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You can’t always win big with a great scorer. None of Wilt Chamberlain’s teams won a championship until he decided to pass. Dominique Wilkins has a statue in Atlanta yet he never took his Atlanta Hawks Jerseys past the Eastern Conference semifinals. There are others who never tasted champagne until they grew old and became a second or third option.
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Admittedly, the pile of names isn’t very big, but unless this season is the exception and not the rule, is James Harden destined to join it?
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He’s a major scorer, ranking No. 2 in the league in that department and is deadly anywhere on the floor. He finished runner-up in the Kia MVP voting last season and once again is pushing 30 points a night. He carried the team for long stretches last season while second-fiddle Dwight Howard dealt with injuries. Harden probably has a basket for every hair on his chin, and speaking of overgrown, aren’t the defeats this season for Harden and the Rockets starting to get thick?
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Rockets vs. Spurs
LaMarcus Aldridge scores 24 points and grabs nine rebounds to lead the Spurs past the visiting Rockets, 121-103.
Seven months after reaching the West finals, mainly on Harden’s labor, they’re clearly far behind the leaders. They are 26th in defensive efficiency, are giving up nearly 106 points a game on 46 percent shooting and are prone to fourth-quarter breakdowns. They’ve beaten the Oklahoma City Thunder Jerseys, Los Angeles Clippers and San Antonio Spurs Jerseys, yet are 0-2 against the Brooklyn Nets Jerseys and have also lost twice to the Denver Nuggets Jerseys. After firing coach Kevin McHale in a panic in November to force a shakeup, the Rockets haven’t gained any traction and are still struggling to find their mojo.
Supposedly, the big difference this season was adding a capable point guard to the mix and finally easing Harden’s ball-handling workload. In theory, trading for Ty Lawson last summer made perfect sense. He was to bring the dynamic that would give Houston an edge over the Clippers, Spurs and Golden State Warriors, the top-shelf teams in the loaded West. This way, Harden could play a bit more off the ball and the Rockets wouldn’t rely so heavily on Harden isolations to produce points. They’d have an extra dimension and another way of attacking teams and become less predictable. And by taking the ball out of Harden’s hands on occasion, the Rockets would yield fewer points off their own turnovers, since Harden leads the league in turnovers, something he’s done two of the last three seasons.
Our offense creates bad defense for us. I guess at times we do stop and hold the ball or just don’t move it as much.
– Rockets guard Ty Lawson
Instead, the Rockets are still pulling the bubblegum off their face after this experimental bubble burst quickly. Lawson struggled in the role and was benched and recently put on the trade market. New coach J.B. Bickerstaff dusted off the old playbook and Harden has the ball in his hands again, which is doing wonders for his scoring average 鈥?but not so much for the Rockets’ bottom line.
Harden is not the main problem with the Rockets right now. They simply can’t stop anyone (Harden’s often allergic reaction to defense contributes to that) and Howard is growing old by the minute. Nor is Harden an issue in terms of his offensive talent, which is Hall of Fame worthy. Not many are this shifty off the dribble, can reach the rim, can pull up for 3-pointers and get free throw attempts (which he leads the NBA in) like Harden. But when the ball is out of his hands, he looks ordinary and the Rockets look confused, and that’s why defenses are willing to trap him and take their chances.
“Our offense creates bad defense for us,” said Lawson, who wasn’t singling out Harden. “I guess at times we do stop and hold the ball or just don’t move it as much.”
While Lawson might not be the right point guard to place next to Harden, would any “pure” point guard work? Or do the Rockets have no choice but to use a “shooting” point guard — an old Jason Terry lately — whose main job is to stand on the perimeter and wait for a pass that may or may not come?
Warriors vs. Rockets
Klay Thompson explodes for 38 points, Draymond Green adds a triple-double with 16 assists as Warriors win it 114-100.
Which of course, doesn’t make Terry a point guard.
That’s the dilemma they face, the task of trying to find a way to maximize Harden’s obvious skills while being less predictable. GM Daryl Morey obviously agrees with this, otherwise, why did he trade for Lawson? Why not stick with Patrick Beverley and the same old formula that won 56 games? Because Morey knew the load could eventually wear down Harden come May and June, and that defenses would eventually figure the Rockets out, and that other players needed to become more involved in the flow. Again, those concerns were all well-founded.
Curiously, the Rockets halted a four-game slide, their second such this season, on Tuesday when Terry and not Harden controlled the ball late in a tight game. Terry played the role the Rockets envisioned for Lawson, although you wonder how many times can Terry, at 38, pull it off.
“In those type of situations,” said Terry, “I understand the time and the score, who we need to get the ball to and what actions need to be run. To be out there in those situations, I think that’s what they brought me here for.”
Hawks vs. Rockets
Al Horford scores 30 points and grabs 16 rebounds to lead the visiting Hawks past the Rockets, 121-115.
None of Harden’s teammates have ever said this publicly, but you wonder if cheap jerseys nba they’re OK with a steady diet of “iso-James” and if they believe it has run its course. Or if Harden is willing to change.
He presents a challenge for Morey as he tries to figure whether this year’s poor pairing with Lawson represents a hiccup, or a warning sign. If iso-James is here to stay, then the Rockets need quality shooters around him. The Rockets rank second in 3-pointers per game and make 35 percent of them — roughly what they did last season — but not enough to overcome their horrific defense.
With the exception of LeBron James, no other non-point guard dominates the ball like Harden. LeBron has a pair of rings to show for it, but only because he had a pair of Hall of Fame-worthy shotgun riders in Miami, who allowed him to play more off the ball than he did in his first tour of duty in Cleveland.
It is also possible that last season spoiled Harden. The Rockets finished second in the West despite Howard missing half the season. Harden was a one-man show and tore through defenses, generating MVP talk all season. He carried the team, and last summer earned a $200 million shoe contract. Therefore, why change anything?
When Lawson flamed out and the Rockets nearly bottomed out, there was no choice but to return to what worked, except from a long-term view, letting Harden control the ball again might be fool’s gold.
Surely, the Rockets have bigger concerns: How to keep Howard healthy, try to salvage the Lawson trade (or send him packing again) and how to defend better. They’re in repair mode right now and the task on the front burner is climbing above .500 and staying there.
But assuming that happens, if they don’t soon seek a way to diversify and stop relying so much on Harden isolations, they might find themselves, well, isolated from the pack of contenders.
Veteran NBA writer Shaun Powell has worked for newspapers and other publications for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here or follow him on Twitter.
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