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The Rockets Live or Die by James Harden—and Right Now They’re Dying

The former MVP has gone cold in March, and Houston’s chances to rebound lie in the Rockets’ ability to do what they always do: shoot through it

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

No player slumps like James Harden. When he’s cold, he’s absolutely frigid; his stats are appalling. That’s what happens when there’s no shame in shooting through it. Last Thursday, for example, down 25 points to the Clippers, Harden followed his seventh missed 3 by letting an eighth attempt fly a couple of minutes later. Sure enough, it didn’t go in. I’ve always admired the freedom that Harden has on the Rockets, the way he shoots without inhibition or concern of Mike D’Antoni benching him. The point of this entire Houston experiment is to shoot often; doing it well might just win you a scoring title or an MVP or both. But this system can also feel confining, as the problem (bad 3-point shooting) is also the solution (more 3-point shooting). Leaning into disaster is part of the Harden experience. There’s no hiding the slump, only doubling down until it goes away. So when Harden falls, the Rockets plunge.

And it’s happening right now. Houston has lost four straight games, including three to lottery teams. Over that stretch, Harden has shot 32.5 percent overall, 19 percent from 3, and averaged, marvelously, 26 points. (That’s still a higher count than LeBron James is averaging on the season, and Harden’s doing it on 32.5 percent shooting. I hate it here.) His recent shooting woes have been compounded by a general sloppiness. Harden has averaged 5.3 turnovers since the first loss in this recent skid, which would lead the league and then some if it applied to the entire season. He even notched a quadruple-double against the Hornets—getting in the double digits in points, assists, rebounds, and ... turnovers.

I’m sure Harden’s recent tumble has induced strong schadenfreude for Bucks fans. His struggles began not long after his poke at Giannis Antetokounmpo: “I wish I could be 7 feet and run and just dunk,” he said in February. “Like that takes no skill at all. I gotta actually learn how to play basketball and how to have skill.” Harden is undoubtedly one of the most skilled players in the game, but the coincidental timing of this collapse completely undercuts his argument about Giannis.

Of course, basketball karma isn’t the reason Harden is having problems. Part of it is the nature of his game. Even the best players suffer off periods through their careers, but his look worse because he attempts so many shots, a habit that, when he’s the Harden we know and love (at least some of us do), leads to those incredible 40- and 50-point performances. But when he’s off, he sometimes digs holes that no team can climb out of. His woeful performances are also exacerbated by the fact that he’s playing next to Russell Westbrook. Barring newfound efficiency in this stage of his career, Westbrook will go down as one of the streakiest-shooting superstars of this era. While Westbrook has been playing well of late, the Rockets need Harden to be reliable because they know their other superstar isn’t always that.

This is far from the first slump of Harden’s career. The most memorable ones have come during the playoffs. His collapse in the 2017 Spurs series might be his worst to date, and remains one of the largest cases for the disastrous myth that is Playoff Harden.

March has been bad for Harden, which means it’s been terrible for Houston. It began with an ugly loss to the Knicks last Monday. Allowing Frank Ntilikina to hit double-digit points for the 10th time all season should’ve been the first indication of inexplicable trouble ahead. The Rockets also dropped games against the Clippers, Hornets, and Magic, and in just six days went from having a decent chance at the second seed to the sixth spot. (One spot above, in fifth, is Oklahoma City. Considering the two franchises’ long-term and short-term trade history, this should count as a fifth loss.)

It would be an oversimplification to put Houston’s problems solely on Harden. The defense overall has dropped off significantly. Eric Gordon missed the past two matchups, and Westbrook was out against the Hornets. Westbrook, who’s been otherwise stunning in the Rockets’ funky smallest-ball lineup, has also contributed to turnovers.

“Eight days ago we were rolling, and then all of a sudden the bottom fell out,” D’Antoni said after the Magic loss. “We’re searching a little bit for answers, and we’ll find them. … It’s so bad that we’ve got to find a little spark, a little swagger.”

An overreliance on Harden is nothing new for the Rockets. Nor for the league. It takes an outstanding group of role players to mitigate a bad stretch by their team’s superstar. Most franchises depend on their elite talent, but few are prone to such capriciousness. The bet you’re taking with Harden is the same that you take incorporating Moreyball. The high points are record-breaking performances. The lows are bottoming out with no backup plan in place except to shoot through it, whether it takes a quarter or a stretch of games.