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Houston Rockets’ failed James Harden experiment
Dec 14, 2021, 4:45:00 AM

Houston Rockets’ failed James Harden experiment

James Harden’s career really blew out after the trade from Oklahoma City Thunder to the Houston Rockets after the 2012 season. Harden put up wild numbers for the Rockets but how come he never won a championship there?

There are many questions concerning Harden, one of them is how he never secured a championship for the Rockets. A player of his caliber should have at least one ring. However, due to numerous reasons that will be discussed below, Harden sadly couldn’t get the job done until he was traded to the Brooklyn Nets.

Despite his groundbreaking records, Harden remains ringless and fans are beginning to doubt whether or not to place him on the top 75 players of all time. While his individual records are nothing to scoff at, he still has loads to prove before he can be considered one of the greats like Michael Jordan or LeBron James.

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The career of Harden before Houston

As a young NBA aspirant, Harden simply isn’t an athletic freak to marvel at like Giannis Antetokounmpo or James. Instead, Harden relies on his skill set to prove to the world that he has what it takes to play in the NBA. At 6’5”, Harden is what you consider an ‘average’ build where most of his contemporaries also have similar body types.

Enrolled at Arizona State University, Harden was trained by the most elite college coaches and shooting staff to get his abilities at their peak when facing the most athletic defenders in the country.

An interesting draft prospect

When Harden was drafted, most scouts thought he had more weaknesses to his game than his co-draft picks. For instance, analysts would allude to his lack of athleticism that is a main goal for most NBA teams. Athletic players move fast on their feet and can defend at a high level.

Not only that, athletically inclined players are great at both ends of the floor, meaning that they can defend and have great scoring. Scouts thought that Harden can only play offence and exert all that effort while leaving nothing for the defence. In his career, this is absolutely true if you look at the stat sheets, but Harden was nevertheless drafted high during the 2009 Draft at number 3 overall.

The 6th man at OKC

Harden was forced to stay at the bench and become the 6th man for the Oklahoma City Thunder because of stars like Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. It was strange putting him on the bench when there aren’t a lot of solid shooting guards for the Thunder during their 3-year stretch together.

Thabo Sefolosha played the starting position instead of Harden. As the league was leaning more on a positionless basketball game, OKC decided it was smart to put a natural 3 at the 2 position to utilize Durant’s offensive prowess even further creating a mismatch.

In 2012, the year the Thunder went to the Finals, looked to be a successful little experiment that placed Sefolosha at the starting 2-guard position while benching Harden. During his first three years as a backup shooting guard, Harden averaged 12.9 points a game. In his final year as a Thunder averaged 16.8 points which landed him the Sixth Man of the Year award.

While the Thunder were an incredible team from top to bottom, they ultimately fell short of winning the Finals against LeBron and the Miami Heat.

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OKC’s tough decision

After the 2012 NBA Finals, the Thunder had to make difficult decisions on choosing who to let go as the team is over the cap for the following season. Between Serge Ibaka and James Harden, the Thunder in horrific fashion decided to let go of James Harden for Serge Ibaka.

The 6th man of the year had to pack and go someplace else, and Houston seems to be the ideal place for the promising young shooting guard.

James Harden’s early Rockets stint

When James Harden became the lone ranger for his brand new Rockets team, he immediately increased his production in scoring from a mere 12.9 per game output to 25 points a game in just a few months after the offseason.

Harden was surrounded by complementary pieces who were sharpshooters like Chandler Parsons, Patrick Beverley, and Terrence Jones, all of whom can defend adequately and shoot the three point shot particularly well.

This slowly turned Harden’s position from a natural shooting guard to more of a ball-handler. His shift to the point guard position was not abrupt. It took a couple of years until he was the main point guard of the team.

During his early seasons in the Rockets’ roster, Harden was at least a top 10 player who was recognised as a starting All-star and had been to a few top 5 MVP lists during the 2013-2016 seasons.

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The Golden State Warriors dynasty

Unfortunately for the rest of the league, the emergence of the Warriors put a halt to any championship aspirations during a 4-year stretch. Only James and the Cleveland Cavaliers were a match against the Warriors, and the rest of the league faltered except for these two juggernauts in their respective conferences.

The Rockets were sadly part of the same conference as the Warriors and had run-ins against them for at least 3-4 consecutive seasons. The first time the Rockets faced the Warriors was during Harden’s era was in the 2015 season when Harden heroically stopped the Clippers’ reign after the latter led 3-1. It was a time when the Rockets had a solid offence and defence that placed them above the top seeds in the Western Conference.

When facing the Warriors, Stephen Curry and company destroyed the Rockets’ offence and exposed Harden’s lack of defensive game. They beat them 4-1 to advance to the Finals, and ultimately won the championship.

The Rockets regrouped and went strong the following year, but unfortunately, Curry and the Warriors went 73-9 marking them the best regular season team of all time with the most wins ever recorded.

In 2016, the Rockets were sadly the 8th seed in the Western Conference which means they had to go up against the historic Warriors team. The outcome was very similar to the previous year when they fell to Golden State 4-1 and the Rockets’ season was quickly forgotten and had to regroup again the following year.

In 2017, the Rockets were the third 3 seeded team in the Western Conference. The bad news, however, is Kevin Durant joining the Warriors which made them the most unbeatable team in the history of the league. Despite a great record, the Rockets weren’t even considered as a top-tier team to win it all.

