Life has come full circle for James Harden. He first became an MVP candidate in 2014–15, and he was incredible against the Warriors in the Western Conference finals that season, averaging 28.4 points on 46.7 percent shooting, 7.8 rebounds, and 6.4 assists a game. The problem is the Rockets won only once in that series. Not much has changed four seasons later. Harden is averaging 29.3 points on 46.9 percent shooting, 6.3 rebounds, and 6.3 assists a game in the 2018 Western Conference finals, and Houston is trailing 2-1 headed into Game 4 in Oakland on Tuesday. Harden is favored to win the MVP, but it’s hard to beat the Warriors when you depend so much on one player.
A healthy and engaged Golden State team challenges Houston’s formula in a way few others can. The Rockets steamrolled through the Wolves and the Jazz in the first two rounds because neither team trusted its big men to switch on Harden and Chris Paul in the pick-and-roll. They resorted to more exotic coverages involving multiple defenders that Houston’s star guards picked apart, allowing the supporting cast to feast on spot-up 3s and lobs at the rim. The Rockets had an offensive rating of 111.1 in those rounds. They looked like contenders.
Golden State has ripped their blueprint to a million pieces. In the first three games of the series, Houston has an offensive rating of 104.7, which would have placed them just outside the bottom third of the league over the whole season. The Warriors start Draymond Green at the 5, and they bring Kevon Looney off the bench, with spot minutes for Jordan Bell. None of the three is taller than 6-foot-9. They are comfortable with all three switching onto Harden and Paul and living with them taking contested shots off the dribble. The whole point of Houston head coach Mike D’Antoni’s offense is to create mismatches that force rotations and lead to open 3s, but there are no mismatches against Golden State, other than when Steph Curry is involved in a play.
Harden has done his part. At 6-foot-5 and 220 pounds with a 6-foot-10 wingspan, he’s a tank with incredible shooting touch who can get to wherever he wants on the court. Let him play one-on-one on any defender, even the waves of long and athletic players on the Warriors, and he will get buckets. He put together a masterpiece in Game 1, with 41 points on 14-of-24 shooting and seven assists. He got to the rim and scored against the teeth of their defense seven different times, went to the line 10 times, and knocked down four 3s. He even made two midrange jumpers. He can score from anywhere. The only reason he doesn’t take more midrange shots is because he’s asked not to.
The Warriors didn’t care whether Harden cooked in Game 1. They still won by 13. The Rockets have only two other players (Paul and Eric Gordon) who can create their own shot, so the Warriors can shut down their peripheral players by making those three play one-on-one. Paul and Gordon have both had moments in the series, but they haven’t been on the same level as Harden. Golden State’s supersized perimeter defenders tower over Paul (6-foot and 175 pounds) and Gordon (6-foot-4 and 215 pounds). When its three top scorers are all in, Houston doesn’t have much length and athleticism on either end of the floor.
The conference finals have become a math problem for the Rockets. Harden is playing close to even with Kevin Durant, who is averaging 33.3 points on 52.9 percent shooting and 2.3 assists a game in the series. That still leaves Paul (17.3 points and 4.3 assists on 40.4 percent shooting) and Gordon (17.7 points and 2.0 assists on 43.9 percent shooting) needing to outplay Steph Curry (23 points and 5.3 assists on 49.1 percent shooting) and Klay Thompson (16.3 points and 2.3 assists on 41.9 percent shooting). That’s what happened in Game 2, when Gordon exploded for 27 points on 8-of-15 shooting. He’s the X factor for the Rockets, but he’s never been as good as either Splash Brother over his career.
