He has been a dream for the Portland Trail Blazers.
He has been the Houston Rockets' worst nightmare.
He has been testy and irritable.
He has crumpled in the moment.
Now, the Rockets are facing first-round elimination for the second straight year.
Will Harden's superstar status be removed with his team?
Our inquiry feels both egregious and fair.
Not even a month ago, Harden was toiling away during the regular season, shooting and scoring as superstars do, and leading the Rockets to home-court advantage through the first round. He was an unquestioned superstar, the league's best shooting guard. His beard had superpowers.
But Harden has been bad during the postseason and he's struggled enough to incite doubt. When we say he's been "awful," we're being kind.
Maybe too kind.
Through four playoff games, Harden is averaging 27.5 points, 5.3 rebounds and 5.5 assists. All of that seems fine. It's Harden. He scores a lot, passes some and corrals the occasional rebound.
Yet those 27.5 points are coming on 35 percent shooting. Harden has scored 110 points overall...on 103 shot attempts.
No player in NBA history has done that before during the playoffs. So welcome to a league of your own, James.
Most unnerving, though, is the fact that this year's postseason strife comes after last postseason's struggles. Harden averaged 26.3 points on 39.1 percent shooting through six appearances so, statistically, he wasn't much more efficient.
There wasn't (as) much made of his shortcomings last year. The Rockets were an eighth-place team, after all. Harden was their only superstar. They stole two games from the Oklahoma City Thunder—courtesy of Russell Westrook's injury—and that was enough.
But the Rockets are being held to a different standard this season. The addition of Dwight Howard made them instant contenders. Their regular-season record (54-28) and overall standing reflected as much. And with Howard putting forth a strong performance of his own—27 points, 14.3 rebounds and three blocks per game—the Rockets shouldn't be facing elimination entering Game 5.
A majority of the blame must fall on Harden. His performance has helped put the Rockets in a damning hole. If and when the Rockets are handed a first-round exit, his subpar offensive display will be talked about and remembered.
When the Rockets need him to play like a superstar, he's folding. It's already costing them. Soon enough, it could cost him too.
Fixable or Beyond Repair?
Will it cost him his superstar status?
That's a subjective matter. It comes down to whether this is the real Harden, or if he's simply suffering from symptoms of an underlying issue.
The knocks about his defense are going to continue. He won't become a committed and effective defender overnight. And you better believe that's also hurt the Rockets.
The lasting image from this game came at the start of overtime. After a Howard turnover, Harden made his usual feeble effort on defense, waving at an entry pass instead of investing himself in something he doesn't want to do. The mistake left Parsons, of course, to come over in help defense and prevent LaMarcus Aldridge's free run to the hoop, which Parsons tried emphatically to do with a flagrant foul.
A similar play happened in Game 3, except Harden actually did the right thing with hard, solid rotating defense—and Aldridge was so shocked to see Harden do it that he nearly broke the back of the rim with his errant shot.
Once you've reached the point where opposing players are actually surprised you're rotating properly, you have issues.
Harden has issues.
Of every player who has logged at least 100 minutes during these playoffs, Harden has the fourth-highest defensive rating (119). If that holds, it will be the worst postseason mark of his career, shattering his previous high of 109.
Just saw a little old dude with a James Harden beard -- I bet he's a better defender. #Rockets— Thomas Duffy (@TJDhoops) April 28, 2014
At the same time, the Rockets' defensive issues stretch beyond Harden's. Jeremy Lin (120) and Patrick Beverley (121) account for two of the three-worst defensive ratings heading into Game 5. Harden is not the only guilty party. It's Harden's job to make up for everyone's defensive problems on the offensive end.
But he's not. That's the issue—one that can be remedied.
Despite boasting a top-five offense during the regular season, the Rockets' attack has become unsettling and predictable. The ball isn't moving, and the team isn't varying touches. Most of the time, they're embracing patterned trade-offs. First Howard touches it, then Harden. And so on and so forth.
When Harden has the ball, he's trying to do way too much. Only five of his 36 baskets have come off assists, per NBA.com (subscription required). Nearly 68 percent of his field-goal attempts are coming outside the paint as well
He's trying score on his own, while settling for low-percentage jump shots. That's never a good combination.
Some of his looks have been good. They haven't all come with a hand in his face or late in the shot clock. He's just missing. He's in a slump. Breaking out of that slump, though, becomes much harder if he isn't going to make adjustments.
More pointedly, it's not possible if he doesn't sync up with Howard.
Superman finished third in points scored per possession as the roll man within pick-and-rolls during the regular season, according to Synergy Sports (subscription required). He also drilled 74.3 percent of his shot attempts in those situations.
Common sense would have Howard and Harden run pick-and-rolls against Portland's defense until the play stopped working—operative word being "would."
In Game 1, not one shot was attempted by a roll man for the Rockets, per Synergy. Three plays were run for the roll man in Game 2, five were run in Game 3 and three again in Game 4.
That's not enough.
During their one victory (Game 3), more than a quarter of the Rockets' offensive possessions came from some form of pick-and-rolls, according to Synergy. Howard and Harden were working in harmony, succeeding together. They weren't separate entities like they were in Games 1 and 2. And the Rockets won.
Not enough of an effort was made to maintain that cohesion in Game 4. Both Harden and Howard are at fault, but when the former shoots 9-of-21 from the floor—his most efficient performance of the postseason, by the way—he becomes easier to blame.
Should Houston's playoff push end with another first-round exit, that's not going to change.
Pumping the Brakes
Let's all chill.
"We’re not playing at pace," Harden said, via the Houston Chronicle's Jonathan Feigen. "We have to force the issue as far as our pace and our style of play.”
Forcing things is what put Harden and his Rockets in this predicament. What they need him to do is play his brand of basketball—not hero ball. Superstars are able to differentiate between the two; Harden can differentiate between the two.
We saw it in Game 3.
Is James Harden's superstar status on the line against the Blazers?
There is no doubt he has been terrible, playing well below his own standards, but we cannot strip him of his superstar status because of one series. His problems are serious, but they're also indicative of poor decision-making and the absence of chemistry.
Long term, those are conflicts with resolutions. If they persist for years—or even beyond this season—that's when you start worrying, questioning and doubting.
Until then, Harden remains a 24-year-old kid, a superstar still in need of improving and evolving, a promising youngster who must learn and grow from his postseason failures.