In the 2017 playoffs, Harden and the Rockets couldn’t even get past the San Antonio Spurs in the semi-finals after losing to them in 6 games. It’s been 4 straight years since his Rockets debut, and Harden has yet to return to the Finals since his Sixth Man of the Year season in OKC.

The Chris Paul and James Harden failed experiment

The Rockets and James Harden have had enough of the Warriors and had to take matters into their own hands. The Rockets organisation didn’t believe that the sole prowess of Harden can put them ahead of the league, so they acquired Chris Paul in free agency where the duo was projected to wreak havoc during the 2018 regular season.

Surprisingly enough, the Rockets were a formidable team going into the next season and they won 65 games. They were officially the number 1 seed of the whole league coming into the playoffs, and it looked like the Warriors had a solid competitor trying to reign on their parade.

In the 2018 playoffs, the Rockets were no pushovers and wreaked terror for teams who weren’t ready to face them. During the first round, the Rockets gentleman swept the Wolves after Harden exploded with his usual offensive game that led Minnesota packing for early fishing season.

The next round saw a similar outcome for the Utah Jazz where the Rockets won 4-1. It was the first year of Donovan Mitchell’s playoff stint, and the Rockets took advantage of that with their great team.

Houston’s offence in the 2018 season was at an all-time high in field-goal percentage and three point volume. This team was the Warriors but with more three pointers that made them an exaggerated version of the Dubs.

The next round had them square off against Durant and the Warriors once again which went 7 games. The Rockets found themselves living and dying by the three point line as they missed almost all their three pointers in Game 7.

It also didn’t help when Paul got injured in game 5 where they didn’t have any reliable point guard to lead the offence. The Rockets unfortunately fell short again, and the following season, they were even worse after losing to the Durant-less Warriors in 6 games in the 2019 playoffs.

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Rumours started to circulate in the 2019 offseason that Paul and Harden didn’t like each other which then led to a trade for Russell Westbrook joining. This trade turned the Rockets’ season the following year into an unexpected one after losing to the Warriors multiple times.

Small-ball Rockets

With Westbrook at the point guard position, Harden was forced to have fewer touches of the ball. This wasn’t a problem for him personally as both he and Russell are great friends to begin with.

However, things quickly turned south when Westbrook struggled to shoot the ball from the perimeter since there were pure big men in the paint blocking his way to drive to the rim. The Rockets’ coach at that time, Mike D’Antoni was notorious for drawing up the most exaggerated offensive schemes. To everyone’s surprise, the team traded their great centre, Clint Capela, to the Hawks in a complex four-team trade that had them acquire Robert Covington.

The Rockets in the second half of the season had PJ Tucker, a 6’5” forward, be the centre of the team. The 2018 Rockets squad was one of the smallest teams in the history of the NBA, and they were very successful because of it.

Westbrook had a clear path to the rim and Harden was incredible because of the spacing. Unfortunately, the 2020 playoffs weren’t kind to them as they faced LeBron’s Lakers and once again fell short of a victory that had them lose in 5 games.

How Houston failed James Harden

There are a few points to consider when looking back at James Harden’s time with the Rockets that many would allude to his shortcomings:

    •   Mike D’Antoni

Houston’s then head coach is notorious for his coaching schemes that ended his career with the Suns, Lakers, and the Knicks. There was no excuse for him either when he had Steve Nash, Kobe Bryant and Carmelo Anthony to coach, all great players in their own rights.

D’Antoni simply has a poor track record of playoff shortcomings, and his offence was simply only good for the regular season where he had most of his success. Unfortunately, the regular season means nothing without a championship at the end of it. Mike has never gotten a championship in all his years as a head coach for multiple teams.

    •   The three-point era

This is also a matter related to Mike D’Antoni since he coached the Rockets team throughout Harden’s time. However, this had more to do with the Rockets’ general manager Daryl Morey who believed in the mathematics of the three point shot that forced Houston to play a perimeter-heavy offence.

Before the Rockets, Harden was a solid mid-range jump shooter, but after his 4-year stint with the team, he had the worst mid-range attempts per game and field.

As they got successful in the regular season with all the three pointers they made, they too fell victim to their own tricks when the shots didn’t hit. Harden was the most affected by this scheme as he missed so many crucial shots in the many playoffs he participated as a Rocket.

    •   James Harden himself

Unfortunately, Harden was also to blame for his shortcomings. For starters, he drove Chris Paul out of Houston after showing signs of greatness as a duo. There were also reports of him going to clubs in Miami nights before games that turned his focus away from basketball.

In his final years in the organisation, he was very vocal about his disdain for the Rockets that had him overweight and out of shape for the regular season the year after his defeat against the 2020 Lakers.

His over-reliance on the freethrow line is also a huge hindrance to the team where calls get more infrequent as the playoffs wane. James Harden was a huge reason why the Rockets failed just as much as them failing Harden in every way.

Harden plays for the Nets where he is experiencing one of his worst seasons since his first three years as a Thunder. The new rules are subject to eliminating calls relevant to grabbing and forced shot attempts that will lead to a foul where Harden relies so much.

No one knows for sure when he’ll turn his career around, but at 32 years old, he might want to hasten up his turnaround as he doesn’t have many prime years left ahead of him to do such a comeback.

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Words: Vonn Consul 

Image: PA