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The Missing Piece the Rockets Need to Help James Harden

Another year, another playoff loss to the Warriors. But Houston can make another run at the title next season if it targets the type of player every recent championship team has had.

Houston Rockets v Golden State Warriors - Game Five Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

In a cryptic press conference on Friday following his fourth playoff loss to the Warriors in five seasons, James Harden said he knew exactly what the Rockets needed to get over the hump, but wouldn’t say what. It may not have been empty words, because there is a glaring hole in their roster: They have no one taller than Harden (6-foot-5) who can create his own shot, or shots for his teammates.

Almost every NBA championship team has gotten some offensive creativity from its frontcourt. Recent history is the perfect example: The Warriors had Draymond Green and then added Kevin Durant, LeBron James played with Kevin Love on the Cavs and Chris Bosh on the Heat, the Spurs had Kawhi Leonard and Tim Duncan, and the Mavs had Dirk Nowitzki. While some of those players would not be great fits with the Rockets, a frontcourt player of their caliber would make their offense less predictable. Harden doesn’t need to play with a low-post threat. He needs a pick-and-roll partner who can score over a smaller player on a switch, and make plays in four-on-three situations. If he can’t play with someone like Durant, he at least needs his own version of Draymond.

Houston is a guard-oriented team. Everything goes through either Harden or Chris Paul, who take turns running the offense. The goal is to get them isolated in space against bigger and slower defenders. There isn’t much ball movement, and everyone else in their rotation has a rigidly defined role. Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni has been criticized for not having more variety in his offense, but he doesn’t have much choice. The only other players through which he can run offense are 6-foot-3 combo guards (Eric Gordon and Austin Rivers). Everyone else is either a spot-up shooter (P.J. Tucker, Iman Shumpert, Danuel House Jr., and Gerald Green) or a rim-running big man (Clint Capela). It’s not like D’Antoni can build his offense around Nene at this stage in his career. There’s just no point in running plays for Tucker or Capela to make decisions.

Running a simplistic offense doesn’t matter much against most NBA teams. Houston has been at the forefront of the analytics movements under general manager Daryl Morey, and as a result they are playing a different sport than most of the league. Few teams have enough mobile defenders at center to prevent Harden and Paul from creating open 3s off the dribble and the pick-and-roll. Their ability to dominate overmatched defenders allows them to create wide-open 3s for their shooters, and lobs at the rim for their big men. Those plays went away against Golden State, who played Green and Kevon Looney at center in the second-round series between the two teams, allowing them to switch every screen and stay at home on everyone else instead of selling out on Harden and Paul.

No Rocket suffered more from facing that type of defense than Capela, who became nearly unplayable against the Warriors. He went from averaging 16.6 points on 64.8 percent shooting and 12.7 rebounds per game in the regular season to 8.8 points on 53.3 percent shooting and 10.0 years rebounds per game in the series. Houston had a jaw-dropping net rating of minus-15.2 in his 172 minutes on the floor during the series. The same thing happened in last season’s Western Conference finals, when Capela was run off the floor by smaller lineups that exposed the holes in his offensive game. He has no role in a series with so much switching. There’s no point in running pick-and-rolls with him since it just switches another good defender on Harden and Paul, and he can’t do anything else.

Houston didn’t have anyone to pick up the slack. Tucker had an incredible series as a small-ball 5, but most of his damage on offense came from making spot-up 3s and attacking the offensive glass. The Rockets’ only interior reserve who played at all was Nene, a 36-year-old big man without the speed to stay on the floor for too long against Golden State. Their frontcourt is fairly limited on offense: Capela led that unit in scoring (16.6 points per game), while Tucker (1.2 assists per game) led it in passing. The only team to win an NBA title since the turn of the millennium without at least one frontcourt player who averaged upward of either 18 points or three assists per game was the 2004 Pistons. And they still had Rasheed Wallace, who was far more skilled than any of his counterparts on the Rockets.

Championship Frontcourts

Championship Frontcourts 18+ PPG 3+ APG
Championship Frontcourts 18+ PPG 3+ APG
2017, '18 Warriors Kevin Durant Draymond Green, Durant
’16 Cavs LeBron James James
’15 Warriors None Green
’14 Spurs None Tim Duncan
’13, ’12 Heat James James
’11 Mavs Dirk Nowitzki None
’10, ’09 Lakers Pau Gasol Gasol
’08 Celtics Kevin Garnett Garnett
’06 Heat Shaquille O'Neal None
’04 Pistons None None
’03, ’05, ’07 Spurs Duncan Duncan
’02, ’01, ’00 Lakers O'Neal O'Neal

Attacking from as many positions as possible is crucial against an elite defense. It’s harder to defend a team with forwards who can score and create open shots for their guards, instead of needing their guards to spoon-feed them open shots. The ball can fly around the court, swinging back and forth between multiple players who can collapse the defense and kick it out. The conventional wisdom about needing a dominant post scorer to win a championship confused causation with correlation. The real need was for frontcourt players who could be featured on offense, and the vast majority of 6-foot-9 and taller players throughout NBA history who could handle that responsibility were post scorers. How a player that size attacked a defense wasn’t as important as the fact that they were doing it at all.

