Earlier this week, a snippet of Kobe Bryant’s interview with ESPN’s Rachel Nichols quickly gained traction around #NBATwitter and other realms pf social media.
The quote- more accurately, the paraphrase- in question was Bryant saying that James Harden and the Rockets can’t win a championship with Harden’s style of ball-dominant play.
Kobe Bryant believes James Harden and the Rockets won't win a championship with the style of play we're seeing on his scoring tear. (via @Rachel__Nichols) pic.twitter.com/RQvdHPvpJw— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) February 4, 2019
Bryant did say that, but only to point out the obvious of Houston’s current situation, not to disparage Harden. Without context, it sounds much worse than what it actually was.
“I’m not a fan of- in terms of winning championships- I don’t think that style is ever going to win championships,” Bryant responded when asked about Harden’s recent tear. He quickly added some perspective after that comment, though.
“But at the same time you have to keep your team’s head above water to win games. So you have to do what you have to do to win games. And (Harden’s) doing that.
A lot of outlets took the time to either point out the negative things Bryant said, or to point out the irony of his comments - an infamous ballhog bad-mouthing balls hogs. The truth it that it shouldn’t have been about either.
What Bryant said was simply a matter of fact. Maybe it wasn’t best to lead off his answer with saying that the style wouldn’t win a championship, but what did it matter when he said it? As it stands, the Rockets are doing exactly what Kobe said the style of play was meant to say: stay afloat.
Despite the fact that Harden averaged 43.6 points and 7.6 in January, the Western Conference Player of the Month had led his team to only 8 wins in 14 games. This is great considering that Houston lacked Chris Paul, Eric Gordon, and Clint Capela for a large part of the month, but it’s not going to win a championship. And, Harden agrees.
“I mean, I have to be ball dominant just because we have injuries,” Harden told ESPN, responding to Bryant’s comments. “We had injuries throughout the course of the year, but when we get Chris [Paul] in a rhythm and Eric [Gordon] back and get our full roster, we got multiple guys that can make plays, multiple guys that can dominate the ball.
With Paul (and Gordon) back in the lineup, things should begin to change in the Rockets’ style of play, and Bryant acknowledged that.
“Now when you have Chris Paul come back, you have more movement to the offense,” Bryant said. “Where you move guys around, where you’re harder to find... If you take one player, you put him on the top of the key, or you put him on the wing, you’re running screen and rolls, you’re always in front of the defense. The defense can key on that, particularly in the playoffs, and that’s easy to defend.”
That, again, is a great point. A lot of teams, arguably starting with the Bucks, are simply game planning around Harden’s style of offense. Milwaukee tried often to force Harden off the three-point, or to his right, into help defense in the lane, all while trying to cut off kick-out options. Defenses are trying to take away his biggest assets: to iso and to create. Granted, Harden did score 42 on the Bucks.
To Harden’s credit, he’s simply been better than the defense.
“Now, what he’s doing is absolutely remarkable, though,” Bryant said. “ I think it’s a testament to how remarkable it is because people are now trying to minimize what it is that he’s doing. I mean, he’s doing some phenomenal stuff.”
Every Rockets fan should know that this has been the plan since Houston started being plagued with injuries. Harden threw the team on his back until all the pieces could be healthy again and contribute. What Bryant said isn’t new. In fact, no one would know more than him what it’s like to score a bunch of points just to keep a team afloat.
For now, with the Rockets at 31-22 and fifth in the West, what they’re doing is working. The real adjustments will come after NBA All-Star Weekend.
P.S. never forget that Kobe said he would be a team around Harden (0:28).