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James Harden believes Houston can’t be fixed, but he was the problem

High-scoring guard found a new team, but will things in Brooklyn work out any better than they did in Houston?

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Brooklyn Nets guard James Harden warms up before an NBA basketball game against the Milwaukee Bucks, Monday, Jan. 18, 2021, in New York. The Nets won 125-123.

Adam Hunger, Associated Press

The NBA just became less competitive, if that’s even possible. In the latest blow to parity, the Houston Rockets dealt James Harden, their ball-hog superstar guard, to the Brooklyn Nets, which reportedly has been his wish. With the Nets he’ll join superstars Kevin Durant — his teammate in Oklahoma City a few years ago — and Kyrie Irving, giving the league another team stacked to the rafters with talent.

It’s bad enough that players such as LeBron James and Anthony Davis are able to form their own all-star teams, aided and abetted by a league that refuses to adopt an NFL-like hard cap that would prevent rich teams from hoarding the bulk of the talent. Now other teams are assisting the effort.

When Davis pouted his way into a trade, the Pelicans sent him to the Lakers and LeBron, and the Lakers won the championship without breaking a sweat. Then last week, when it became clear that Harden was going to pout his way out of Houston, the Rockets sent him to the Nets.

Memo from the rest of the league: thanks for nothing.

According to various reports, Harden, 31, wanted out of Houston because the team wasn’t “good enough” and “can’t be fixed” and is not even close to being a championship contender; he wanted to join a team that could compete for a championship.

What apparently has never occurred to Harden is that the reason his team is not championship caliber is because of him. The Rockets have given him All-Star teammates, but none could work with him. Harden is the problem, and moving to another team won’t fix it unless he fixes his own game. He piles up eye-popping statistics and scoring titles, but that’s all his game is about, and he doesn’t play well with the other children.

According to various reports, Harden, 31, wanted out of Houston because the team wasn’t “good enough” and “can’t be fixed” and is not even close to being a championship contender; he wanted to join a team that could compete for a championship.

He played three seasons with Durant and Westbrook for the Oklahoma City Thunder — a team with championship potential — before leaving to pursue a rich free-agent deal in Houston.

In July 2017, the Rockets traded for All-Star guard Chris Paul to pair him up with Harden. Paul lasted two seasons. It was reported that he demanded a trade because he didn’t want to play alongside Harden (they reportedly went two months without speaking to one another). They had heated exchanges during games.

In July 2019 the Rockets traded Paul to the Thunder to get Westbrook and pair him with Harden, a former teammate in Oklahoma City. Westbrook wanted out after one season because he reportedly didn’t want to play with Harden, and he got his wish. He was traded to the Wizards in December.

None of Harden’s teams could win a championship even though he had those flashy statistics and talented teammates. Harden’s game does not really include teammates and that makes him difficult to play with. Also, teammates were increasingly irritated by his tardiness to team meetings and his partying on off days — his prima donna-ness. Westbrook, among others, called out Harden in a team meeting.

The Athletic reported the following:

“Westbrook, sources say, has made it known for quite some time now that he would like to see significant changes to the Rockets’ culture. Specifically, his desire for more teamwide accountability, discipline and structure have been the focus of talks with team officials. Throughout the season, Westbrook was the consistent presence who kept Harden accountable and the two close friends had several verbal exchanges that sources described as ‘tense, but needed.’

“During a January locker room meeting following a home loss to Portland, Westbrook, who was leading the meeting, went around the room indicating what was wrong and what each player needed to do to fix the losing streak, starting with himself, sources said. When it came to Harden, however, he wasn’t as receptive to criticism as other teammates, sources said.”

Shortly after joining the Rockets in the Westbrook trade, guard John Wall came to the same conclusion as Westbrook. According to CBS Sports, “the Rockets had a tense team meeting where John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins demanded accountability from Harden:

“The group was fed up with the antics, tired of the headlines and the constant questions about Harden’s state of mind and where this was all going. And with every day that Harden remained in Houston, his presence became increasingly burdensome for a team that just wanted a sense of clarity and understanding. … John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins both spoke during the meeting, sources said, seeking a direct response on Harden’s level of commitment and preaching about the importance of accountability. For those who had been with the Rockets back when Westbrook preached the same message to anyone who would listen, these uncomfortable dynamics were all too familiar.”

The league rewards players such as Harden (he receives the fourth highest salary) — the high scorer — without regard to efficiency. During 2018-19, the NBA’s last full season, he ranked 385th in defense, and took an average of 24.5 of the team’s 87.4 shots per game — a total of 1,909 shots that season, 225 more than anyone else in the league.

As noted here in a 2019 column, there’s a statistic that tracks the amount of time the ball is in a player’s hands. The ball is in Harden’s possession 9 minutes and 20 seconds, averaging 6.4 seconds per touch — the most in the league. Remember, he plays an average of 36 minutes per game, which means he’s on the bench 12 minutes (or one quarter of a game), and he plays defense about half of those 36 minutes. That means that during the 18 minutes he is on offense, the ball is in his hands more than half the time. He has to play with the ball in his hands — as does Westbrook or Paul. So does Irving, his new teammate.

Then there’s his usage rate — the percentage of plays that end with a player taking a field goal or free throw or committing a turnover. Harden led the league at 39.5%, and it wasn’t even close.

Bottom line: Teammates are not a big part of his game.

Harden left the Rockets looking for better teammates to help him win a championship. The question is, will he let them?