Some of the best lineups the Rockets used in this series featured all four of their shot creators: Harden, Paul, Rivers, and Gordon. That foursome had a net rating of plus-3.7 in 36 minutes, and it was one of only two four-man groupings they used for more than 30 minutes in the series that had a positive net rating. Harden was the tallest player of the four, effectively making him the power forward in those lineups. Instead of pairing Harden with a playmaking and scoring 4, D’Antoni turned his superstar into one by playing so many smaller guards around him. The difference between this version of the Rockets and last season is that they added offensive versatility in their supporting cast (Rivers and House) at the expense of length and athleticism (Trevor Ariza and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute).

The Rockets’ problem, especially in comparison to the Warriors, is that they have never had players who combine both. They have no one comparable to Andre Iguodala or Klay Thompson, much less Draymond or Durant. None of their other shot creators are natural pick-and-roll partners for a star guard. Golden State can switch a screen between Harden and Gordon, Paul, or Rivers, and keep similar-sized defenders on both players. They don’t have to worry about any of those three attacking Harden’s defender on a switch. He is always the one who has to create the mismatch, which wears him down during a series. My guess is the primary cause of Harden’s history of fading in the playoffs is his overwhelming offensive responsibility, not any flaw in his character or his game.

Harden doesn’t play with anyone who makes his life easier in the way Draymond and Durant do for Steph Curry. The play that sealed Game 6 for Golden State (a Thompson 3 with 36 seconds left in the fourth quarter) summed up the difference between the two teams. Houston blitzed a pick-and-roll between Steph and Draymond, creating a four-on-three opportunity for Draymond at the 3-point line. He drove into the lane and found Iguodala in the corner, who then swung the ball to Thompson. There is no one on the Rockets’ roster who can consistently make the play that Green did. Draymond is a legitimate point forward. Neither Capela nor Tucker is comfortable making plays off the dribble. The Warriors can overload to stop Harden without worrying about any of his frontcourt players making them pay for it.

The issue is that All-NBA-caliber forwards are almost impossible to acquire in trades, and are incredibly expensive in free agency. Houston doesn’t have many tradable contracts, and it won’t have any cap room for the foreseeable future. The Rockets are paying over $90 million a year just to Harden, Paul, and Capela until the 2021-22 season. The only other salaries they could move are Gordon’s (one year left at $14.1 million) and Tucker’s ($8.3 million next season, and a partial guarantee for 2020-21). Houston has a top-heavy roster because it spent the last 12 months desperately trying to avoid the luxury tax. The surprise isn’t that the minimum-salary players they added in the offseason (Carmelo Anthony, Michael Carter-Williams, and James Ennis III) flamed out. It’s that they found decent replacements on the waiver wire.

Houston may have to move either Paul or Capela. Neither is irreplaceable. Paul is a great secondary scorer who can initiate the offense when Harden is out, but he’s a deliberate offensive player who is still at his best with the ball in his hands. He’s starting to slow down and break down physically as he enters his mid-30s, and he doesn’t attack closeouts with the same ferocity as Rivers and Gordon, both of whom outplayed him for most of the Warriors series. Capela is the rare 7-footer who can finish at the rim and defend on the perimeter, but he’s a limited offensive player who is closer to a platoon center than a featured option against elite teams. However, even if Morey put them on the market, their salaries could make it hard to get much value back.

The Rockets should be aggressive this offseason. Hoping Durant leaves in free agency and weakens the Warriors won’t be enough. Not only did Golden State just close them out in Houston without Durant, but their players are unlikely to be as good again. Paul and Tucker are 34, Gordon is 30, and Harden is 29. Capela is only 26, but looks near his ceiling. The only room for internal improvement comes from Rivers (26) and House (25), and there’s no guarantee they’ll keep either free agent since both are in line for big raises. The draft won’t help, either, since they packaged their picks with bad salaries in trades to get under the tax. Nor can they count on the real key to their sustained success over the Harden era: He has made up for any flaws on their teams by getting better for seven straight seasons. It’s hard to imagine how he could top one of the greatest offensive campaigns in NBA history.

Harden is one of the smartest players in the league. He can see the differences between his supporting cast and Curry’s. He even told Curry at the All-Star Game that he didn’t want to keep playing this way. The question is whether he can do anything about it. The biggest thing a star can do to help his team is recruit another star, like Harden did with Paul. There will be a lot of star players available in free agency this offseason. The two who would best fill the hole on the Rockets’ roster are Jimmy Butler and Kawhi Leonard. The only way they could open up enough room under the salary cap to pursue on one of them would be to use first-round picks to dump either Paul and one of Gordon, Tucker, or Capela onto another team, or all three of the latter, and then fill out their roster with minimum-salary players.

It would be hard to pull off, which means Harden will likely once again have to do more for his team on offense than any other player in the league. It’s the reason he finished second in the MVP voting in the 2014-15 and 2016-17 seasons, and won the award last season. All signs point to him either winning his second consecutive MVP this season or finishing second to Giannis Antetokounmpo. Harden just had one of the greatest five-year runs in NBA history going from his age-24 to age-29 seasons. He’s unlikely to keep up that pace from 30 to 34. The Rockets have built a team that put Harden in a great position to win MVPs, but not championships. If that doesn’t change soon, he may start looking for the exits.