Gordon and Paul need Harden to take pressure off them. Houston staggered Harden’s and Paul’s minutes all season to give both time to run the offense, but that hasn’t worked as well in the playoffs. The Rockets have a net rating of minus-11.0 in the 169 minutes that Harden has sat in the postseason, and a jaw-dropping net rating of minus-30.4 in the 43 minutes he’s sat against the Warriors. The issue isn’t just on offense, either. Paul has a better defensive reputation than Harden, but he’s still only 6-foot, while Harden can at least contest shots and defend inside. Houston lost control of Game 3 when Harden sat for five minutes in the first half. D’Antoni might not be able to take him out at all in Game 4:
James Harden and Chris Paul’s Time on the Floor
|On-court Combos||Minutes||Net Rating|
|On-court Combos||Minutes||Net Rating|
|Harden and Paul||71||-6.1|
|Harden w/o Paul||31||-9.9|
|Paul w/o Harden||34||-20.1|
Of course, it’s not really fair to ask anyone to dominate the ball for 48 minutes against elite defenders while still competing on the other end of the floor, especially over the course of a long series. If Harden has a bad performance in games 4 or 5, everyone will immediately point back to what happened in Game 6 against San Antonio last season, but the sheer amount of work required of him means that laying an egg is almost inevitable. There is no Durant to his Curry or vice versa. Paul is the only player on the Houston roster that anyone would even think of doubling to leave Harden open.
Houston needs Paul to be the Point God to have a chance against Golden State. He’s had some big games in the playoffs when Harden struggled, most notably closing out Utah with 41 points and 10 assists in Game 5 of their second-round series. Unfortunately, there’s no Rudy Gobert in this series that Paul can drag out to the perimeter, and he’s also dealing with a gimpy knee. For the rest of the series, he will have to score over Thompson, Green, Looney, Shaun Livingston, and Andre Iguodala (who will miss Game 4 with a knee issue of his own). There’s a reason 6-foot guards are rarely primary options on a title team.
Paul will be an unrestricted free agent this offseason, and Houston has to decide if he’s the costar Harden needs to get past Golden State. This is the best Paul will ever be. The track record of undersized guards in their 30s isn’t encouraging, even without counting his knee issues. If they give him a max contract, they won’t have much flexibility going forward. They already gave a lot of money to Gordon and Ryan Anderson, and Clint Capela is up for an extension on his rookie contract. The Rockets’ supporting cast fits well around Harden, but they are fairly one-dimensional. The Rockets don’t have fourth or fifth options like Iguodala and Green, who can handle the ball and pass their stars open.
Given the limitations of Houston’s roster, it probably needs another superstar to get past Golden State. Acquiring LeBron James wouldn’t be easy financially, but Rockets GM Daryl Morey is one of the most creative minds in the league. Houston would be a legitimate superteam with LeBron in Harden’s role, Harden in Paul’s role, and Paul in Gordon’s role. A pick-and-roll between LeBron and Harden, with Paul spotting up as a secondary playmaker, is completely indefensible. The math in a potential series with the Warriors would look a lot better for the Rockets in that scenario: LeBron cancels out Durant, and Harden and Paul try to outscore the Splash Brothers.
When I floated that scenario to people around the league, part of the pushback I received is the idea that Harden wouldn’t want to give control of his team to LeBron. A 22-year-old Harden wasn’t content to be the third option behind Durant and Russell Westbrook in Oklahoma City, but a lot has changed for him since then. Going into next season, he will be a 29-year-old, likely with an MVP under his belt, who has been knocked out of the playoffs by Golden State in three of the past four seasons. If he wants to win a title, there has to be a point when he swallows his pride and admits that he can’t do it on his own.
Part of the maturation process for any superstar is understanding the limits of their game. Harden is one of the best offensive players of all time, but that’s not enough to beat Golden State. Morey wanted to build a team to beat the Warriors and ended up creating one almost perfectly designed to get Harden the MVP. However, winning the MVP is no guarantee of winning it all. It has happened only four times (Tim Duncan in 2003, LeBron in 2012 and 2013, Curry in 2015) since 2000. Harden made his teammates better this season. The next step for the Rockets is finding someone who makes him better.