The Houston Rockets bounced back from a horrendous year in 2016, as they finished third in the Western Conference this season. Thank the moves that the team made this past offseason for that improvement. From hiring Mike D'Antoni to adding offensive firepower in Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson, the Rockets built themselves into a low-key contender.
Or so most thought. The 2017 NBA Playoffs started well for the Rockets, after cruising by the Oklahoma City Thunder, they struggled against a San Antonio Spurs team that didn't have their star Kawhi Leonard for basically a third of the series. You might blame me for continuing to watch games even after I realized that both games I missed, the Rockets won, and vice versa.
However, James Harden is almost equally to blame, if not more. Anybody watching Game 6 of the Spurs series might've experienced a déja vu. No, you're not in the Matrix. It's just that Harden played equally as poorly in Game 5 of the 2015 Western Conference Finals against the Golden State Warriors.
Compare these two stat lines: 10 points on 2-of-11 shooting and 6 turnovers in 37 minutes and 14 points on 2-of-11 shooting and 12 turnovers in 43 minutes. As you probably guessed, it was Harden in Game 6 against the Spurs and Game 5 against the Warriors, respectively.
One Step Forward, Two Steps Back
The regular season did a lot to appease my doubts after writing this article. While he still occasionally did his stupid size-up-for-18-seconds-step-back-three move, more often than not he would attack the basket and play relatively smart in late-game situations. So, coming out of the regular season, it looked like Harden finally grew into the leader that the Rockets needed.
However, the last six quarters (overtime included) of the season undid all of the progress he made. The worst part is, Leonard was missing nearly that whole time. Before then, Harden was lighting it up on offense against everybody but Leonard. But, inexplicably, everything fell apart for him late in Game 5.
With four minutes in the game and a pivotal Game 5 on the line, Harden scored four points on 1-of-6 shooting, had four turnovers and two fouls. Some say he was gassed because D'Antoni decided to only play seven Rockets that day. However, that is no excuse for the supposed leader of a supposed contender. If the team is looking to you, you give it150-million percent late in the game, especially in the playoffs.
If he was on the verge of collapse from fatigue, then at least distribute the ball instead of jacking up shots. Harden led the league in assists, so he obviously has the playmaking ability to find open players. Also, the Rockets made every single move in the offseason just to ease the offensive load off of Harden's shoulders.
Not Time to Chill
This may all seem like an overreaction, but it really isn't. The team is trying its hardest to become a true contender. However, the Western Conference Semifinals made them seem like pretenders. The Spurs are a good team, but they were without Leonard and Tony Parker and the Rockets couldn't even win Game 5 or Game 6.
Harden's collapse is the reason why a leader must remain confident and keep giving it his all. He must also trust his teammates if he isn't playing at the best of his abilities. These qualities' importance is amplified in late-game situations. Therefore, it becomes so much more apparent when a player does not lead in such situations.
Harden's leadership is once again being questioned. Even two years after the dud against the Warriors, it is obvious that he has not improved at all in that category.
Not Time to Party, Either
If the games weren't enough to wonder about Harden's leadership, he was caught turning up after they were eliminated in Game 6 at a Travis Scott afterparty. It doesn't matter how amazing Travis Scott's shows are (they are pretty great), you don't go partying right after that type of massacre. You don't go partying right after being eliminated from the playoffs, period.
Through his actions on and off the court, Harden has proven that he is still not a leader. He still settles for the worst shots when the team needs him most. In fact, he plays stupidly in clutch situations. He also does not seem to be affected by the loss. Missing out on the state tournament made me depressed for a couple of days. It didn't even take him hours to get over being eliminated from the playoffs.
The bottom line: the Rockets can't expect him to be their leader. He still has time to grow, so who knows what will happen. However, if he does not become a true leader, the Rockets will never become true competitors.