If Harden goes down, do the Rockets go down with him?
There are other talented actors on the sitcom. But their effectiveness revolved indisputably around Steve Carell's brilliant characterization of office manager Scott. And a funny thing happened after funny man Carell left: The show stopped being funny.
Lemme tell you, the Rockets minus Harden wouldn't be funny either.
Case in point: The Rockets' stirring victory against the Western Conference-leading San Antonio Spurs, where Houston's shooting guard extraordinaire was a hero's hero: 40 percent from extra-postage land while leading his team in both points and assists, getting to the line a remarkable 17 times (remarkable for anyone else—pedestrian for him) and sinking 15 of them.
Most heroic of all was his final jumper, where he took a handoff, ran to a spot, stopped on a dime and, with 4.5 seconds remaining, launched a dart that hit nothing but nylon as it stuck the mighty Spurs right in the kishkes.
About the shot, Harden told NBA.com, "I had the confidence to go out there and shoot it."
His confidence, his massive talent, his energy…I shudder to think what would have happened in that contest without Harden, especially with Tony Parker burning the Toyota Center to the ground in the fourth quarter, scoring his team's last 12 points.
Harden neutralized Parker's contribution. And he did it while playing 40 minutes on a gimpy knee and a bum foot.
Which raises the question: Are the Rockets depending on one man too much?
It's not that Harden's shoulders aren't big enough to handle the pressure. He put the team on his back starting with Game 1 in Houston and never looked back.
But his style is physical and bruising, and that works both ways. In other words, he's dishing out bumps and abrasions while he draws his contact—but he's getting them as well. Over the course of a season, especially one where playoff positioning is still very much in question, those beatings add up.
Somehow, despite averaging over 38 minutes, and despite Harden's style that can often be reminiscent of American Gladiator, The Beard has managed to miss only two games and play limited minutes in a third.
Should the Rockets rest Harden before the playoffs?
Rockets faithful, knock on wood that luck continues. For if it does not, the Rockets would be left with a hole in their lineup the size of that meteorite crater in Russia.
I get that the Rockets are only one game out of the sixth playoff spot, since they own the tiebreaker over the Golden State Warriors. I also get that most fans would prefer to face the Denver Nuggets in the first round than the Oklahoma City Thunder.
The question is whether that goal—which, let's face it, is the only reason the rest of the games matter—is worth risking Harden's health.
Personally, though, I would love to watch a Nuggets-Rockets series, which would be reminiscent of the old Western Conference shootouts of the '80s, but I think the Nuggets present a more dangerous matchup for the Rockets. They play a similarly high-flying, transition-rich game as the Rockets—but they score in the paint much more effectively than Houston does.
So it might actually be best for the Rockets to land in the seventh spot—assuming the positioning at the top of the West holds as is. Resting Harden might then actually be an effective strategy.
The bigger reason, though, is that no matter whom the Rockets play in the playoffs, they ain't going nowhere if Harden's not there.
Just to prove my case, let's discuss that nightmare scenario.
Much like the aforementioned Office, the other talents on this team are bit players when compared with Harden.
Jeremy Lin was a superstar for a brief but shining moment. Could he be a superstar for the Rockets in Harden's absence?
Lin has improved in many areas of his game, including reducing his turnovers and raising his three-point shooting percentage. And in crunch time, Lin has been surprisingly close to his Linsane self.
But Lin is often not on the court during crunch time, benched in favor of the defensively superior Patrick Beverley. As much as fans whine, that move is understandable, as both Lin and Harden are defensively suspect, and it's important to have at least one backcourt stopper. As proof, witness Beverley's timely rejection of the Spurs' Danny Green with 90 seconds to go.
If one had to choose between Lin and Harden, there is no question as to which would give way to a defensive replacement, not because of defense, but because of proven, dependable offense: Harden's three-point percentage is higher, his jump shot is generally more consistent from game to game and The Beard gets to the charity stripe a league-leading number of times per contest.
OK, but with Harden out, Lin would not be relieved at crunch time. And he might well be the Rockets' go-to man. Fair enough.
Problem is, during the rest of most games, Lin has been far less effective than he has been during crunch time, and overall far less effective than Harden. Most concerning still for me is his shooting consistency, which seems to ebb and flow more than the waters in Galveston Bay.
Sure, he'd have the ball back in his hands for the entire game, which would certainly be an entirely different ballgame. And when Jeremy does get it going, he can be absolutely dynamic.
But to those who point to Lin's good game against the Thunder with Harden out and say the Rockets with Lin as the featured option would be the second coming of Linsanity, I say simply this: As the primary playmaker, Lin has been truly Linsane for maybe 15 games in his career between this year and last. Harden, by comparison, has played at that level over 60 times—this season alone.
So if you're absolutely, positively sure Lin could fill an injured Harden's shoes, I ask simply: Would you bet your house on it?
Posed more relevantly: Would you bet your team's season on it?
Beyond Lin, things get sketchy as far as a team leader. The terrific Chandler Parsons is a perfect second option, a Scottie Pippen to Harden's Michael Jordan if you will. But I don't see him putting this team on his shoulders.
Carlos Delfino, who would almost certainly move into the starting lineup for a fallen Harden, is a fine player in his own right; I've been a fan of his since his Detroit Pistons days. And believe me, should Harden go down, the Rockets would be thanking the heavens above that Delfino is on their roster.
Delfino, though, is simply not Harden. Yes, Delfino's defense is admittedly better than the Beard's. But he doesn't have the Beard's explosiveness, lacks his knack for getting to the line, for creating his own shot, for drawing double-teams, for attacking…
I could go on and on, but let's let the numbers do the talking: Delfino's PER is over 10 points lower than Harden's. In fact, the starter with the closest PER to Harden is Lin—and it's not close: Jeremy is a full nine points lower.
That leaves Donatas Motiejunas and Omer Asik. The former impresses me and may well yet be an offensive force in this league; the latter is an imposing defensive presence. Unless you're on Def Comedy Jam, though, you can mention neither man in a conversation about filling the void a Harden injury would leave.
Don't get me wrong. There is enough talent on this squad, even without Harden, to at least be competitive. But being competitive means being in a game. A team can go 0-82 and be competitive.
Said succinctly, if the Rockets without Harden were a sitcom, it'd be cancelled.
Wins without Harden? I say they'd suddenly be perilously scarce. And with the playoffs just around the corner, Houston is about to have no choice but win at least four out of every seven games—against the best teams in the West.
I've always been a guy who believes the playoffs is the only thing that truly matters. So I believe what Spurs coach Gregg Popovich did, for example, in resting his key players in December was the right move—no matter that it resulted in a ridiculous fine as well as incurring the league's ire.
It's time to wind Harden down a bit. Give him time to heal as fully as one can this time of year, so he goes into the playoffs with as much bounce in his step as possible. Better safe than sorry—much, much better.
Disagree with me? Well, if Harden's not rested, and he goes down with an injury in the next couple of weeks—heaven forbid—don't come crying to me.
But hey, if you don't believe me on the subject, maybe you'll believe Michael Scott himself.
I reached Scott in Colorado, where he and wife Holly Flax Scott just welcomed their first son, Jim, and asked Dunder-Mifflin / Sabre - Scranton's former top dog what would happen to the Rockets if Harden went down with an injury.
His response: "Is Harden the one with the ZZ Top thing?"
When I confirmed this, Scott came back with "Oh, Houston, you would have a problema…"
After I told him his faux Spanish accent was incredibly offensive, not to mention terrible, Scott finally got to the point, saying: "Life for the Houston Rockets without James Harden would be awfully, awfully hard."
After which he quickly added, "That's what she said."