No team in the NBA relies upon their star player more than the Houston Rockets.
The usage numbers, on-court production and constant highlight reels present the facts. James Harden has the ball in his hands more than a pitcher does in baseball. There is a very good reason for this, though. The offensive concept in Houston is entirely wrapped around the idea that Harden will create everything, whether it be by himself or for his teammates.
Last season, Harden finished with a 40.47 usage rate, which was the second-highest in NBA/ABA history. The record-holder is his new teammate Russell Westbrook, who set the mark two years prior. Right now Harden is neck-and-neck with Luka Doncic for the highest usage rate of the season.
John Hollinger has Harden’s Value Added number at 401.6 with the next-closest player at a mere 338.3 (Giannis Antetokounmpo). Estimated Wins Added also finds Harden at the top of the league by a very wide margin. He is doing all of this while having a usage rate of 32.22, which is second only behind Giannis.
Another statistical category where Harden leads the league is in minutes played. This is where things can become worrisome for Rockets fans…and the organization.
In today’s era where every star elects to load manage, Harden prides himself on playing as many games as possible. Interestingly enough, that is the one thing that could hold this team back from competing for a championship. We got a glimpse of that world last week when the Rockets took the floor in New Orleans.
That game wasn’t pretty as Harden, Westbrook and Clint Capela all watched from the bench. With the trio all being held out, it was up to the rest of the guys to generate offense. Eric Gordon returned to the floor for the first time since his arthroscopic knee surgery in mid-November. Isaiah Hartenstein made his first career start, and both players performed well. Danuel House Jr. led the way with 22 points and Hartenstein collected a double-double.
Despite the individual numbers against a horrible defensive team, the Rockets fell flat on their face in the fourth quarter as New Orleans took the lead amid an 18-1 run. Houston was outscored 41-19 in the final period and lost by 15 points as they only used eight players that night.
It was just the first game that Harden has missed this year, but it showed why they can’t afford to sit their star during the regular season.
Quite simply, the offensive scheme is a complete 180 from what they are used to. Guys that are normally told to go stand in the corner and catch-and-shoot three-pointers are suddenly being asked to handle the ball and create. At times, it looked as though the players either didn’t know the play they were supposed to be running or who was supposed to be where.
Having a guy like Harden completely carry your offense is a monumental benefit. He is incredibly precise and capable of delivering on every possession. Unfortunately, this same concept can also be a curse.
Resting Harden and losing games is not ideal. Playing Harden nearly every minute of every game is not ideal, either. The fear is that the same old story will play out, as he has no gas left in the tank by the time the playoffs hit full throttle. Therein lies the conundrum for Mike D’Antoni and his staff.
There are plenty of times during the game that James tries to steal some wind. You will often look up one random possession and see four Rockets on the floor and five defenders. Harden is literally standing at half court with his hands on his hips, watching his teammates try to generate a shot.
This is also what separates him from guys like Stephen Curry, Kyle Lowry, Jamal Murray and Kemba Walker. These guys are playing within a team-friendly system that requires movement and multiple looks to throw off the defense. Instead of screening, cutting or even playing the role of a decoy, Harden just removes himself from the equation entirely. There really is no benefit to taking that approach.
By taking Harden off of the floor, Houston is essentially faced with playing four-on-five on certain possessions. Those have not worked out at all, but they may have found a way to give him some rest on the other side of the ball. Unlike past seasons, the Rockets are sticking him on bigger guys in the post, instead of making him use his feet to stay in front of guys on the perimeter.
These changes and tweaks may not show their value in the moment, but they could add up over the course of the long season. Houston can ill-afford to let two MVPs sit out games, but maybe staggering Harden and Westbrook is the secret formula. History has shown that Daryl Morey isn’t afraid to bring in high-profile players with fat contracts, even if they are on the back end of their careers.
With two ball-centric guards who are used to having the free roam to run the offense as they see fit, it may be up to their head coach to make that decision.
Another conundrum lies in waiting there too. It is no secret that D’Antoni is in the final year of his contract. Should they fail to win the title, he likely won’t be returning next season.
The good news for the Rockets is that their upcoming schedule doesn’t look too worrisome. Over the next two weeks, they play Atlanta, Minnesota, Memphis, Portland and Oklahoma City. They do have a meeting with the LA Lakers after that, but following the Atlanta game, they will not travel to an Eastern Conference arena again until the final day in February.
Harden has accomplished a lot of things during his 10-year career. The seven-time All-Star made the All-Rookie team, won the Sixth Man Award, led the league in assists, won the MVP and is on pace to capture his third scoring title. The individual success has always been there, but the team’s success hasn’t. That has always been the narrative for The Beard and he knows the only way to change that is by earning a ring.
Championships are still king the NBA, despite all of the huge contracts, shoe deals and brand marketing. If Houston doesn’t have its engine ready to go for the postseason, it just might find itself stranded on the start/finish line, stuck in neutral.
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