Over the past two months, James Harden has placed himself in rare company. The seven-time all-star scored at least 30 points in his 31st consecutive game, tying Wilt Chamberlain (1962) for the second-longest streak in NBA history.
Wednesday night, the reigning MVP added another classic performance to his resume, scoring 42-points in a game against the Minnesota Timberwolves. However, as Harden thrilled fans by recording his 22nd 40-point performance of the season, the most important result of the game was that the Houston Rockets were defeated 121-111 by the Timberwolves.
So yes, the numbers were attractive and it was fun to watch Harden turn the Target Center into his personal playground, but the game ended in another disappointing loss against a lesser team for the Rockets. And after playing just .500 ball over their last eight games, it is time to question whether Harden’s style of play is starting to affect the Rockets in a negative way.
When Harden started his streak mid-December, the Rockets were in desperate need to recapture their championship aspirations from the season before. Houston stood under .500 with a 13-14 record, and looked like a team heading straight to the draft lottery. Thankfully, in a time of need, Harden’s streak began with a 50-point performance, and the Rockets recorded a 126-111 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers.
At first, Harden’s scoring spree seemed like the perfect recipe for Houston’s success. Following the win against the Lakers, the Rockets won nine of their next 10 games, which included a 135-134 overtime victory over the Golden State Warriors. Harden led the Rockets to the win with an epic 44-points, 15 assists, and 10 rebounds in Oracle Arena.
However, since that triumph over the Dubs, the Rockets haven’t seen as much of the win column with an 11-9 record, despite the fact that Harden is averaging 41.7 points over the 20-game span.
There are several factors that have played into the Rockets’ recent struggles— poor defense and rebounding to name a few — but also a lack of ball movement from Houston’s offense. While injuries have derailed the Rockets from recapturing their full offensive mojo from last season, Harden’s ball-dominant style of play has become both the Rockets’s savior (what would this team’s record be right now without the MVBeard?) and a possible dilemma.
Over the past 31 games, no one in the league has come close to matching Harden’s usage on the court. According to Second Spectrum, Harden currently ranks first in dribbles (17,511), step back threes (115), and points (1,286) since his streak started on December 13.
Although the numbers are impressive, Harden’s style of play is starting to take a toll on the team. So much so, that Houston’s ball movement and drive-and-kick game has morphed into more of players standing around while Harden goes one-on-one with his opponents.
To fully understand the negative impact Harden is starting to have on the Rockets, one must take a look into his teammates’ stats before and after his scoring spree, in particular, P.J. Tucker.
Unlike Chris Paul and Eric Gordon, Tucker has never been a player who can create a shot for himself. The 6’5” defensive-minded forward needs a reliable playmaker in order to have a positive impact on the offensive end. However, while playing next to this version of The Beard, Tucker’s play on the court has dropped off quite a bit.
Prior to December 13, Tucker was having one of the best shooting stretches of his career, shooting 41 percent from the field and a scorching 40 percent from behind the arc through the first 31 games of the season.
However, since Harden begun his supernova performances, Tucker has seen a decrease in his shot percentages, shooting 37 percent from the field, and 33 percent from three. Over his last 10 games, Tucker’s play on offense has only gotten worst, averaging just 5.7 points on 32 percent shooting from the field, and 27 percent from behind the arc.
Now you can ask yourself, what came first, the chicken or the egg, in regards to Tucker’s recent poor shooting, however, PJ isn’t the only player whose game has taken a hit during Harden’s epic scoring streak.
Despite having another solid point total averaging 16.1 per game, Eric Gordon is not having the same success he displayed the past two seasons. Yes, injuries have taken a toll on his game, and Gordon did struggle with his shot earlier in the year as well, but EG was appearing to round into shape before dropping off again in recent days of Harden’s ball-dominant play.
According to NBA.com Advanced Stats, 47.2 percent of Gordon’s shots come from within the shot clock ranging between 15-7 seconds. Considering the ball often gets past midcourt at around 18 or 17 seconds, that can be some pretty fast shooting from EG.
As a result, Gordon is currently shooting 30 percent from three during this in-game situation, causing his overall season percentage to decrease to 39 percent from the field and 32 percent from behind the arc, Gordon’s lowest percentages since becoming a member of the Rockets in 2016.
Although Gordon’s shooting struggles are not specifically Harden’s fault, as the primary ball handler, it’s The Beard’s responsibility to find a way to create better scoring opportunities for his teammates. In the last 15 games, Harden has just 13 assists to Gordon. By comparison, Chris Paul has 14 to EG over that same time frame, and he hasn’t played in 7 out of the last 15. Austin Rivers has 12 to Gordon during the same span.
At the end of the day, James Harden has been nothing but sensational for the Rockets. For a player to average 41.5 points over 31 games, it is safe to say that Harden has etched his name into the NBA history books for eternity. And with the team struggling with injuries, lineup shuffling, and consistency, the Rockets needed a nightly masterpiece from The Beard to even get them to this point in the season. He should be the clear leader for the MVP, because what he’s doing is pretty much unprecedented.
But with the team finally rounding into shape from a health perspective following the break, and the Rockets in title or bust mode for as long as Harden is in his prime, the Rockets should no longer need a Beard explosion on a nightly basis. And if that is what they require to rack up a W, the prospects of winning 16 in the playoffs just isn’t very high.