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“Rock bottom” begins and ends with James Harden

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The Rockets believe they have hit rock bottom, but that’s because their biggest star has too.

Orlando Magic v Houston Rockets Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

The Houston Rockets are on their worst skid of the season.

Before the All-Star break, Houston won a momentous game against the Boston Celtics on Feb. 11 and then returned from the NBA holiday to reel off five-straight wins — one of their best stretches of the season and a strong sign for future of their small-ball experiment. But now the team finds themselves in turmoil, having dropped four games in a row, including losses against the lowly New York Knicks, Charlotte Hornets, and Orlando Magic.

“Rock bottom” is how head coach Mike D’Antoni described this recent run, with James Harden in agreement.

And it only seems fitting that Harden would describe the feeling out there as being “very strange.”

Harden, after a tumultuous January, bounced back strong in February, but has since struggled in the month of March, thus extending one of the worst, if not the worst, slumps of his illustrious career. Despite how good his partner Russell Westbrook has been since the beginning of the new year, it’s been evident that when Harden suffers, the team suffers with him.

From the beginning of the season until Jan. 7 — the beginning of Harden’s slump — the Rockets went 24-11, one loss coming with him inactive. Harden averaged 38.4 points, 7.6 assists, and 6 rebounds on 46.3% shooting, 38.6% from three. That also includes an incredible 16-game run where Harden averaged 39.1 points a game on 49.6% shooting from the field and 44% shooting from three — Houston went 12-4 with Harden on the court during that span.

Since then, Harden and Houston have been on a free fall, going 15-13 over their last 28 games. In the 26 of the 28 games that Harden has played, he’s averaged 29 points on a miserable 38.7% shooting from the field and 29.6% from three, and the Rockets went 14-12 in the games he played. During that time, Houston had one of its best stretches of the season, winning 10 of 12 games. Uncoincidentally, Harden average 32.2 points a game on 45.6% shooting from the field and 37.8 shooting from deep.

It’s hard to imagine that during that 28-game span, Harden had a 12-game run where he averaged 45% and 38% — that should tell you how bad the rest of the games have been.

The most puzzling part of it — the “very strange” element — is that the only thing wrong with Harden appears to be his effort. His splits are still the same; he’s taking around the same number of shots at the rim and the same number of threes; and he’s averaging his usual number of rebounds, assists, and turnovers. Harden is even playing with arguably the most dominant teammate he’s played with his entire stretch in Houston.

There is this thing of him seemingly not being present or willing to do more than settle. The threes that he takes are difficult and on an uncalled-for number of step-backs — even for him. Only five of his made threes this month have been unassisted. Last month, only five of his 50 made threes were assisted ON. His drives are uninspired and lackadaisical. Typically blowing past his defender for easy layups at the rim and one of the best finishers is in traffic, Harden is currently averaging 47.8% this month on such shots. That’s a far cry from his 72.7% on shots at the rim in February.

In a scheme that’s set up specifically for space and allowing for easier drives and three-point shots, Harden is struggling, and there’s no clear reason why. And before you point at the above things and say “well, you just said why.” That’s not the “why?” being asked in this situation. The “why” is for why is playing this way?

Call this take incredibly optimistic, or even naive, but things have been bad enough to not have to press the panic button just yet. For one, it seems like adjustments to the gameplan, literally just trying something different, would be enough to get Harden back on track. He’s settling, and, again very weirdly, his struggles are a product of his own devices. Houston is also is essentially playing with an entirely different team and scheme. As they struggled getting Russell Westbrook situated, they too will have a tough patch with their new lineup.

Lastly, Harden is too good of a scorer to continue slumping this way. Unfortunately, it happens, but he’s proven time and time again that he’s a top-five player in the league for a reason.

The good news for Houston is that Western Conference teams in the 3-7 spots haven’t truly broken away from the pack, and Houston remains 2.5 games back of the Jazz for the fourth seed and 3.5 games back of the Nuggets for the third. But if Houston even wants a chance at homecourt in the first round, one thing remains true: they need to get James Harden going.