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Rockets’ micro-ball experience is limiting James Harden

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It has been a roller coaster ride all season for James Harden, and micro-ball may be at the root of his recent problems.

Orlando Magic v Houston Rockets Photo by Cato Cataldo/NBAE via Getty Images

Editor’s Note: Obviously, the big story is the postponement of the NBA due to coronavirus, but we’re still going to do our best to bring you some thoughts about actual basketball as well. With no games, we might be stuck in neutral some days, and you’ll likely see our fair share of news updates on what this all means for the season going forward and how all of this is affecting the Rockets, in particular. But we want you all to continue to read about actual basketball as well. Keep safe out there! - DY

The Houston Rockets snapped their four-game losing streak in a 117-111 victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves on Tuesday. In the win, James Harden poured in a game-high 37 points, shooting 57.8% from the field, 50% from behind the arc.

For a guy on the verge of recording his third straight scoring title while averaging a league-best 34.4 points per game, a 37-point performance against the 19-45 Timberwolves would have gone overlooked on any other occasion. However, his night against Minnesota was highlighted as a silver lining that Harden may be at the tail end of one of the worst slumps of his career.

The Rockets as a whole looked unpleasant during the four-game losing streak, but none more so than Harden. At times, he looked disinterested and unmotivated on the court, as his scoring average took a dip by minus 8.4 points (26.0 ppg), Harden’s numbers were displeasing across the board — averaging 5.3 turnovers and shooting 19.0% on three-point field goal attempts.

Although it is easy to credit his recent decline to the few nagging ailments he has sustained throughout the season, the Rockets’ micro-ball experience might have caused more harm than good to their Most Valuable Player — most noticeably by parting ways with Clint Capela in February.

Ever since Harden was traded to the Rockets in 2012, Houston’s offense relied heavily on two play-options, isolation and pick-and-roll.

Over the previous three seasons, the Rockets ranked first in isolation plays while establishing one of the best offenses in league history. And with Harden as the main focal point due to his sensational skills, the secondary driving force behind the Rockets’ success was that of Capela.

Since 2016, Harden ranked top-five in pick-and-roll in each season. His best came during his MVP year in 2018, where he used the pick-and-roll to score and average 9.3 points per game on that play type.

This offensive possession between Harden and Capela is the perfect example of how essential the big man was for the eight-time All-Star.

In the video above, Harden had DeMar DeRozan in isolation when Capela set a pick on the former Raptor. Once DeRozan became a non-factor by trailing behind the ball handler, Capela’s pick presented three potential scoring options for Harden.

With Jonas Valančiūnas froze as a defender, Harden had the opportunity to either score on a contested layup, or dish the ball to an open teammate out on the perimeter if Kyle Lowry or Serge Ibaka were to collapse the lane. Due to the delayed reaction by the Raptors’ defense, Harden threw a lob to Capela for an easy bucket.

Fast forward to the 2019-2020 season, the degree of difficulty in Harden’s isolation plays has risen without Capela. This season, the Rockets currently place last in pick-and-roll. while Harden ranked 22nd in the play type, averaging 5.8 points.

In the clip above, it is easy to notice that Harden has less space to attack the basket on an isolation play. Without a potential lob threat or a pick-and-roll screener, the defense can now collapse the lane on Harden, taking away his ability to either score or connect with a big for an easy two-point basket.

Although the result ended in a made three-point field goal by Robert Covington, Harden is now restricted to only a pass option with the Rockets playing a five-out offense. Due to the absence of a big on the court, it’s the primary reason why Harden ended the game with 10 turnovers in the loss and a contributing reason to why the Rockets shot 28.4% from deep during the losing streak.

The Rockets have seen both the positive and negative on their commitment to micro-ball. While putting together an 11-6 record, the new game-plan has helped Russell Westbrook reach new heights with his play on the court. On the flip side, the Rockets have lost nearly every rebounding battle as their success relies heavily on the success of the three-point shot.

However, the most significant ripple effect has been the struggles of Harden. Micro-ball has put limitations on Harden’s game, and the adjustment may take some time before Houston sees a return to form from their MVP.