The Harden Ceiling: What is the Houston Rockets’ Future?

The Houston Rockets have one of the NBA’s best players in James Harden, but how far can he realistically take them?

If you look at the NBA standings, you will find the Houston Rockets sitting in fifth place in the West, trailing only the Grizzlies, Spurs, Warriors, and Clippers (in that order). This outcome is not really surprising, since the Rockets are a talented team with an elite point/shooting guard in James Harden.

However, as this team is currently constructed, the Houston Rockets are probably not going to make it past the second round of the playoffs. So, with a top-5 player and no clear way to get better in sight, what does the future look like for Houston?

Any look at Houston’s future begins with James Harden. The 27-year-old is the focal point of everything the Rockets do, and his results this year have been nothing short of phenomenal.

His defense became a point of derision and laughter last season (for justifiable reasons), but on the offensive side of the ball he does things few others can replicate. He can score, pass, and run an elite offense.

Advanced numbers bear this out. According to NBA Stats, the Rockets boast a 113.5 offensive rating with Harden on the floor (a rating that would just barely fall behind the Warriors league-leading mark).

However, with Harden off the court, that number falls to 93.3. That number, if it stood for the whole team, would easily give the Rockets the worst rating in the league.

It makes sense that Harden would make a huge difference, and the numbers tell us that the difference between having him on or off the court is the difference between the worst or second-best offense in the league.

As long as he is in Houston (the team has him under control for two seasons after this one), the Rockets will be a competitive, offensive juggernaut.

Questions begin to arise when considering what comes next, though. The team surrounded Harden with other talented players and an offense-focused coach, but it’s difficult to think of a logical next step.

Even with Harden, the team only has the ninth-best net rating in the league, and that will need to improve if they have their sights set on a long playoff run.

Ultimately, the Houston Rockets probably need another star. It’s an easy prescription, but one that’s almost impossible to carry out. They came close with Dwight Howard, but that experiment went down in flames (and the team may be better off without him now). Undoubtedly, the team’s management is discussing how to improve in free agency or via trade, but there is no obvious way to get Harden some help.

Unless that help comes, Houston may have to come to terms with the uncomfortable truth that they are wasting an elite player’s best years. Harden should play at this level for a few more years easily, but if this team can’t get over the hump with him now, they most likely won’t when he’s 29 or 30.

There’s no shame in being the fifth seed, or consistently making the second round of the playoffs. However, less than two years removed from a Conference Finals appearance, it’s hard to see the Houston Rockets satisfied with that. If they can’t find a way to attract more talent soon, though, that may be their (and James Harden’s) ceiling.

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