James Harden has been a lot of things over his last seven years as an NBA player—a first round draft pick; Sixth Man of the Year; drunk as hell and yelling about ADIDAS; in the same bedroom as a Kardashian—but for the first time, the anthropomorphized beard in a red #13 jersey is on a team that will likely miss the playoffs.
Just 18 games into the 2015-16 NBA season, Harden’s Houston Rockets have fired its head coach, alienated fans with lackadaisical play, and turned in a breathtaking and extensive series of lowlights that have been shared across a multitude of video and social platforms, to the delight of every Oklahoma City Thunder fan on the planet.
The 8-11 Rockets are already melting down, and the reason hoisted upon the team by both beat writers and national basketball bloggers is the individual play of the team, mainly Harden’s. That would make sense if general manager Daryl Morey had gutted the team in the offseason, turning the Rockets into a one-ring circus featuring Harden and a bunch of scrubs. But alas, he kept last year’s 56-26 team intact, and even added some worthy pieces in players like Ty Lawson. So why are the Rockets so mind-bogglingly bad? And is it too late to salvage this season?
In a recent piece in the Houston Press, headlined “This Houston Rockets Thing is Going Nowhere,” Sean Pendergrast wrote that last year’s number-two playoff seed is now “a 15-man affront to sports professionalism.”
Translation: None of these players like each other or care about playing together, and before McHale was fired, they didn’t care about playing for him either.
Rockets forward Corey Brewer, however, had this to say: “We are responsible. The coach can’t make us play hard. This has got to be a wake-up call.”
The former Maverick has a point; the players are responsible. But it hasn’t been a wake-up call. The Rockets are 4-4 since McHale’s premature ousting, and one of those wins was by two points to perhaps the worst professional sports team in a century, the intentionally tanking, 1-19 Philadelphia 76ers.
Morey had a different message for the media. “The team was not responding to Kevin,” Morey said, at the press conference announcing McHale’s firing.
The subtext there is clear as day, not unlike when team and a manager decide to “part ways.” Using sports executive parlance, “part ways” means “forced resignation,” which really means “we fired him.” The players “not responding to McHale,” means the players are at fault, but since the Rockets GM can’t fire 15 professional basketball players and start over with a clean slate—for both financial and logistical reasons—McHale had to go despite improving the Rockets’ wins total every year since he took over as head coach in 2011-12. That Morey and the roster of players for which he is responsible couldn’t publicly agree on why the team wasn’t winning should tell you everything you need to know about the 2015-16 Houston Rockets.
Moreover, Morey likely didn’t want to fire McHale, but because the Rockets are floundering with a sluggish Harden, a just-OK Howard making a superstar salary, and a salary cap number the size of a Caribbean island’s GDP, it was his only way out. A head had to roll. Luckily perhaps for McHale, the Naismith Hall of Famer gets paid regardless—no word on his buyout yet, but he’s owed between $12 and $13 million—to not be a part of this mess in Houston.
Perhaps sensing what the basketball world was thinking (or reading tweets from McHale supporters like Magic Johnson), Morey admitted as much earlier this week: “You can’t fire the players.” Indeed.
As for Harden, he’s getting killed now more than ever by basketball writers. A Google News search for his name results in headlines containing the words “laziest man,” “embarrassing gaffe,” and “disinterest in defense reaching legendary levels.” A few nights ago, in the midst of another clunker against an Eastern Conference team, journeyman Knick Lance Thomas blew past Harden for an easy layup. The layup was easy because Harden, the only man standing between Thomas and the basket, stopped playing defense to argue with the ref. The clip immediately spread across Vine and Twitter, as just another example of the dumpster fire that is the 2015-16 Houston Rockets, who face an uphill battle in the tougher of the two NBA conferences. What were once merely bad defensive performances from Harden— using the eye-test and advanced statistics alike—now last season’s MVP runner-up looks like a narcotized mummy whenever the opposing team has the ball.
It may seem alarmist at best to write off a talented team before Christmas, but the Western Conference isn’t like its weaker counterpart to the east; teams don’t squeak into the playoffs with .500 records. And like Morey himself said, on the day he fired McHale: “There is no time in the West.”
That’s one thing Morey’s been right about this season.