The Rockets need a leader who can rise above. Is Harden ready to fly that high?
Houston Rockets, take me to your leader.
Easier said than done, right?
As the season dawned, it seemed clear that the team's leader would be either Jeremy Lin or James Harden.
But right now, I'd be hard-pressed to proclaim either of them a team leader.
Lin's play, despite improved defense and reduced turnovers, has been uneven, and his jump shot has been downright troublesome. Lin has frequently lost playing time to less heralded guards. And Lin, though a selfless and generous teammate, seems to lack the take-charge attitude one would expect from a leader.
Harden's ability to score, especially prior to the last four contests, has been impressive if not amazing. And James is a workhorse, ready at all times to put the game on his shoulders.
But that's where it generally remains: on his shoulders.
A true leader would not just work hard. He would also, and more importantly, make sure his contributions led to victories. Too often, it seems like Harden has his mind on getting to the rim or the line rather than getting the W.
Parsons is too young, and Asik has too scant an offensive game, to qualify either of them as leaders.
You know the old adage, "Lead, follow, or get out of the way"? It appears on the Rockets, we have a glut in the middle category.
And I say on the court, somebody needs to assert their authority and be able on any given night to will the team forward.
Because, stats-wise, Harden appears to be the team's most prominent asset, I would expect that someone to be him. But Harden, though 39th in the league in assists per 48 minutes, does not look to find the open man when his shots are not falling.
James certainly does not shirk responsibility: He will do whatever it takes to get points on the board. I respect him for that.
But a leader knows victories come from scoring on more possessions than the other guys do. Since the Rockets are not nearly good enough defensively to focus on getting stops, that means as many shots as possible must fall. In that regard, Harden has not yet developed the on-court wisdom that the NBA's great leaders possess, for he simply forces too many shots.
Look at this highlight from the Dallas loss. The game is tied in the fourth quarter with 1:12 remaining. Harden is at the top of the circle. Watch his eyes, his head, and it's obvious to all what he's going to do.
It was obvious to the Clippers too, as Elton Brand blocks this shot.
This was not the last shot of the game by any stretch. This is not a player vying for a buzzer-beater. This is a guy who wants to put the team on his shoulders.
But a leader knows this is not necessarily a situation where the team should be on his shoulders.
Now, is the one-dimensional attack in this moment Harden's fault? Not necessarily. Though Harden has said he has the green light in any situation, this was most probably a designed play.
As evidence, notice the rest of the Rockets. They're all standing still except for Asik, who cuts across the court—without even looking toward Harden. Clearly, he has no expectation of a pass.
Even more damning, watch Brand during this play. Assigned to Asik, Brand gives him one split-second look, just to ascertain where he is. Other that that, Brand is focused on Harden the entire play from start to finish. It's no surprise he swatted it.
Bad coaching? In my opinion, yes.
But I say a leader would not accept this. Even if this is the coach's call, to me this is where a leader goes rogue. Where he rotates that finger, calls a play and confuses the opposition. Where he asks for forgiveness, not permission.
Where he makes sure the shot they get is a high-percentage one.
One could argue that Harden was doing just that. Though 8-of-20 in this game, James was 6-of-11 from inside the arc. So, this would constitute an above 50 percent shot.
I say phooey. I say a play wherein every single person on the court, and everyone watching, knows exactly what's going to happen is rarely a high-percentage shot, unless we're talking about the game's legends, like Kobe or Jordan. And even with those guys, defenders would always have to be ready for the abrupt no-look dish during the drive.
This shot was blocked in essence because the team lacks a leader.
Do I blame James? Not in the least. Not for a second. This is the man's first season as a starter, and he has from the get-go become a burgeoning superstar. I say in many ways he's doing the right thing to follow his coach's instructions.
Before you label me a hypocrite, let me explain.
As longtime MLB manager Gene Mauch once said, "You can't lead anyone else further than you have gone yourself." This writer called for a veteran presence to play minimum minutes but show the young guys how to close out games, to finish comebacks (how many games have these guys fallen behind but closed the gap in the fourth, only to fall back by game's end?), to foster a winning mentality.
I've said, repeatedly, all this team needs is an upgrade at power forward and one or two veteran presences, and they could be a force in the West. I even named names of guys who were available at the point, guys with experience and savvy, even guys who've been superstars in their day.
Instead, we get a parade of young, enthusiastic neophytes in what's beginning to look like an audition for an NBA version of A Chorus Line. That's no knock on Patrick Beverley, who's flashed some great energy and a reasonably sure shot. But Patrick Beverley is never going to be this or any other team's leader.
So, we're left with a point guard who's struggling to find his shot and find his groove in an offense ill-suited for him, and a shooting guard with simply too much on his shoulders and not enough superstar know-how gathered as of yet.
McHale, for the first time in recent memory, gave Lin a verbal vote of confidence after the victory over the Bobcats, telling The Associated Press (via Sports Illustrated), "Jeremy's OK. Jeremy is a young guy who's been up and down before. When you're a young fella, you have some ups and downs and that will be the case with a lot of guys. No big deal, he's going to be fine."
And Harden told the AP, "Being that this is a new role for me, I've got to do a better job of leading these guys."
Pretty words all. Nice words all. Accurate words all. I still say these guys are young and in over their heads when it comes to leading a team.
A veteran presence or two at guard would go a long way. So would revisiting the offensive scheme to involve more players in the half-court set.
I still maintain that, despite the Rockets' recent slump, by adding those veterans to help the leaders lead, and an upgrade at power forward, this team can be very, very good.
As in leaders of their division.
Take me to your leader? That's a leader I'd take to any day.
All stats accurate as of 1/23/13.