Why Haven’t James Harden and the Rockets Won an NBA Championship Yet?

The Houston Rockets have spent the last three years as perennial title contenders, but they have not yet created a path to the championship. Lots can be made of this. After all, the team did meet talented teams like the Warriors on the way, but Harden and the Rockets are not without blame.

Houston has been unpredictable this season. People are wondering if another disappointing ending is in their future. 

Is James Harden to blame? 

Harden is a perennial MVP candidate, and his ability to score, while not always pretty, is unmatched. Not since Wilt Chamberlain has the NBA seen someone with such an ability to score on a nightly basis. 

Through 41 games this season, Harden is putting up a perplexing 36.9 points per game. As far as offense goes, it’s hard to find something that Harden is less-than-great at. However, this doesn’t mean he’s without faults. His defense can be suspect, and even his offense can disappear at the wrong times. 

Harden shoots around 44% from his career from the field and 41% in the playoffs. From three-point land, he shoots 36% in the regular season and 33% in the playoffs. These drop-offs don’t help his reputation that he falls off in the playoffs.

During the last two seasons, the Rockets had opportunities to capitalize on games against the Warriors, specifically, and came up short. This can point to a lot of things, from fatigue to struggles under pressure. The former, however, may be explained by something else.

Load mismanagement?

Harden prides himself on being an athlete who will play whenever he can. In the era of load management, he’ll participate in game No. 82 with the playoff picture set before he’ll sit it out to rest for the playoffs. Harden has said this aloud on several occasions. One thing he hasn’t done, however, is hoist a championship trophy. 

His 37.3 minutes per game are a league-best. He also consistently leads the NBA in his usage rate, meaning Harden never has an opportunity to take a play off. It’s commendable that he’s against managing his load, but it could also be why he seems fatigued when the playoffs come.

In 2018, the Rockets had double-digit leads in both of the final games and blew them thanks to poor shooting and apparent exhaustion. Harden again didn’t step up against a depleted Warriors team and looked like he was hanging on by a thread

Meanwhile, over in Toronto, Leonard managed his load throughout the season. By June, he was lifting the championship trophy after defeating a depleted Warriors team. This might not be all on Harden, however. After all, he neither coaches the team nor allocates minutes. 

What’s to blame?

The fingers can point to a lot of places. Mike D’Antoni has a reputation as an offensive mastermind, but he also has a reputation as a coach who struggles when his back is against the wall come playoff time. During the Rockets’ 2018 collapse, the team could not stop missing threes. (Although they had success with Clint Capela down low.) This failure to adjust has haunted him since Phoenix.

Daryl Morey has a good reputation around the NBA, but he also has a reputation for allowing crucial pieces like Trevor Ariza to walk, needlessly depleting the Rockets’ bench. As far as health, the team lost Chris Paul during a pivotal stretch in 2018 but failed to win against a weaker Warriors team in 2019. 

The blame can go all around, but the fact is that the Rockets haven’t found a way to overcome adversity and do what’s needed to become winners. If something doesn’t change, Harden could be another player who retires without a ring despite his greatness.

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