Daryl Morey says he’s responsible for Houston’s playoff failures – does that absolve James Harden?
Since arriving in Houston in 2012, superstar guard James Harden has averaged at least 25 points per game for the last eight seasons, and is currently on pace to win his third consecutive scoring title, averaging 34.4 points during the 2019-20 season
But alongside the dominant scoring outbursts from the former NBA MVP have come raised expectations – NBA title expectations, to be exact.
Not including this season, the Harden-led Rockets have won at least 50 games in five of the last seven seasons, while advancing to the Western Conference Finals in 2015 and 2018.
On paper, that may sound like a successful era of basketball in Houston, but some of those postseason losses have fallen directly on Harden’s shoulders, which has raised questions as to whether his and the Rockets’ style of play, under head coach Mike D’Antoni, is conducive to winning a championship.
So, who’s to blame for the Rockets’ shortcomings?
If you ask Daryl Morey, the franchise’s general manager, he’ll say it’s him.
In a recent interview on The Pomp Podcast with Anthony Pompliano, Morey fell on the sword for Harden and the Rockets, saying that he has let his franchise player down with inadequate roster construction.
“We’ve worked together for eight or nine years now and I couldn’t have a better partner to try and win a title with. And in fact, most days I wake up saying, ‘I’ve let him down because I haven’t gotten him the right players to win a title.’ “
But is that truly the case?
During his time in Houston, Morey has supplied Harden with help in the form of superstar center Dwight Howard (2013-16), superstar guard Chris Paul (2017-19), and most recently, a second superstar guard in Russell Westbrook (2019-present), three future first-ballot Hall of Famers.
ESPN’s Max Kellerman isn’t willing to let Harden off the hook as easily as Morey, noting how there is a steep decline in Harden’s effectiveness in the postseason compared to the regular season.
“In the regular season, his PER [player efficiency rating], which is mainly an offensive measurement, he is at an MVP level. He is around 30 on average which is amazing … You know what he is in the playoffs? I’ll just go the last three years when he has truly had a shot. He’s around 23-24. There’s a big difference. You know what LeBron does? He goes up. He goes from 26, 27 to 30, 31, 32. You know what Kawhi does? He goes up from 25 … So the question is can James Harden be the best player on a championship team?”
Since the 2015-16 season, Harden’s playoff scoring average, playoff shooting percentage and playoff 3-point shooting percentage have gone down from his regular season averages. His assists average has dropped in the postseason each of the last three seasons
Chris Broussard believes that the postseason flameouts fall more on Harden than they do Morey, seeing as how the Rockets have had ample opportunities to get to the Finals.
“Harden’s not gotten it done at times in the playoffs … We can go to 2018. That Rockets team was good enough. They had the Golden State Warriors with Kevin Durant, down 3-2. It’s not Daryl Morey or James Harden’s fault that Chris Paul got hurt and didn’t play the last two games. Maybe they already have a championship if Paul isn’t injured. But then last year, they had their shot. Kevin Durant gets hurt in Game – and James Harden and Chris Paul cannot lift them past an injury-ravaged Golden State team. So, I put most of it on Harden … I don’t put it on Daryl Morey in this case. It’s on Harden because he’s had some struggles in the playoffs.”
"Daryl Morey has made some mistakes but he's given James Harden Dwight Howard, Chris Paul and now Russell Westbrook. … Harden has not gotten it done at times in the playoffs." — @Chris_Broussard pic.twitter.com/TyzKGLXRyQ
— First Things First (@FTFonFS1) June 10, 2020
And while Harden’s struggles have been noted, it’s also fair to acknowledge he has had some bad luck in the postseason, as Broussard pointed out.
Harden has been eliminated from the postseason by the Golden State Warriors – the NBA’s premier franchise for the past six seasons – in four of his last five trips to the playoffs.
Harden’s 2018 Rockets were the only team to take the Warriors to seven games while Kevin Durant was in Golden State, which is pretty impressive considering LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers were swept by the Durant-led Warriors in the 2018 Finals and lost to Golden State in five games in the 2017 Finals.
Now the the Warriors are out of the fold, the Los Angeles Lakers – led by James and Anthony Davis – and the Los Angeles Clippers – led by Kawhi Leonard and Paul George – are the favorites in the West, but Houston is no slouch either.
Before the season was suspended, Houston was 2-2 against the Clippers and 1-1 against the Lakers, and D’Antoni said last week that Harden is “ready” to get back after it in the NBA bubble in Orlando beginning July 31.
#Rockets coach Mike D'Antoni said that James Harden is "ready."
"Probably the worst thing you can do is take basketball away from him. He has used this to recharge, to get in better shape and still always has that incredible fire."https://t.co/3lXU4TGZK5 #NBA
— Brian T. Smith (@ChronBrianSmith) June 6, 2020
We can tell Harden is raring to go, mostly because of the recent feature story by Kelly Iko of The Athletic, which provides a detailed look at Harden’s bootcamp-style training methods during the COVID-19 pandemic.
An @TheAthleticNBA exclusive:
The NBA hiatus caught everyone by surprise. James Harden wasn’t going to let the return do the same—whenever it would be.
Inside a high-intensity, week-long boot camp in Phoenix featuring yoga, plyometrics, and vomit.https://t.co/34vRaeN0Fu
— Kelly Iko (@KellyIkoNBA) May 22, 2020
This photo of a “skinny James Harden” has also sparked the interest of the NBA world, a world that is eager to see Harden return to the court.
If the NBA doesn’t start back soon, there might not be much left of James Harden pic.twitter.com/uTwcUWnXwZ
— Mickstape (@MickstapeShow) May 22, 2020
Nick Wright also came to the defense of Harden, saying that his early playoff struggles in Houston have overshadowed how good he has been in the postseason as of late.
“Since , James Harden has only had one truly awful playoff moment – Game 6 against the Spurs in 2017, where he was 2-11 against an undermanned Spurs team when he looked totally out of sorts because he got concussed in the previous game. Aside from that, he’s been fantastic in the postseason. His regular season averages are 29 points, 6 rebounds, and 8 assists on 44% shooting. His playoff averages are 28 points, 6 rebounds, and 7 assists on 41% … If you’re called a guy who can’t get it done in the playoffs, it just sticks with you.”
2019 NBA Playoff Comparison vs. the Warriors:
Kawhi (NBA Finals): 28.5 PPG, 9.8 RPG, 4.2 APG, 43.4 FG%
Harden (West Semis): 34.8 PPG, 6.8 RPG, 5.5 APG, 44.3 FG%
— First Things First (@FTFonFS1) June 10, 2020
Harden is one of the most dominant offensive players in NBA history, but his lack of postseason success ultimately hurts him when discussing his standing among the league’s all-time greatest players, which Sports Illustrated’s Robin Lundberg pointed out this week.
“I firmly believe rings aren’t everything, but you’d be hard pressed to find a player who could use one more than Harden. And this restarted season may be the best opportunity he ever gets. Fresh legs could benefit him and a smaller Rockets squad more than any other team when it comes to the postseason. And his teammate Russell Westbrook also has a chip on his shoulder when it comes to winning a championship. Until that happens however, despite undeniably being an all-time great player, it seems the only lists James Harden will ever be atop are scoring and spreadsheets released by the Houston Rockets.”
— Sports Illustrated (@SInow) June 9, 2020
Beginning July 31, the ball will be back in Harden’s fingers.
We’ll see if he can add a ring to those fingers, too.