DimeMag

This Play Shows James Harden And Dwight Howard Are Still Figuring Out That Whole Chemistry Thing

If the Portland Trail Blazers are the biggest pleasant surprise of the 2015-16 NBA season, then the Houston Rockets are almost certainly the most unpleasant surprise. Less than a season removed from an unlikely run to the Western Conference Finals, Houston is fighting tooth and nail for the eighth seed in the West — wait, did we say “fighting tooth and nail”? We meant they’re listlessly staggering toward the end of the season, seemingly without any sense of urgency about making the playoffs.

At the heart of the Rockets’ struggles this year has been the strange relationship between their biggest stars, James Harden and Dwight Howard. Harden is still the all-encompassing offensive force he’s been since arriving in Houston, but his defense has regressed to 2013 levels after a surprisingly competent run last season. Howard, for his part, hasn’t been able to put together a consistent run of dominance during the regular season since he arrived in Houston. Apart, their issues are serious, but shouldn’t have submarined the Rockets’ whole season. It’s together when the problems arise.

Early in Houston’s overtime loss to the Utah Jazz on Tuesday night, Dwight and James ran a beauty of a high pick-and-roll, and the Jazz let Dwight run free into the paint. Harden lobbed a great looking alley, but the oop from Howard wasn’t forthcoming. Both players gesticulated wildly at the broken play, blaming each other for the mix-up.

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That sort of play happens to lots of teams, but it’s a microcosm of the disarray in Houston that got head coach Kevin McHale fired and put Dwight on the trading block (where no one wanted to give up anything meaningful for him because he’s going to opt out this summer).

To be sure, the Rockets’ problems go deeper than their two best players. They’re a team that prides itself on shooting free throws and threes, but they’re bad at both. Last year, their team defense was among the best in the league with Dwight missing half a season, but even with him back, the team effort isn’t there, and Trevor Ariza, their best perimeter defender a year ago, has regressed. But at the heart of those issues is a team without accountable leaders — the Draymond Green or the Kevin Garnett who won’t let his team roll over. Neither Dwight nor James are that player, and since they’re not on the same page, the whole operation has fallen apart.

The rumors say that Howard wasn’t traded in part because he’s committed to opting out of his contract in the hopes he gets a max deal this offseason, but it might not be coming for him unless he can somehow get it together and commit every game to anchoring the Rockets in the middle. Harden has always been an enigmatic figure and should pull some weight too, but he’s under contract and doesn’t seem to care much about what others think. Dwight does, and if he’s playing for a new deal like we think he is, then it’s on him to step up.

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