Houston's Final Countdown?

James Harden has yet to take the Rockets to the Finals despite being one of the game's greatest scorers, and if NBA insiders are right, that may not change this year even with a new supporting cast.
photo of Howard BeckHoward Beck@@HowardBeckNBA Senior WriterJuly 11, 2020

The photo popped in late May, providing a rare burst of gleeful titillation amid the bleakness of an NBA blackout:

James Harden, ambling down a desert hill, looking slightly disheveled, like a prophet descending from the mountaintophair askew, his famed beard a bit choppy. He appears breathless, sweaty and, whoa, svelte! Like, strikingly so.

"Skinny Harden makes Rockets title favorites," Ben DuBose of RocketsWire gushed, citing a quote from former NBA champion and ESPN analyst Kendrick Perkins.

"You're talking about a guy who's one of the most prolific scorers ever to touch the basketball," Perkins said on ESPN's The Jump, "and now he lost weight and is dedicated? It's going to be dangerous, and it puts the Rockets up there as a heavy favorite to win the title, if the season resumes."

The season is at last set to resume, with the Rockets scheduled to play the Dallas Mavericks on July 31, the first of their eight "seeding" games to be played in the Orlando bubble. Houston, 40-24 when play was suspended in March, is currently tied for sixth in the Western Conference, with a reasonable shot at cracking the top four.

But a championship? Those odds may be as steep as the Tempe Butte path that Harden ran religiously during his now-famous pandemic workouts.

The clear title favorites both reside in Los Angeles: the Lakers of LeBron James and Anthony Davis, and the Clippers of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. When the season stopped, the Rockets were jockeying with Utah, Denver and Oklahoma City in the West's crowded second tier.

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Houston's title hopes rest, as ever, with Harden—a prodigious points machine closing in on his third straight scoring title—and his latest co-star, Russell Westbrook, who will be making his Rockets playoff debut. And Harden's new physique will be more than just a curiosity as NBA games resume.

Every Rockets flameout has sparked questions about their franchise star: Did he wear down? Get fatigued? Is he built to carry a team through 82 games and an extended postseason? Perhaps a sleeker Harden will be a more resilient Harden, a spryer, livelier Harden. And maybe four months of forced NBA limbo will mean he's fresher to start this postseason anyway.

Yet it's arguably not the load Harden carries on his frame that should concern the Rockets. It's the workload he carries on the court.

Even with Westbrookanother certified scoring maestroon board, Harden shoulders a massive offensive burden. His usage rate (an estimate of possessions used while on the court) this season is 36.4 percentthe second-highest mark of Harden's career and on pace to be the 10th-highest in NBA history.

And history suggests that is not a healthy—or successfulway to pursue a title.

Only one player has had a regular-season usage rate of 35 or more and made the Finals the same season: Allen Iverson, who posted a 35.9 for the 2000-01 Philadelphia 76ers before losing to the Lakers in the championship round.

Twenty-three others crossed the 35 mark (and qualified for the minutes leaderboard) prior to this season. Eight didn't make the playoffs. Eight lost in the first round. Five lost in the second round. After Iverson, only two other members of this extreme ball-dominance club even made the conference finals: Harden in 2018 and Gervin in 1982.

"The reliance on one player to produce the vast majority of your offense is less than ideal," one team executive wryly noted. "You're definitely hitting on something that is absolutely a flaw in building a team. But that just [underscores] how challenging it is to get the second-best player [to complement the first]."

Usage rate is only one way to measure offensive workload, and it isn't a perfect gauge. The formula accounts for field-goal attempts, free-throw attempts and turnovers, so a low-turnover player who doesn't pass much but shoots a lot could conceivably post a lower usage rate than a do-everything lead guard like Harden.

Still, a high usage rate does tell us something about the player and his team. Nearly all of the top usage seasons came from elite talents, Hall of Famers like Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade, and former All-Stars like Jerry Stackhouse and DeMarcus Cousins. And many of them were anchoring lineups with a shortage of scoring options.

Whether an NBA star is commandeering his team's offense by choice or by necessity is an age-old chicken-and-egg debate. And it's fair to question whether this matrix of high usage and low playoff success is a case of causation or correlation.

