The biggest question heading into next season for the Houston Rockets: Whose team is it going to be? James Harden, or Mike D’Antoni? Different styles, and possibly very different outcomes.
We’ve seen what James Harden basketball, backed by Kevin McHale and later J.B. Bickerstaff, and from above Daryl Morey pulling the strings. The situation was perfect for Harden, the individual. Up to a point, it was also good for the Houston Rockets, the team. But things worked badly last season. Building your entire house of cards on an ace that plays the wrong kind of basketball, with role players that don’t fit, was a recipe for things to fall apart. The Rockets made the playoffs, but everything about last season screamed “time for a change“.
D’Antoni coming in has to be some sort of admittance that things need to change. The Rockets can’t be about Harden holding up the ball for so long, even if he is one of the best in the NBA when it comes to doing something with it. Harden is an exceptional talent, but his defense and tendency to hold up the play for too long, not to mention end up taking bad shots because a) he knows he can get away with it and b) he’s good enough to believe anything goes in, didn’t just hurt the Rockets on the floor; it made quite a few players hope they don’t play next to him again.
D’Antoni doesn’t mind having a ball dominant player running up the floor, orchestrating his team. But his ball handlers have been different than Harden. Point guards, true point guards. The thing is Harden can be that guy. It doesn’t have to be a carbon copy of the Steve Nash Suns: Harden is a different player, for better and worse. But surrounding him with different, more fitting players, and putting him in a different, less individualistic system, will only work if he’s willing to make that change.
There have been arguments against it. As always, when something becomes too much of a trend; in this case trashing on Harden as a teammate, leader and defender, there will always be a counter. Suddenly, there are those saying the Rockets would be nothing without Harden. Jason Terry saying Harden is playing this way because he has to. Maybe they are right. But that means the man who built this team, Morey, with a championship in mind, did a terrible job. Wrong personalities, wrong players, wrong system. Playing basketball this way might be great for Harden’s numbers, but in the long run, puts a very visible ceiling on this team’s potential achievements, and an expiration date on when it all blows up.
D’Antoni isn’t working on an infinite leash. He hasn’t been a head coach in two years, and while there’s patience in Houston radiating from the ownership, the more time passes with Harden as the team’s #1 without any significant change to the results (three first round exits in four years) doesn’t bode well for the head coach. D’Antoni’s basketball is as relevant as ever, as long as there’s someone to help him with the defensive side of things.
No one is asking Harden to turn into John Stockton. There’s no mailman next to him, and it would be foolish to ask someone who is such a talented scorer to put that side of his game in sleep mode. But for D’Antoni to be successful, and for the Rockets to put last season behind them, Harden needs to change. He hates being criticized, and maybe he isn’t the main problem the Rockets have and just a symptom. It doesn’t matter. The change began with the front office taking a different direction, Morey sucking up his pride. Next up, it’s Harden’s turn, or all this was for nothing, and extending him just means more years of good at best basketball, without anything to show for it.