Another season, another disappointing playoff exit for the Houston Rockets. Though they’ve managed to make it to the postseason for the past eight years since the James Harden era began in H-Town, this year unfortunately also marks their 8th straight playoff exit in the hands of their MVP. But, it’s quite unfair to put the blame entirely on the eight-time All-Star. If you closely look at what they’ve done all-season long, you don’t need to be an expert to see that Harden isn’t solely to blame for this year’s second-round playoff exit. So, who should we blame then?
3. Russell Westbrook
On paper, having two MVPs in your team seemed so unstoppable and for the most part of the season, the new-look Rockets were at times quite the team with the addition of Russell Westbrook. Westbrook’s assist and rebound numbers were down this season but he was still able to make the most out of Harden’s facilitating and average 27.2 points per game, his highest since his MVP season in 2016-2017. Everything seemed to be clicking for the Rockets as they managed to end the regular season as the fourth seed of the very competitive Western Conference.
Whether he welcomes it or not, Westbrook seemed to have become the barometer of this Rockets team almost all season. Given his incredible talent and court presence, Westbrook has had his DNA imprinted in every game he suits up for. When he plays in an MVP level, his team always has a good chance of winning. But when he puts up brick after brick, his team seemingly implodes. And this was in full display in the playoffs this year with the Rockets.
A few months off due to the global pandemic which Russ even contracted himself didn’t bode well for the former MVP and his team. Westbrook even had to sit out the Rockets’ first four games in the first round against his former team due to a quad injury. He ended up averaging just 17.9 points per game, 7 rebounds and 4.6 assists in the eight playoff games he suited up for. Westbrook shot just 24% from the three-point line which was key for the Rockets’ demise. The opposing team gave him all the time in the world to shoot from distance and Westbrook ended up shooting himself in the foot with his dismal shooting clip.
After more than a decade in the league Westbrook shouldn’t get a pass anymore. It’s almost inexcusable by now that he’s still managing to put up these low numbers from the field. Westbrook is one of the most athletic and explosive point guards in the league and he has to continuously zero in on that for the Rockets to be successful. Or, if he wants to keep shooting from the outside, then he simply has to shoot better. Way better.
2. Mike D’Antoni
Being a head coach is one of the most thankless jobs in all of basketball. Whenever your team wins, it’s rarely credited to the coach but whenever your team losses, all eyes are on you. Mike D’Antoni isn’t an exception.
The 69-year old head coach had quite a ride as the head coach of the Rockets. One can argue that D’Antoni was one of the biggest reasons behind Harden’s blossoming career. D’Antoni saw something in Harden and decided to roll with him as his main weapon in his time in Houston. He put Harden in the PG spot which worked out quite well for the former MVP. D’Antoni made sure that Harden had the ball in his hands and that he would surround him with playmakers and shooters. His decision to go small ball was huge and has definitely impacted the way teams play in the league, not just Houston.
Unfortunately, all these experiments of pairing Harden with a valuable big (Dwight Howard and Clint Capela) as well as a elite facilitator in Chris Paul couldn’t help D’Antoni and his Rockets go passed the hump. You can say that the Rockets stumbled upon some bad luck in the past few years but bad luck doesn’t get you booted out of the playoffs for eight straight years with an MVP leading the way for your squad.
At times, D’Antoni’s calls made sense and looked promising – especially when their small ball line-up allowed them to steal Game 1 against the top-seeded Los Angeles Lakers thanks to PJ Tucker’s heroics on Anthony Davis. But throughout these playoffs runs, D’Antoni seems to fall flat down the stretch. They had no answers to the Lakers this year and they blew their chances against the Golden State Warriors in in two straight playoff match-ups. That’s not bad luck. D’Antoni wanted to go small ball and surround Harden with talent which Rockets GM Daryl Morey did. Morey brought in different pieces that D’Antoni needed but for one reason or another, he couldn’t propel Houston to the promised land.
D’Antoni and the Houston organization decided to mutually part ways after their playoff exit this which ends his 4-year experiment with the Rockets. D’Antoni jumping ship might be the smartest move he’s made in the past four years.
1. James Harden
Let’s stop beating around the bush. You can’t not blame the team’s leader for another failure of a season.
Harden rose to stardom when he moved to the Rockets in 2012. He’s managed to make it to the All-Star game in all of his eight years in Houston and has been the league’s leading scorer in the past three years. After winning his first MVP award in 2017, he’s been in the top three of the MVP race in the past two years. Do we need more proof that James Harden is an elite basketball star?
But that might be his biggest hurdle. He is a great individual player but from what we’ve seen so far in his career, his personal success hasn’t been enough for him to push the Rockets to victory. Harden has been notoriously inconsistent when it comes to the playoffs. For some reason, he seems to shy away from the bright playoff lights and looks like an entirely different player once his team enters the pots-season – no matter who he’s surrounded with.
For what it’s worth, Harden had one of his better playoff stints this year. He averaged 29.6 points per game and was able to go to the line almost 10 times per outing. But based on what we’ve seen from previous champions throughout the years, superstars need to surpass themselves to be able to win it all. Players like Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard and LeBron James have all done this. Harden has proven in his time in Houston that he’s virtually unstoppable in the regular season but he must find a way to match that or even surpass that if he wants to at least make it to the NBA Finals with the Rockets.
It seems that the Rockets are still a piece (or two) away from helping them get to where they want to be. Until then, it’s back to the drawing board in H-Town.