Yet given these two dozen examples spread across four decades, it's hard not to conclude that extreme reliance on a single star hampers a team in the playoffs.

"As a historical matter, that's pretty unassailable," said Seth Partnow, the former director of basketball research for the Milwaukee Bucks, who now writes about analytics for The Athletic.

As Partnow observed in a story in December, teams in this era are increasingly depending on a single, multifaceted superstar who controls the entire offense—as the primary ball-handler, playmaker and scorer. Partnow has a word for it: heliocentrism.

Think Giannis Antetokounmpo in Milwaukee, Luka Doncic in Dallas, Trae Young in Atlanta, LeBron James everywhere he's been, Harden in Houston and, previously, Westbrook in Oklahoma City. (Interestingly, James never has cracked the 35 usage mark.)

If the season ended today, Antetokounmpo's 37.4 usage would rank seventh all-time, with Doncic (37.0) eighth, two spots ahead of Harden.

Their teams have won a lot of games with that approach. But the playoffs are different.

Opponents have time to scout and prepare, to tailor their defensive schemes for a single teamor a single star—and then adjust as the series unfolds. Few teams will alter their defense for a single night against Harden or Antetokounmpo in January. But they'll spend hours and hours plotting in the spring (or this year, summer).

"The playoffs are the most overly scouted, overly prepared-for situation that you're going to be in," a longtime advance scout said. "So if you have one player who's that high-usage, ball-dominant, then coaches are going to game-plan around that. There is a way that you can make James Harden give the ball up, and then make Ben McLemore, Austin Rivers and other guys around him make plays."

James Harden's virtuosity has gotten the Rockets into the playoffs in each of the last eight seasons but has yet to carry them into the Finals.
James Harden's virtuosity has gotten the Rockets into the playoffs in each of the last eight seasons but has yet to carry them into the Finals.Eric Christian Smith/Associated Press

The Rockets' three-point-heavy attack, and the uniqueness of Harden, are inherently harder to prepare for in the regular season, said an assistant coach on a perennial playoff team.

"You're not used to seeing their style," he said. "Houston has nearly perfected the way they play in terms of their three-point shooting and what they want to do. Their players know their roles. You get them in the regular season, that can be tough. ... In a playoff series, you start to try to find ways defensively to stop James and some of their other stars and role players."

That might mean sending different looks at Harden every possession: single-teams, double-teams, smaller defenders, larger defenders, help defense from different angles.

"You can definitely mix in pressuring him, mix in some full-court [pressure], mix in some traps," the assistant coach said. "If you can speed him up, if you can find ways to wear him down defensively, that helps."

Added Partnow: "If there's always someone who is fresh and can go 105 percent, for a guy [Harden] who's being asked to do that muchI don't know if I can prove it, but it certainly stands to reason that over a game, over seven games, that has a chance to wear [on him]."

Only one other Rockets player inspires any trepidation for opposing teamsWestbrook, whose ball-handling and explosiveness make him a constant threat. But his historically poor three-point shooting gives opponents the latitude to tilt their defense toward Harden, clogging his shooting space and his driving lanes and forcing him into tougher shots.

"I think it's a flawed model," the same scout said of the Harden-Westbrook pairing, echoing doubts that have persisted since the Rockets first acquired Westbrook last July in a trade for Chris Paul.

The Rockets co-stars, both of whom are former MVPs, might be the two most ball-dominant, high-usage players in NBA history. It's unclear yet whether they are truly complementaryor any better than the previous Harden-Paul pairing, or even the Harden-Dwight Howard tandem that made the conference finals in 2015. Eight years into the Harden era, the Rockets are still searching for the right formula, and the right tag team partner, to launch them to a championship.

They've been close, making the conference finals twice in a five-year span, only to be denied both times by the Warriors, including an epic seven-game series in 2018, when an injury to Paul helped sink them. Had the Rockets had broken through then, perhaps the skepticism about winning with a ball-dominant star would have faded.

"It's almost like the hot hand," Rockets general manager Daryl Morey said. "It's extremely hard to prove or disprove."

Harden's effective field-goal percentage has taken a tumble in each of the past four postseasons, by an average of 4.4 percentage points from his regular-season marks over that span. Of course, the level of competition is also higher in the playoffs, and the quality of defense generally increases, too. Some decline in efficiency is expected, even for the game's greatest stars.

