Listen to enough NBA Media Day interviews, and you’ll start to think it’s the first day of school after summer vacation. Reporters routinely ask players what they did during their time away, and players in turn talk about the weight they’ve lost, the muscle they’ve gained, or the skills they’ve tried to bolster. James Harden is no different, having apparently added a one-legged, running 3-point shot to his arsenal, which was perhaps the league’s most dangerous to begin with.
The unorthodox jumper is merely the latest innovation Harden has unveiled since the start of his MVP-winning 2017 season. On some level, that underscores the dilemma Harden faces. The creative lefty and the Houston Rockets organization — currently facing as much uncertainty as they have in years, between a fraught political controversy and the looming onset of what feels like a make-or-break Russell Westbrook era — could soon run out of tricks and toys to get over the NBA title hump. And with that in mind, this season may represent the best remaining shot for Harden and his teammates to reach the promised land.
There are a handful of reasons to wonder whether this might be Harden’s last good chance for a ring in Houston. First, it’s simply not practical to assume that, at age 30, he’ll keep finding new ways to score this efficiently. In 2016-17, the lefty singlehandedly drew more 3-point shooting fouls than any NBA team; then, realizing that officials would be far less gracious with their whistles the following year, he nearly tripled the number of stepback triples he attempted the following season, according to data from Second Spectrum.1
In the 2018-19 campaign, he introduced a controversial sidestep maneuver to generate more space on jumpers, and this year he seems to have added a running, one-legged variation on that. Through each of the tweaks and additions, Harden has still been dominant, with a true shooting percentage of .600 or better in seven of the past eight seasons, including each of the past three. But simply assuming that he’ll be able to keep up this pace while averaging 30 points per game doesn’t seem all that wise.
Yes, Harden has been incredibly healthy over the course of his career and has never missed more than 10 games in a season.2 But for all the relative stability the Rockets’ front office has enjoyed, the last couple of months have seemed a bit rockier than usual. Fourth-year coach Mike D’Antoni, the 2017 NBA Coach of the Year, will enter the final year of his deal without an extension. (Owner Tilman Fertitta shared a surprising level of detail about the negotiations at one point before later saying that he regretted so much of the conversation about a potential deal becoming public. He’s since said that he expects D’Antoni to be the team’s coach “for a long time.”)
Even more pressing: The team is currently dealing with the fallout from a tweet Rockets general manager Daryl Morey sent last week expressing support for ongoing protests in Hong Kong. It’s estimated that as many as 500 million Chinese citizens watched at least one NBA game last season, and the Rockets have enjoyed enormous support from that massive fanbase since drafting Yao Ming. Fertitta and the NBA both released statements saying that Morey’s tweet — since deleted — did not speak for either the Rockets organization or the league as a whole. And the Chinese Basketball Association, which is chaired by Yao, has suspended its relationship with the Rockets.
It’s far too soon to know what the Rockets’ front office will look like this time next year. But however things shake out, it goes without saying that Houston has a handful of the most analytic-minded folks in the game. D’Antoni, of Seven Seconds or Less fame, was the one who unleashed Harden as a full-time point guard, while Morey is recognized for prioritizing data more than just about any executive in the sport. Losing either one of them would create the possibility of a significant shift in offensive philosophy.
And none of this even addresses the question so many of us are eagerly waiting to assess: whether Westbrook — who is coming off a tough season and was dealt to Houston in exchange for an aging Chris Paul — is an ideal fit with Harden and the other Rockets.
In the most traditional sense, Westbrook doesn’t fit. After all, Houston is a team that plays slowly, takes and makes a ton of threes and, at its best, plays good defense. These are not traits Russ possesses — particularly not in the playoffs. Still, there’s an argument to be made that his speed could get the Rockets easier baskets in transition, thus saving Harden energy and effort needed for clutch possessions in fourth quarters. Unlike Paul, Westbrook isn’t slowing down yet, and he has enough left to get by defenders to not only finish at the rim (at a higher percentage, with far more spacing), but also kick the ball out to 3-point shooters, which he does better than anyone.
Here at FiveThirtyEight, we published a story on Houston hours before Westbrook was dealt, pointing out that our model had the Rockets winning 56 games, with a 30 percent chance of reaching the NBA Finals and a 19 percent probability of winning it all (all of which were the highest marks in the Western Conference at the time). While they wouldn’t have had a shiny new star to showcase like the other contenders, they would have had enjoyed more top-end continuity than those other teams. (Look no further than last year’s Denver Nuggets if you want a sense of why that matters.)
Our model saw the Westbrook deal as further improving Houston’s chances of making the finals and winning the championship: up to 35 percent and 23 percent, respectively. And for what it’s worth, Harden and Westbrook have played together before — just not since 2012,3 or as the lone two stars on a roster. Still, that’s more than can be said for LeBron James and Anthony Davis, Paul George and Kawhi Leonard, or Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant.
Because of that, it would clearly benefit the Rockets to take care of business this season, before Harden runs out of offensive tricks, before the organization starts feeling pressure to make sweeping changes and before other contenders begin hitting their strides. And if this isn’t the year, it’s fair to wonder when, if at all, it can realistically happen in Harden’s window.