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NBA: Why James Harden’s ball dominance is a long-term problem

The Rockets Harden has been instrumental in his teams wins this season - but this is not necessarily a good thing.

James Harden Houston Rockets 2016
The Rockets’ Harden has been instrumental in his team’s wins this season

James Harden dominates the ball a lot.

Houston Rockets fans know this. NBA fans know this. Opposing teams know this. At the end of every game, of every quarter, the ball will be in Harden’s hands. And if the opposing team can shut Harden down, they will almost certainly succeed in shutting the Rockets down.

But while the Rockets have been concerned about getting the ball out of Harden’s hands, the fact is that his dominance of the offense has grown more and more every season since he was traded to the Rockets.

According to Basketball Reference, Harden had a usage rate of 29 percent in his first season with the Rockets. That has now expanded to 33.3 percent this season, the highest of his career.

To put that number in perspective, LeBron James had a usage rate of around 33 percent in his last years in his first Cleveland stint. Kobe Bryant eclipsed that margin many times, even reaching a staggering 38.7 percent in the 2005-06 season.

Allen Iverson, who was famous for dominating the ball, routinely had a usage rate around 35 percent in Philadelphia.

So that may seem fine. Harden is a superstar. He dominates the ball, and the Rockets do have one of the better offenses in the league. So what is the problem?

The problem is that the Houston Rockets want to win a championship. They cannot do that if Harden is dominating the ball that much. And the fact that Harden’s ball dominance has continued to increase shows that the Rockets have utterly failed to provide him with the offensive help which has been promised for years now.

Just look at the aforementioned examples of LeBron, Kobe, and Iverson. None of them won a championship when they had complete control of their offenses and the ball. And as good as Harden is on the offensive end, he is not as good as LeBron was circa 2009 and 2010.

The teams which have won championships recently are teams where no one star is always holding onto the ball, but rely on ball movement and offensive execution. The Warriors and the Spurs had this in droves. Even the Miami Heat have better ball movement than the Rockets this season and last.

Houston is not going to win a championship unless it can create an offensive system. And it will not create an offensive system unless it can manage to get James Harden to have less control over this offense. That lack of an offensive system is a huge reason why this team has been so massively inconsistent.

But it is not that easy. While sportswriters can simper about how James Harden should let others have a bigger role in the offense, the question that has to be asked is: who? Because while the Houston Rockets front office has talked a great deal about the need to provide Harden with another shot creator, they have failed to do so.

When Harden joined the Rockets in 2012, Houston had two other decent shot creators in Jeremy Lin and Chandler Parsons.

But in 2014, the Rockets front management chose to let both of those players go.

Yes, there were plenty of valid reasons for that decision. But the fact is that at the start of the 2014-15 season, the Rockets were completely and totally dependent on Harden’s creativity and brilliance.

Then the Rockets got lucky and picked up another shot creator in Josh Smith. While Smith had nights where he reminded everyone why the Pistons kicked him out, he was still another offensive force. His performance in Game 2 against the Mavericks, where Smith and Dwight Howard buried Dallas under an avalanche of alley-oops, all but finished that series.

And then there was how he saved Houston’s season in that incredible Game 6 against the Los Angeles Clippers.

Now Smith is gone. Instead, the Rockets got Ty Lawson, who was supposed to serve as the secondary shot creator. And while Lawson has played better over the past few weeks, it still has not been enough to make up for his early shoddy play and the other myriad problems which are afflicting this team.

The Rockets went with Trevor Ariza over Chandler Parsons because they felt that Trevor Ariza’s perimeter defense would be more valuable than Parsons’s shot-creating abilities. But Ariza has gotten much worse on perimeter defense this season, and now Houston is left with neither defense nor a secondary shot-creator.

It is tough writing off a season that began with so much hope, but the fact is that the Rockets will have to rebuild once this is all over. This does NOT mean a full-fledged teardown. But when it is all over, Daryl Morey will have to take a long, hard look at this squad and think about how he can construct a team which has both the perimeter defense and the secondary shot-creating capabilities which Houston needs to win a championship.

Because it is not going to happen without those two things. 

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