Why this year's Houston Rockets could be James Harden's perfect situation

In recent years, the Houston Rockets have taken one step forward and two steps back.

This is the James Harden effect.

Bringing him in from the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2012 was a shrewd move that would shorten what looked like a long rebuild for the Rockets, after the promising years of Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming were cut disappointingly short. It was the magic of then general manager Daryl Morey (now with the Philadelphia 76ers), but even he admits that he didn’t see Harden making the leap into the perennial MVP candidate he has become.

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The shooting guard made an immediate impact and dragged the team – with a supporting cast of Chandler Parsons, Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik – to the playoffs. He honed his skills and developed an unstoppable move on the perimeter – jab-foot, skip, step-back three-point shot – that rewrote the rules and kept the Rockets winning regular season games.

But year-on-year, roster tweaks led to a fractured chemistry between Harden and the team’s star big man Dwight Howard.

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Then coach Kevin McHale was let go in a bid to resolve the issues, but interim coach JB Bickerstaff couldn’t fix them either and the team rebuilt on the fly. They moved mountain and earth to keep Harden interested and competing for a championship in Houston. The system was built around him, and many on the team, and in management, looked the other way when he was out partying the night before a game, or if he turned up late to training.

But this season is different. Harden doesn’t have Morey as the indentured general manager, head coach Mike D’Antoni’s contract ran out, the superstar in Chris Paul is no longer there to be a locker-room leader, his best friend in Russell Westbrook no longer has his back, and the security blanket on defense – Trevor Ariza, Clint Capela and Robert Covington – can no longer cover his mistakes. And now Harden has thrown his toys out of the pram in an attempt to be moved, the situation has become awkward.

Due to potential reputational damage of Harden after making the trade demand then being spotted out partying against the league’s and team’s coronavirus guidelines on several occasions recently, the Rockets will probably have to hold on to him at least until the trade deadline – if not, until the end of the season – in order to find a good return.

But if there’s no option for a few months, he should work hard to take one step forward with the Rockets this season. Harden might find that there’s more of a championship contender than he previously thought.

The elusive big man

For some, Christian Wood is an unknown entity. After failing to get drafted in 2013, the big man made his first appearance for the Philadelphia 76ers in 2015, but bounced around from one small market to another, and was sent down to G-League teams, picking up valuable experience on 10-day contracts and working hard to develop an all-around game.

He earned a multi-year contract with the Detroit Pistons last season after averaging 13 points and six rebounds, using a combination of athletic rolls to the rim and shooting from the outside at a rate of 38 per cent.

A trade brought him to Houston in November. Wood is yet to register heavy minutes for a full season, but through three games in 2020-21, he is averaging 25 points and nine rebounds while shooting 57 per cent from the field and 40 per cent from three in 37 minutes.

Harden has never had a big man this versatile on offense. Capela was a lob threat who developed a post game before the team completely turned against the concept. Tyson Chandler was ageing when they added him to the roster and didn’t bother playing him once he arrived. Howard wasn’t as good on the block as he thought he was, and was better at rolling to the rim than he wanted to be.

Wood already has good offensive chemistry with Harden, and the pair have formed a partnership and have played more minutes together than any other two-man unit for the Houston Rockets outside of Harden and PJ Tucker. The difference is that the Tucker partnership is -3.7 against the competition, while it is +0.7 with Wood.

It’s way too early to look at advanced metrics and read anything into them, but the point is, there is optimism. If Wood can offer as much, or even nearly as much, as his predecessors on the defensive end, it could convince Harden that there is something to having a small-big combination that the team steered away from to keep him happy in recent seasons.

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Small-big combination, part 2

Another new quirk this season for James Harden’s Houston Rockets is the concept of depth.

His game is so unique, removing him from the court typically left the team with few options in an offensive system that served just him.

Howard was not the give-him-the-ball-and-he’ll-create type of big man. When D’Antoni staggered Paul, there was a better rhythm to the offense with Harden off the court, but CP3 had started to slip as someone who can create his own shot. But now, with Wood, Harden has a small-big, one-two punch that has been elusive throughout his career.

Furthermore, if they go to the bench, there are two people ready to keep that same system rolling: the dream pairing of 2016 – John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins.

The reason so many fans wish to see Wall and Cousins combine is it reignites the core of the 2009-10 University of Kentucky team – one of the most exciting college teams since the University of Michigan’s Fab 5 in the early 1990s.

Wall and Cousins were selected in the top five of the 2010 NBA Draft. Individually, they notched up multiple All-Star selections on bad teams but their careers have been hampered by injuries.

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Wall’s success was built on colossal speed – his ability to catch a rebound or an outlet pass and beat the opposition up the court to finish a play was unsurpassed. Equally, Cousins relied on physical gifts – he had an explosive game that used strength and dominance in the paint to bend opponents to his will.

After several seasons of rehab, few people are expecting the duo to be as dangerous as they once were, but if they can be three-quarters of what they were, find the chemistry of Kentucky, and go up against second units – the opposition will be in trouble.

It will add something to the Rockets that they will not have had before. The depth means Harden won’t be relied upon as heavily as previous seasons, when lifting the weight of the franchise onto his shoulders eventually saw him tire in the playoffs year after year.

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With Harden having more energy and Houston having different offensive options and looks to throw at teams, it will be difficult to defend them at the time of the season when teams were previously able to scheme and plan for a one-dimensional offense.

It will take time for chemistry to develop, especially in a shortened season, but if the Rockets can keep Harden happy, this could be the one step forward that doesn’t go back.

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