It happened again on Monday, against Cory Joseph and the Kings. The Rockets faced another team willing to throw double teams at James Harden, spearheaded by a quality initial defender. That forced the ball out of Harden’s hands and, even with Russell Westbrook posting the best game of his Rockets career (34 points on 13-for-17 shooting), the Houston offense was out-of-sorts without Harden as the anchor and the Rockets lost on their home floor.
Harden was 8-for-19 shooting on the night. He had 27 points and 10 assists, but as has happened often when Harden faces a consistent trap, he racked up a big turnover number (eight). Harden has had seven games in which he has not cracked 20 shot attempts and in those games, he is averaging 5.7 turnovers.
More important, the Rockets are just 2-5 in those games. They need help.
Harden has expressed frustration in recent weeks about the double-teams he has been facing, especially going back to the persistent traps Denver sent him into during a Rockets loss on November 20 and a loss to the Clippers two days later. In that game, L.A., who rarely leans on defensive help, sent double-teams even with former Defensive Player of the Year Kawhi Leonard on Harden.
“The whole season they’re running double-teams at me,” Harden said then. “I’ve never seen that in an NBA game where you’ve got really good defenders and someone else running at the top of the key. Y’all let me know the last time you’ve seen that.”
The good play we’ve seen from Westbrook lately has not been enough to hinder the Harden double-teams. That’s because defenses won’t respect Westbrook as a shooter until he makes 3s consistently and a glance at his career numbers (30.5 percent from the 3-point line) suggests that’s not going to happen.
Doubling James Harden Might Not be a Long-Term Solution
Still, doubling up on Harden comes with some caution. The benefit is that Harden, so adept at creating space and drawing fouls from anywhere on the floor, must get rid of the ball, is more turnover-prone, can’t get to the foul line very much and sees his opportunities for deadly step-back 3s reduced.
That is a monkey wrench in everything the Rockets do. But it might not be a permanent solution.
“I think it’s clear you want the other guys in that lineup to beat you,” one assistant coach whose team played the Rockets this year said. “But that’s because Russell Westbrook has been struggling. And it’s because Eric Gordon has been out. (Danuel) House has been out here and there. They lost Gerald Green.
“You can double James now because the rest of the cast is pretty weak right now but it’s not going to stay that way. I don’t know how much you want to double James when Eric Gordon is on the floor.”
Gordon had surgery on a bothersome left knee and should be back around the end of this month. He was struggling in the nine games he played—10.9 points and only 28.4 percent 3-point shooting—so his recovery and return to his usual form is essential.
There’s also the possibility that the Rockets will work the trade market to come up with another shooter. Houston would rather add help through free-agency or the buyout market but the increased pressure on Harden might force the team to find perimeter help now by trade.
Houston has a thin roster, so it feels the absence of a player like Gordon a lot more than other teams would. Even the short absence from House hurt. As long as the Rockets supporting cast remains hobbled, doubling up on Harden makes sense.
But should Houston get healthy and have Gordon, House, Ben McLemore and Austin Rivers around Harden, plus another shooter added through a trade, putting double-teams on Harden will be a much different proposition.