Shepard: James Harden shouldn’t seek a trade

James Harden should stay in Houston, David Shepard says, in part because the Rockets could have one of the best starting lineups in the NBA

CBS Sports Radio Weekend
December 14, 2020 - 1:55 pm
Houston Rockets NBA

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James Harden, AKA the “Beard,” is one of the top 10 REGULAR-season players to ever live. This is not hyperbole. In the last 30 years, there are three occasions in which a player averaged more than 34 PPG in the regular season, and Harden is responsible for two of them. The only other player to accomplish this in the last three decades was the late GREAT Kobe Bryant. Harden averaged over 36 PPG in the 2018-19 season. Only two other players in the history of the NBA have done better. Those two names are synonymous with NBA icons. They go by Michael Jordan and Wit Chamberlain. 

Since becoming a Houston Rocket in 2012, Harden has scored more than 18,000 points. The player with the second most points scored in that time frame is LeBron James – with 2,971 points fewer. There are only three active players with more career points. The first two are LeBron and Carmelo Anthony, who are both going into year 18. Then there is Kevin Durant, who is going into year 14. Durant ranks sixth in NBA history in career PPG and was a four-time scoring champion by the age of 25. Harden was drafted two years after Durant.

Harden is far from being just a scorer. Since becoming a Rocket in 2012, he ranks third in assists. Has he been ball-dominant? Absolutely! When you are that great and even that efficient (he was second in Player Efficiency Rating last season), you MUST be ball-dominant.  Harden’s efficiency is super impressive when you consider the fact that he is just 6’5. There’s one more thing to know about Harden in the regular season: Since he became a Rocket, the only guard to have more rebounds since 2012 is arguably the greatest rebounding guard in NBA history, Russell Westbrook. 

The playoffs is where the narrative completely changes for Harden, where he goes from all-time great to just a typical All-Star at best. He is not terrible by any means, but his playoff performances don’t come close to matching his greatness in the regular season. The worst performances of his career always seem to come in must-win playoff games. For a player of his caliber, it has happened way too many times. Here are just SOME examples.

In a must-win game to save the season in the 2015 Conference Finals against the Warriors, Harden finished 2-of-11. Just TWO made baskets. Despite playing 43 minutes, more minutes than any other Warrior, six different Warriors had more made field goals than Harden, including Harrison Barnes who QUINTUPLED the amount of made baskets as Harden. This simply can’t happen to a player who has doubled Steph Curry (both came into league at the same time) in All-NBA First Team selections.

In the second round of the 2017 playoffs, the Rockets lost to a Kawhi Leonard-absent San Antonio Spurs squad by 39 points at home in a must-win game. Harden finished 2-of-11 from the field with just 10 points. Spurs Guard Jonathon Simmons made FOUR times the amount of baskets Harden did and nearly doubled him in points. No disrespect to Simmons, but how many NBA fans, not even casual sports fans, can tell you anything about Jonathon Simmons? Harden was clearly the best scorer in the game, and seven different Spurs ended up with more made baskets. Harden finished with the same number of baskets as teammate Sam Dekker, who played just 10 minutes and has a career average of less than six points per game. By the way, in Game 2 of that series, Harden finished 3-of-17 from the field. 

In Game 7 of the 2018 Western Conference Finals, the Rockets, who were playing at home, had an opportunity to advance to their first NBA Finals in over 20 years. Harden went just 2-of-13 from three. Kevin Durant, Steph Curry and Klay Thompson combined to shoot over 45% from three while Harden shot 15% from downtown. If Harden shoots just 30% from three, the Rockets, based on the final score, win that game.

A few months ago, in a must-win game against the Lakers in the second round of the NBA Playoffs in the bubble, Harden once again went 2-of-11 from the field. That was as many made baskets as Talen Horton-Tucker, who played a whopping 7 total minutes in Game 4. The Rockets went 1-4 against the Lakers in the postseason bubble yet had a WINNING record against them in the regular season. Did you know Harden is 2-8 record-wise against LeBron in the postseason? If you are one of the greatest scorers in NBA history, you don’t finish with just two made baskets in must-win postseason games in which you play 37 minutes, 39 minutes and 43 minutes.

For those who argue that Harden should look at greener pastures, think again. Look at the Rockets’ potential starting lineup. John Wall was a five-time All-Star by the age of 27; he will still be, at worst, a top-30 player this season. DeMarcus Cousins was a four-time All-Star by the age of 27; you know he will still be impactful, at the very least, even in limited minutes. Eric Gordon and P.J Tucker are both well above average starters and have been in the trenches with Harden for the past few years. 

It’s easy to demand or seek a trade and look elsewhere. It’s one thing if you have done your part and delivered in the postseason while the “others” fell short. Harden, in the biggest postseason games with the Rockets, ranged from average to poor in too many big games. It’s one thing if you have nobody around you and are in rebuilding mode. The Rockets – with Wall, Cousins, Gordon and Tucker (if that is the starting lineup) – have one of the best starting lineups in the NBA. 

Harden has had plenty of help throughout his nine-year tenure in Houston. The Rockets brought in a five-time First Team All-NBA center in Dwight Howard, a four-time First Team All-NBA guard in Chris Paul, and the 2017 MVP in Russell Westbrook. With three first-ballot Hall of Famers (yes, even Dwight), Harden failed to advance to an NBA Finals. Not for one second should the narrative be that Harden hasn’t had enough of a support system, including this upcoming season.

Clearly Harden has had plenty of support, yet in every postseason run he has never been THAT guy who puts a team on his back and carries them to the promised land. Seeking a trade isn’t the answer for Harden; the answer is having regular-season James Harden show up in the playoffs. Seeking to reflect and look within and rise to the occasion is the only answer for Harden, and in too many instances he has unfortunately failed to do so. Because if he does, he will at some point be an NBA champion, the only thing left to accomplish for one of the ten greatest regular-season players to ever live.  

CBS Sports Radio producer David Shepard is a former ESPN researcher, a former Division I college basketball practice player, and the host of The Good Shepard YouTube channel. Follow him on Twitter @TheGoodShepard_.