The season just isn't the same for James Harden.
He has his numbers, another All-Star appearance, but it's different. Frustration is a key word when describing Harden's fourth season with the Houston Rockets, who take on the Portland Trail Blazers Wednesday night (ESPN, 10:30 ET).
"Yeah, because my first year was different," Harden said. "We weren't as talented and we still made playoffs, which was a big step for us. We have a lot of talent in this locker room, of course, coming off the Western Conference finals and being in the seventh spot right now. It's frustrating, but we still have opportunities."
Last season Harden was mentioned with Russell Westbrook in a two-man race for the MVP award. Curry ended up winning the award, but Harden was the clear winner in a player vote. This season?
It seems Curry is the undisputed champ when it comes to the MVP award from the media and most likely from the players. Harden is second in the league in scoring, first in free throw attempts and makes, the leader in minutes played, the leader in assists on corner 3-pointers.
"We're not winning, so those numbers don't mean anything," Harden said.
Harden's frustration started over the summer when he suffered an ankle injury that delayed his ability to play basketball and get in shape. The previous summer, Harden played with Team USA, so he came into camp in terrific condition. He went on to lead the league in minutes, finished second to Curry in scoring and led the league in free throws.
In the postseason, however, Harden tired toward the end and despite a wonderful season, one in which he had finally arrived as one of the league's superstars, his team lost to the Golden State Warriors in Game 5 of the Western Conference finals.
Harden thought another offensive creator would help him, so GM Daryl Morey obliged him and acquired Ty Lawson in an attempt to take the ballhandling pressure off Harden.
It hasn't gone well. Lawson played tentatively early, and Harden shot 22 percent from the field and 10.6 percent from 3-point range in the first three games of the season. Understandably, the Rockets started the season 0-3, losing by an average of 20 points. After 11 games, the Rockets were 4-7, and Morey along with owner Leslie Alexander decided to fire coach Kevin McHale. Rumors surfaced that Harden played a role in the firing but sources told me that wasn't the case.
But McHale said he was blindsided by the firing.
"We had a rough camp, a lot of guys were injured," McHale said on TNT this week. Dwight [Howard] couldn't do back-to-back practices and was not going to be able to do back-to-back games until December. James had sprained his ankle in the summer, came in overweight. And we just weren't playing very well. I told our guys at the end of training camp, 'Hey, we're a month, six weeks away from our team kind of gelling and playing well.'"
But then McHale was gone and it left Harden to fix things. He did earn Western Conference Player of the Week honors for the week of Nov. 2-8, and there was a hope things would get better. Harden refused to blame the injury, though. And that cohesion is something the team is still searching for.
"Nah, I was affected by an ankle injury, so that threw me off my natural training late in the summer or whatnot. That's no excuse, just trying to find it, brother."
Who's to blame?
With McHale gone, J.B. Bickerstaff took over and asked more of his players, including Harden. To that end, Harden has been the Rockets' power pack. On the season, Harden has scored at least 20 points in 45 games, 30 points 22 times and 40 points seven times. After he shot 39.8 percent from the floor in the first 22 games of the season, he's shot 44.6 percent over the next 31.
Harden has also distributed the ball. He's eighth in the league in assists at seven per game, and he's produced 10-plus assists 10 times this season. He's assisted on 50 percent of his team's points at least eight games. When the Rockets used smaller lineups, Harden produced solid rebounding games. He's averaging a career-high 6.3 rebounds a game and 7.3 defensive rebounds per 100 possessions.
"One thing, his turnovers are down dramatically," Bickerstaff said. "If his turnovers are down, then his assists are up. That's one of the things he said he wanted to improve on, and obviously he's done it, the decision-making ... the creativity has been there. It's been outstanding the last month. It's not surprisingly; we knew he could do it."
"I think all of us have been frustrated with how the season has gone. Not just James, all of us are frustrated. We could be better."Dwight Howard
But despite all of Harden's efforts, the Rockets remain near the bottom of the playoff seedings and haven't shown an ability to move up. Consequently, deserved or not, Harden and Dwight Howard have received most of the blame for the struggles of a team many thought would be elite.
"I think all of us have been frustrated with how the season has gone," Howard said. "Not just James, all of us are frustrated. We could be better."
After Wednesday's game at Portland, the Rockets will have just 27 games to solve their issues. To that end, when Bickerstaff demanded more of his players, he was specifically asking for more effort on defense. This is where the Rockets -- and Harden -- at times fall short.
It's a major issue, and Harden is at the forefront. He noted the number of minutes he plays and says that makes it difficult for him to play at a high level on both ends. Still, fatigued or not, his ability to get through screens is poor. Harden has a minus-0.4 defensive box plus/minus this season.
After some losses, Harden sits at his locker looking at the box score, sometimes in a daze trying to come up with the answers to reporters' questions about what went wrong.
Harden says if he had the answers he would provide them. On Saturday, the Rockets lost at home by 17 to Portland.
"Those are games we're supposed to win," he said. "Last year we won [those games], and that's the difference between the seventh and eighth seed and second, third and fourth seed. We still got our opportunities to take advantage of them, but you got to do them."