Is James Harden setting himself up for another postseason failure?

Spacing the Floor | Part I: Why dual front-office job/coaching role has ran its course

The Beard is on a mission.

With each passing game, the Houston Rockets are climbing out of the abyss and into respectability, headed toward contention in the Western Conference.

And James Harden, last season’s wire-to-wire Most Valuable Player, is openly stating his case for a repeat, bending the will of defenses with relentless 3-point attempts that stretch beyond today’s cultural norms, while sprinkling pinpoint passes for layups and dunks that keep defenses honest.

James Harden has carried the Rockets, but is he doing too much? (Getty)
James Harden has carried the Rockets, but is he doing too much? (Getty)

“I need it [another MVP]. I need it for sure. And I’m going to get it,” Harden told TNT’s Rosalyn Gold-Onwude before a breathtaking performance against Golden State last week in which he hit a game-winning 30-footer over Draymond Green and Klay Thompson in overtime.

It seems like he’s either getting to the free-throw line by inducing defenders to hack him or launching from 30 feet simply because he feels like it.

“He comes in and does extra work,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said. “He knew he had to take his body to one more level up. He had to get into a better rhythm.”

The numbers are staggering: He’s averaging 40.2 points in the last month with 9.6 assists and 6.8 rebounds. He’s launching nearly 15 triples a game and looks no worse for wear. A second MVP will elevate him historically, likely into one of the top five shooting guards in history and he’s not yet 30.

(Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo illustration)
(Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo illustration)

The Rockets have needed every last one of Harden’s scoring barrages, and Harden has been more than happy to oblige. But as he makes it his goal to re-insert his name into a conversation that seemed like a long shot several weeks ago, it begs the question: Will a run at a second straight MVP come at a cost for the Rockets?

For the last three seasons, Harden has played at this pace and has even ramped it up this season with the absence of Chris Paul and the departures of some key veterans who helped the Rockets get within a sniff of the NBA Finals last May. He’s leading the league in minutes per game, and over the last three years, only Minnesota’s Andrew Wiggins has played more regular-season minutes, with Harden’s playoff minutes putting him over the top.

Harden’s regular seasons have been filled with great stats, ankle-breaking moves and hilarious moments that have been turned into GIFs, and there’s something to be said about a player who takes 82 games so seriously.

But his postseason endings have left plenty to be desired.

His 2012 NBA Finals showing — 12.4 points per game on 37.5 percent shooting — as a member of the Oklahoma City Thunder is still a head-scratcher. In 2015, he had 12 turnovers for the Rockets in Game 5 of the West finals as the Golden State Warriors advanced. In Game 5 of the 2017 semis, ancient Manu Ginobili swiped a potentially tying triple from behind as Harden barely had any lift on his jumper. That was followed by a 2-of-11 showing in a 39-point beatdown at Houston that ended the series in six games.

When you’re going for history, these one-offs will be more scrutinized.

His final three games in last year’s West finals showed a tired player, and the Warriors knew Harden’s tank was on “E” in Games 6 and 7. Harden shot just 36 percent and went 6-of-36 in those final three games — the biggest of his career — while turning it over nearly seven times a night. A big part of that is D’Antoni’s system, keeping the ball in Harden’s hands more than the average ball-dominant star. But Harden doesn’t seem to mind and hasn’t altered enough of his game during the slow months of December and January to leave enough juice for May and June.

James Harden squares off against Stephen Curry last week. (Getty)
James Harden squares off against Stephen Curry last week. (Getty)

LeBron James and Dwyane Wade once sat in a locker room after an easy win and discussed how playing 30 or 35 minutes is different for everybody.

“All 35 minutes ain’t the same,” Wade said that night. “You pick your spots, you play hard but you don’t wear yourself out. You know it’s something greater down the line.”

James is a bionic man, able to carry more of a load than even the average great player, but the regular seasons have only been a precursor to the playoffs. He had the same energy in carrying his then-Cavs through an East finals Game 7 in Boston and nearly upsetting the Warriors in Game 1 of last year’s Finals as he would’ve if those games were played in November. But still, he knows how to pick his spots and he hasn’t been afraid to take rest games in recent seasons.

Wade used to joke that going full bore for 82 games only got him a first-round knockout and front-row seat for the rest of the postseason, so he learned how to conserve his body even before his knees began to fail him in the latter stages of his prime.

It doesn’t look like Harden is throttling back as he’s focused on claiming his place in history. But if history is our guide, Harden could be ultimately pursuing another empty postseason run.


1. We get what Derrick Rose was trying to say when he said (and repeated) the phrase “kill yourself” in reference to his doubters. It wasn’t literal and common sense should apply. But he makes it hard on himself when he knows the public is hanging on every word he says. He just doesn’t care to be anything but himself.

2. Who knows what to make of Enes Kanter’s back-and-forth with former NBA player-turned-Turkish adviser Hedo Turkoglu, but it’s messy. And if a player believes that by going to London he’ll be putting his life in danger, we should all take that seriously.

3. Vince Carter can probably play until he’s 45. And as long as he wants to play and can still throw one down, make a place for him on a roster and at All-Star Weekend.

4. Donovan Mitchell is going through the sophomore blues. But something tells me he’ll be fine in the long run. He’s too good to stay in this rut.

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