Can Houston Rockets Still Confidently Build Around James Harden?

John WilmesContributor IMay 6, 2014

Portland Trail Blazers' Nicolas Batum, center, defends against Houston Rockets' James Harden (13)during game four of an NBA basketball first-round playoff series game in Portland, Ore., Sunday April 27, 2014. (AP Photo/Greg Wahl-Stephens)

The questions are flying a million miles per hour at the eliminated Houston Rockets. Perhaps none of them is larger than the mystery as to what James Harden is worth to the team.

An undeniable superstar during the regular season, surely bound for all All-NBA distinction, Harden was shaky in the Rockets’ first-round exit to the Portland Trailblazers. Marvelous in the series’ sixth and final game, Harden took the first four to warm up and find an appropriate role within the team.

Harden shot 35 percent from the field until Game 5, averaging 26 shots and 3.75 turnovers. More importantly, he often dragged the Houston offense into stagnation with arrays of overlong isolation actions.

James Harden, Regular Season and Playoffs
Regular SeasonPlayoffs
Points Per Game25.426.8
Field-Goal Percentage45.637.6
Three-Point Percentage36.629.6

Harden’s defense is another, larger issue. He’s become a complete patsy on that end—his attention as a stopper is divided at best, and the league has taken notice. Portland even took him to task for it, at times punishing Houston by moving the ball to whoever Harden was guarding.

“It wasn’t my best,” Harden recently said to Jonathan Feigen of The Houston Chronicle. “I have a lot of time now to work on both sides of my game. This summer is going to be key for me.”

Harden did look the part of franchise man, however, when the Rockets were at their most desperate. In Game 6 he was remarkable, racking up 34 points on just 15 shots while grabbing four steals and six assists. He was also a perfect 12-for-12 from the free-throw line. This is exactly the Harden the Rockets need.

It wasn't enough to win the game, but how could it be when Damian Lillard has so much fortune running through his fingertips?

The best-case scenario for the Rockets and their leading scorer is that this season, so full of the growing pains of increased attention, has hardened Harden. He knows how eager the world is to find his basketball warts now, so maybe he’ll work hard this summer to be rid them.

The No. 1 solution to Harden’s lopsided game is a more organic court relationship with fellow All-Star Dwight Howard. By developing more consistent plays together—the pick-and-roll, namely—both players can exert less effort scoring while also scoring more easily and efficiently. 

PORTLAND, OR - MAY 2:  James Harden #13 and Dwight Howard #12 of the Houston Rockets walk up court in Game Six of the Western Conference Quarterfinals against the Portland Trail Blazers during the 2014 NBA Playoffs on May 2, 2014 at the Moda Center in Por
Sam Forencich/Getty Images

Harden needs to let Howard help him mystify defenses instead of putting all of that responsibility into his crafty footwork. More of his scurrying energy needs to be left for the defensive end. In Game 6, Harden demonstrated a certain knowledge of this, with his shot count down and his defensive engagement way up.

Let’s hope it carries over into next season. If not, the Rockets may begin to question their decision to make Harden one of the co-pillars of their foundation next to Howard. Long attached to rumors involving Carmelo Anthony and Rajon Rondo, we know their front office is not bashful about shifting the deck.

It’s not too late for Harden—far from it. He’s still a ripe 24—but he’s definitely run up on another test in his quest helping lead Houston to the promised land. Whether he can consistently rein himself in and delegate to his team while also steeling up defensively will decide his future with his team.

Mar 9, 2014; Houston, TX, USA; Portland Trail Blazers shooting guard Wesley Matthews (2) steals the ball from Houston Rockets shooting guard James Harden (13) during the fourth quarter at Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Andrew Richardson-USA TODAY Sports

The shocking acquisition of Harden in 2012, coupled with last year’s pursuit of Howard, proves that Houston’s front office is in championship mode. If Harden wants to be a part of that going forward, he’ll have to prove that he’s more than just a scorer with a visually appealing game. He’s got to be his very best self, game after game. And above all, he's got to do it in the postseason.

Is Harden up to the challenge?