Is James Harden Better Off Playing Without a Co-Star?

Sean Highkin@highkinFeatured ColumnistNovember 12, 2020

Houston Rockets' James Harden (13) and Russell Westbrook (0) during an NBA basketball game against the Los Angeles Clippers Thursday, Dec. 19, 2019, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

For the fourth time in the eight-year James Harden era, the Houston Rockets are in the midst of a major shake-up.

On Wednesday, The Athletic's Shams Charania reported that Russell Westbrook had officially asked out. This was followed by a report co-authored by Charania, Kelly Iko and Sam Amick that detailed widespread dissatisfaction among Rockets players about their roles and the different standard Harden has seemingly been held to by the organization.

Since trading for Harden in 2012, Daryl Morey spent close to a decade cycling through co-stars, coaches and supporting casts, searching for the perfect combination to win a title as Harden put together one of the most dominant individual runs any offensive player has ever produced.

All of them worked—until they didn't.

First came Dwight Howard, signed away from the Los Angeles Lakers in 2013 when he was still a perennial All-Star. They spent three years together, making the Western Conference Finals in 2015. But Howard eventually grew unhappy with his role on offense—a pattern throughout his career—and left via free agency in 2016, the same summer Morey hired D'Antoni.

Matt Slocum/Associated Press
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A year later, Morey traded for Chris Paul, pivoting Harden's running mate from a big man to a second ball-dominant guard. The 2017-18 Rockets were the best of the Harden-Morey era, winning 65 games and making the Western Conference Finals, coming closer to beating the Golden State Warriors than anyone else in the West ever did during their run. Harden won MVP that year, and the Rockets appeared poised to emerge as the rival the Warriors never had.

The second year of Paul and Harden was less successful. Their personal relationship deteriorated, as did their on-court chemistry, and they lost in the second round to the Warriors. Their divorce that summer was inevitable, and Morey pivoted once again, trading Paul to the Oklahoma City Thunder for Westbrook and putting yet another different look next to Harden. 

Westbrook thrived next to Harden following February's deadline trade of starting center Clint Capela and the ensuing full commitment to small ball. He played some of his best basketball ever from then until the 2019-20 season's suspension in March.

Before the campaign restarted in July, Westbrook revealed that he had tested positive for COVID-19 during the four-month break, and he was hampered by a hamstring injury in the bubble. The Rockets survived a seven-game battle with the Thunder in the first round but lost to the Lakers in five games in the second round.

Now, less than a month from the start of training camp, stands a Rockets team run by a first-time general manager in Rafael Stone, who just hired a first-time head coach in former Dallas Mavericks assistant Stephen Silas. They're both reporting to an owner in Tilman Fertitta for whom the ability to spend has been a consistent question. Seemingly nobody is happy, and now Westbrook wants out, just as Paul did before him, and just as Howard did before Paul.

The one constant in all of this has been Harden, through whom everything in Houston has run for the past eight years. Under D'Antoni, he has broken the code to create points at will. He's led the league in scoring the past three seasons and has done so by manufacturing the three most efficient kinds of looks in the NBA: free throws, layups and three-pointers. His foul-drawing ability, in particular, has infuriated opponents and ground games to a halt.

It's hard to argue with the results, at least on an individual level.

Harden is one of the defining players of his era and one of the greatest scorers in NBA history. It's hard to make the case that Morey was wrong to gear everything around a player that good. That's what you do when you have one of those players. But it's also hard not to see other players' points when they grow annoyed with what they see as a lack of accountability applied to Harden.

The Rockets haven't won, either. The 2017-18 team was absolutely good enough to win a title, and if just two or three of the 27 straight three-pointers they missed in Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals had gone in, they would likely have beaten the Warriors and handled the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Finals.

Jim Mone/Associated Press

Harden isn't entirely to blame for the Rockets' repeated playoff shortcomings. But year after year, his own efficiency and production, the very things that make him dominant, drop in the postseason. Maybe it's because he burns himself out in the regular season, during which he's routinely among the league leaders in minutes and usage.

In only two of Harden's eight years in Houston has he been without a co-star: his first season back in 2012-13 and the 2016-17 season following Howard's departure but before Paul's arrival. The latter of those was one of the first in which Harden was a serious contender for MVP. He came in second in voting that year, losing to, ironically, Westbrook in his post-Kevin Durant revenge tour.

Westbrook had gotten used to running the show in Oklahoma City in the three seasons following his breakup with Durant; playing second fiddle again was an adjustment. That was the case for Paul, who had been the leader of every New Orleans Hornets and Los Angeles Clippers team he had been on, and Howard, who was an MVP candidate in Orlando earlier in his career.

Most pairings of A-list superstars have issues of fit or chemistry. For as dominant as the Durant-era Warriors were, he never warmed to the idea that it was still Stephen Curry's team. Even LeBron James and Dwyane Wade took time to figure out how to play together early on in their tenure in Miami.

Can Harden not play with other stars, or is the answer simply to bring in a lesser star, one used to being second on the pecking order? Would there be similar issues for Harden playing alongside, say, Jrue Holiday?

Westbrook's trade request kicks off what is sure to be an active (if compressed) offseason before the league restarts the week of Christmas. Harden hasn't indicated that he wants a trade, although things change quickly in the NBA. A week ago, when Stone introduced Silas as head coach in a virtual press conference, he indicated the plan was to run it back.

Now, here we are yet again, with things poised to change drastically around Harden.


Sean Highkin covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. He is a graduate of the University of Oregon and lives in Portland. His work has been honored by the Pro Basketball Writers' Association. Follow him on TwitterInstagram and in the B/R App.