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James Harden is the Rockets' 'core problem'

As the Rockets' coach gets more and more frustrated, it's apparent who he's talking about.

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The Rockets have 16 wins and 16 losses this year. Among the teams they've beaten: the Spurs on Christmas,  the Clippers (twice) and the Thunder. Among the teams they've lost to: the Nets (twice), the Nuggets (thrice), the Kings and the Knicks. They are the most Jekyll & Hyde team in the league.

J.B. Bickerstaff verbally lit up his team after they lost to the Pelicans on Saturday in another mind-numbing example of the Rockets playing down to their competition, not exhibiting basic levels focus and effort that anyone could reasonably expect from a professional.

Bickerstaff mentioned needing to do a better job of playing the Rockets who put winning above individual "buckets," "shots," and "glory." The Rockets' core problem, their interim coach believes (and I agree), is a few players who think are not putting the team above themselves. It's not hard to deduce who's at the top of that list.

First, we need to eliminate the Rockets who have clearly been playing hard when they're on the court. Patrick Beverley's rebounding numbers are down, but his steals are up over last year's down year defensively, and his insertion into the starting lineup has helped with the team's mini-turnaround. Ditto Jason Terry, who is still improbably an overall helpful player.

Terrence Jones can float at times, but there have been games where no one has matched his intensity level. And to Bickerstaff's credit, when T-Jones looks passive, he tends to play a little less down the stretch. Dwight Howard has been ugly, but sometimes effective in the post and has looked much, much better over the last five weeks or so, despite lack of adequate involvement in the offense.

Dwight sets solid screens, but defenses often trap when James Harden is the ball-handler. Harden will sometimes back it out, hold it for several seconds and create a bit of offense with just a few seconds left on the shot clock. Rockets fans know this dance well. What Harden should instead be doing is passing out of the double-team, and his teammate — usually the point guard at the top of the key or on the wing — should then whip a pass to the rolling Howard.

That hasn't happened enough. Dwight has been middling as a roll man this year, and objectively bad in the post, but effort is not really his probably, effectiveness is. There have been reports of his discontent with his eight shots per game, but it hasn't manifested into blatantly lazy play.

Ty Lawson could have been, and was, a candidate for Bickerstaff's scorn at the beginning of the season, but he's played well since his suspension and has been benched when ineffective, negating any adverse effect he's had on the team.

D-Mo has been quite bad, outside of his still-crisp passing, since returning, but he's just working his way back. He's not the problem. We know Clint Capela isn't the problem. Ditto Trevor Ariza. Those two have soldiered on, hustling their butts off, as one very distinctive-looking teammate has not returned the favor.

James Harden is second in the league in scoring, 28.4 per game (more than last year), he's dishing out slightly fewer assists (6.8 this year to 7.0 last year) and the same amount of rebounds per possession. By the numbers, at least offensively, he's not any demonstrably worse. But these are empty numbers in many games, compiled through poorly timed drives to the rim, interspersed with unnecessary turnovers and lackadaisical-at-best defense.

James Harden is fifth in the league in distance run on the court but, among the top 50 players, he's the third-slowest, ahead of only big men Marc Gasol and Blake Griffin. Average speed is calculated by measuring all the movements a player makes on the court, including walking or standing still. James Harden does a lot of standing still.

Harden is one of the most gifted players in the league, and he showed last year that he is capable of MVP-level play for weeks and months on end. But he hasn't strung together four straight games of full effort all year. And after a crap game (8-21 shooting), a -5 plus-minus and only four free throw attempts. It had all the hallmarks of a bad Harden game.

Harden's coach knows his future job, be it in Houston or elsewhere, depends on how much effort his star player puts forward. That's got to be a frustrating situation. This is a time when the league's stars are coming from unexpected places. Stephen Curry was unrecruited out of high school and passed on in the draft for Jonny Flynn. Kawhi Leonard could barely dribble when he entered the league. Now he's a two-way destroyer coming for Curry's MVP crown. Ditto Paul George.

Harden, meanwhile, is frustratingly aloof. He knows the game well enough to bend it to his will. But he hasn't worked to do it. And Bickerstaff has had it.

But these are likely empty words.

Of all the ways to make this Rockets team better, benching Harden is not one of them. Bickerstaff knows this. Maybe Harden will sit for longer stretches, but those stretches will see leads evaporates, deficits grow and convictions tested.

But Bickerstaff is not wrong. The Rockets' "core problem" is Harden's lack of conviction. But only the Beard can muster a solution. And he better do it before it's too late.