

Reigning MVP James Harden has put together another stellar season for the Rockets. But will it matter once the playoffs begin?

Over the past 58 games, Houston Rockets guard James Harden has built up a compelling case for him to win his second consecutive Most Valuable Player award. The numbers speak for themselves. As of March 3, Harden is averaging 36.6 points, 7.7 assists, and 6.6 rebounds with a 30.5 Player Efficiency Rating and a 61.8 true shooting percentage.

Of course, anyone that’s watched even a single Rockets game knows how the Harden sausage is made; he breaks opponents down with his cruel handles and gets to the paint almost at will. He can use the fear of a blow-by to get into a rhythm with his dribble and knock down a stepback dagger from 3-point range.

And if a defender elects to play Harden a little tighter, he knows how to manipulate the rules in his favor to draw contact and get to the free throw line.

Harden has always put up gaudy offensive numbers, but this year he has turned in performances that you typically only get if you play NBA 2K on rookie mode with all the offensive sliders maxed out. These scoring eruptions crescendoed between mid-December and late-February when Harden scored at least 30 points in 32 consecutive games, the second-longest stretch in league history and the longest since the 1976-77 NBA/ABA merger. Oh, and the Rockets went 21-11 during that span.

If you think about it, Harden compiling these averages shouldn’t come as a surprise. Coach Mike D’Antoni has employed the same Bel-Air Academy offense that has come to define this Houston franchise for the last three seasons, and with Chris Paul missing 23 games due to suspension and/or injury combined with a noticeably downgraded roster, Harden needed to become the highest of high-volume shooters to keep his team in the playoff hunt.

So far, it has worked; Houston currently sits in fifth place in the Western Conference standings and ranks second in offensive rating. But we’ve seen this movie before: Harden has an unbelievable regular season before succumbing to fatigue and running out of gas in the postseason. But will that narrative play out again this year? And are his offensive outbursts concealing some deeper problems with this team?

On the surface, it doesn’t look good. Regardless of Harden’s one-man show on offense or how many games Paul sat out, the Rockets simply aren’t as good as they were last year.

They still chuck up a lot of threes — in fact, Houston leads the league in attempts per game — but its efficiency on those shots has dropped dramatically; as of March 3, the Rockets are shooting 34.7 percent from behind the arc, which ranks 22nd in the NBA and is far below the 36.2 percent clip they put up in 2017-18.

Spotty shooting hasn’t been their only problem; their defense has also slipped, as Houston ranks 25th in defensive rating after finishing sixth last year. Several factors have led to the Rockets’ slide on that end — Trevor Ariza’s departure, Clint Capela’s injury, Carmelo Anthony’s brief presence on the roster, their defensive coach’s short retirement  — and defensive lapses like this have forced Harden and the Rockets to compensate on the other end:

This is not the same team that came within a game of toppling the vaunted Golden State Warriors to reach the NBA Finals. They don’t shoot 3-pointers as well as they used to, they don’t play defense the way they used to, and Paul — who always seems to get injured at the worst possible time — is another year older. In a crowded Western Conference, the Rockets need Harden at his best to have a chance at a championship.

But what are the odds of that happening based on what we’ve seen from Harden in the playoffs before?

To be fair, Harden’s postseason numbers are ostensibly similar to his regular season totals, albeit at a lower percentage. But most elite players tend to increase their numbers when the calendar turns to April, May and June, which makes Harden’s struggles all the more glaring.

And those playoff series’ where Harden yielded to exhaustion occurred after seasons where he posted usage ratings in the low 30s. Right now, Harden is on pace to finish with the second-highest usage rate in NBA history at 40.3 percent. The only player who dominated the ball more through the course of a season was Russell Westbrook during his historic MVP season in 2016-17.

Like Harden this year, Westbrook did everything for that Oklahoma City Thunder team that was fresh off of losing Kevin Durant to free agency, as he papered over OKC’s obvious deficiencies and dragged that collection of mediocre players to the playoffs, only for them to be brushed aside in five games by…Harden and the Rockets.

That Westbrook-led Thunder team should serve as a cautionary tale for Harden and Houston. Fortunately for them, every team in the West outside of the Warriors have clear weaknesses, which gives the Rockets as good of a chance as any of those other clubs to reach the conference finals, but the Rockets’ own shortcomings make them just as vulnerable as the likes of, for example, the Denver Nuggets or the Utah Jazz.

Next: Houston Rockets: 3 reasons why James Harden is the NBA MVP

Harden has treated us to a fun ride this season and has a good chance to take home another Maurice Podoloff trophy. But for a team that objectively isn’t as good as last year’s outfit, their superstar player will have to play at this level for the rest of this season and in the playoffs for them to have a chance. Given his history and the heavy workload, that may be too much to ask.

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