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  • Writer's pictureScott Hatter

The Long, Frustrating, Ugly Road of James Harden


That's the feeling I had when I saw the news on James Harden getting traded. As a life-long Rockets fan, the last 8 seasons (with the exception of parts of the '17-'18 season) have been mostly shaped by bad basketball. Frustrating, hard to watch, hero-centric basketball. Sure, Daryl Morey is a smart statistician and he basically mimicked what we have seen at the NCAA level for the past 20 years by high scoring, but disappointing teams. Why, for so long, was Syracuse basketball so consistent? Because they played defense and forced teams to shoot over them. They banked on the idea that you live by the three, you die by the three, and when it came to the tournament, guess what, most teams died by the three. It's the same thing in the NBA. Teams are perfectly willing to give up threes in the regular season and high scoring teams win a lot of regular season games, but for the last 8 seasons, while the Rockets were playing hero ball, the Championship teams were playing defense. And if there one thing we can all agree on, James Harden refuses to consistently play defense.

Over the last 8 seasons, the average team defensive rating (per of the world champs was 4.75 and that is only that high due to the Warriors winning in '18 (9th) and the Cavs in '16 (9th). And that 9th rating was an outlier for Golden State. During their 2 other championship runs, they were 1st in overall defense. The last two champs (Lakers and Raptors) were both 4th in team defense. They used to say this in football, but I think it's more appropriate for the current NBA. Defense wins championships.

Yes the Warriors shot a ton of 3s, but do you know which team holds the record for the most 3s attempted in a season? The Rockets - each of the last 4 seasons all set new records. And in '17-'18 they shot 12 more PER GAME than the Warriors. Golden State has two of the best 3 point shooters of all time on their roster in the Splash Brothers, yet they have a coach and a GM that understands balance. Over the last 8 seasons, the Warriors are still only averaging about 30 3-point attempts per game. Yes, they are the ones who pushed the bar there, but they also had the intelligence to know when the bar got too high. Watch those title teams from '14-'18. The pass, move a ton, and play defense. A ton of their 3s come in transition. Guess what, you can't take transition 3s unless you play defense, get a rebound, or a turn over.

And here's the thing. The Rockets should know this better than anyone. In '17-'18, they had their highest DER (Team defensive efficiency rating) at 5th. That was the 1st year of Chris Paul in a Rockets uniform and in that postseason, he average more steals than turnovers. He was already past his prime as a defender, but he will always be crafty, smart, and effective. He is a leader and people play harder because of him. OKC should not have made the playoffs last year, and yet Chris Paul drove them there. And now in Phoenix (yes they were the bubble darlings), he has the suns off to an 8-5 start. And guess what, the Suns are up 4 spots vs. last year in team defense. I guarantee you that position gets better.

'17-'18 was also the closest the Rockets have come to a title since '94-'95, making it to the conference finals, losing the final 2 games to Golden State after a very well known Chris Paul injury. That was their chance...they had Golden State on the ropes and proceeded to show up for game 7, after losing Paul in game 6, and set a record for missed 3s in a playoff game (ultimately going 7-44 from 3). You live by the 3, you die by the 3. After that season, Paul tried to convince Harden that they needed to continue to focus on motion and defense, and instead, reportedly, Harden requested CP3 be traded. And Houston picked up Westbrook, for sure a defensive downgrade, traded Clint Capela and basically never played a center ever again, fully embracing small ball. P.J. Tucker is a very good defender, but he can't play center. And that was it. The Rockets slowly unraveled, got trounced by the Lakers in the bubble, and were then blown up. I will just say this...I would rather have Chris Paul and Clint Capela (who is currently averaging 14 pts/14 boards for the division leading Hawks) than James Harden.

So, there you have it. All of the Houston organizations are officially a mess. Ruined by poor management. Don't feel bad for me, I still rock the 2017 World Series gear, asterisk and all. But know that when the Nets go out in the 2nd round, losing while averaging 130 points per game, I will be popping a bottle and celebrating. Call it what you will, but hard work, team focus, and growth should be celebrated. And if that means coming down on selfishness and ego...I'm in. Keep rocking those 30-point triple doubles, James. When the playoffs hit, if that telegraphed step-back is all you got, it's curtains.

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