On James Harden, Dwight Howard and the myth of the unified whole

The basic underpinnings of Gestalt psychology are widely misunderstood. When Kurt Koffka, the early-20th century German philosopher who popularized the idea, first rose to prominence, he did so on the strength of a quote that he never actually said. Most people think Koffka is famous for stating that “The whole is greater than the sum of the parts” — in fact, he didn’t. What Koffka actually said — and until his death in 1941, he went around correcting students who got it wrong — was “The whole is other than the sum of the parts.”

That distinction is small yet significant. Sometimes, greatness just isn’t in the cards. You take the components, you put them all together and, for whatever reason, the sum isn’t what you thought. Sometimes the whole is lesser.

That was unfortunately the case for the 2015-16 Houston Rockets, who appeared on paper to have all the makings of a championship contender going into the season. Houston GM Daryl Morey had gathered savvy veterans (Trevor Ariza, Jason Terry) and exciting youngsters (Clint Capela, Terrence Jones). He had more depth than just about everybody in the league. And of course, he had the two-man superstar combo that most executives spend their whole careers trying in vain to find: James Harden and Dwight Howard.

Read More: Brad Stevens is an out-of-bounds sorcerer

In theory, it should have been a match made in heaven. Harden was one of the best perimeter shot-creators and playmakers of his generation; Howard was a monster of a big man who should have been unstoppable in the pick-and-roll. It didn’t work out that way in reality. Largely, or at least so the narrative would have it, this was because the two stars didn’t mesh. Howard wanted his post touches, and Harden wouldn’t acquiesce. The Rockets grumbled and finger-pointed their way to a 41-41 season and a quick playoff elimination. The whole of the Harden/Howard Rockets turned out to be far, far less than the sum of their parts.

It’s hard to blame Morey for this. He spent years looking for top-level talent, he eventually found it and he had every reason to believe it would work. It did result in a trip to the Western Conference Finals, but it didn’t end the way it was supposed to. It’s still laudable that he tried. But regardless of fault, the Rockets’ hopes of consummating the NBA’s dream pick-and-roll marriage officially ended on July 1 when Howard agreed early in free agency to sign with the Atlanta Hawks for three years and $70.5 million.

The macro result of this move was twofold — namely, it brought us a new Harden, liberated from Howard, and a new Howard, liberated from Harden. This season, both players have been joys to watch.