But a string of noteworthy flops have come to define Harden's playoff resume.

In 2015, he went 2-of-11 from the field and had 12 turnovers in a postseason-ending loss to the Warriors.

In the eight games between the All-Star break this season and the suspension of the season, Russell Westbrook shot 53.4 percent from the field with 8.3 rebounds and 5.1 assists per game.
In the eight games between the All-Star break this season and the suspension of the season, Russell Westbrook shot 53.4 percent from the field with 8.3 rebounds and 5.1 assists per game.Bill Baptist/Getty Images

In 2016, with the Rockets down 2-1 to the Warriors and playing a critical Game 4 at home, Harden put up only 18 points on 4-of-13 shooting in a loss. He bounced back with 35 points the next game but committed seven turnovers in the season-ending defeat.

In 2017, Harden scored 10 points on 2-of-11 shooting and committed six turnovers while being eliminated by the San Antonio Spurs in the conference semifinals.

The Rockets' best run came in 2018, when they made it to Game 7 of the conference finals against the Warriors. It ended with their worst collapse—27 straight misses from three-point range, including 10 from Harden, who finished 12-of-29 from the field and 2-of-13 from behind the arc.

The Warriors knocked out the Rockets again in 2019, in the second round, but Harden was mostly stellar in that six-game series, averaging 34.8 points with an effective field-goal percentage of .534.

Parsing out all of the factors in a star's playoff record is an inherently fraught exercisewhat to attribute the star himself, or his teammates, or the opponent, or even random chance. Is it fatigue that's dragged down Harden every spring? A deficient lineup? The bad luck of existing in the same era as the Steph Curry-Kevin Durant Warriors?

Or does the intense reliance on a single star limit the Rockets' chances against elite teams? Is predictability the Rockets' greatest handicap? Perhaps, Partnow said, invoking a baseball analogy to make the point.

"The fewer things you have to prepare for, the better you can prepare for those things," he said. "If you've only got one pitchit's almost a Mariano Rivera thing, right?for an inning, that one pitch is devastating. If the Yankees had tried to make Mariano Rivera a starter, how well does it work the third time through the lineup? And the analogy is not to the third quarter, but it's more to the third game of the series."

Whether Westbrook's presence changes anything remains to be seen. The Harden-Westbrook partnership was still evolving when the season halted on March 11, having produced both exhilarating highs (a 121-111 victory over the Lakers on Feb. 7) and shocking lows (a four-game losing streak in March that included defeats by the Knicks, Hornets and Magic).

Every Rockets game in the bubble will feel like a referendum of one kind or another: on Harden, on the Harden-Westbrook pairing, on the Rockets' analytics-driven offense, on their small-ball, center-less lineup and even on their leadership.

Head coach Mike D'Antoni is in the final season of his contract. Morey has been viewed as vulnerable ever since his controversial tweet on Hong Kong last fall. It's unclear how another playoff pratfall will impact everyone's future.

Moreover, the Rockets are leaning on one of the oldest rotations in the league, and their two stars are in their late primes. Harden turns 31 on Aug. 26, just as the first round of playoffs will be wrapping up. Westbrook turns 32 in November.

The West will only get tougher next season, with the Lakers and Clippers still around, the Warriors fully healed and the Pelicans and Mavericks rising.

There's a heightened sense of urgency all around. In the view of the longtime advance scout, it's truly now or never for the Rockets.

"This," he said, "is the last dance for them."

All advanced statistics courtesy of Basketball Reference.

    

Howard Beck, a senior writer for Bleacher Report, has been covering the NBA full time since 1997, including seven years on the Laker beat for the Los Angeles Daily News and nine years as a staff writer for the New York Times. His coverage was honored by APSE in 2016 and 2017, and by the Professional Basketball Writers Association in 2018.

Beck also hosts the Full 48 podcast, available on iTunes.

Follow him on Twitter, @HowardBeck. 


Two-time NBA champion and Inside The NBA on TNT co-host, Kenny "The Jet" Smith joins The Full 48 with Howard Beck to discuss the NBA restart, the bubble, which teams are likely contenders for the title and Kenny's early playing days with the Sacramento Kings.