Upon Harden's Return, Rockets in Search of Signature Star

The loss of James Harden continues to weigh heavily on the Rockets as they face their old teammate for the first time.
The loss of James Harden continues to weigh heavily on the Rockets as they face their old teammate for the first time. Photo by Eric Sauseda
James Harden returns to Houston for the first time with the Brooklyn Nets Wednesday as still one of the best players in the NBA. While Harden and the Nets are one of the best teams in the league, the Rockets are one of the worst and desperately in search of what Harden took with him when he left.

Monday night in Cleveland was the latest example of how important one great player can be to an NBA roster. When the Rockets desperately needed a shot down the stretch, they couldn't get it. On the other side of the ball was young, up-and-coming guard Collin Sexton who made all the plays in route to a 39-point night, taking the Rockets' losing streak to 12.

With all due respect to John Wall, who is still recovering from nearly two years lost to injuries, and Victor Oladipo, who is clearly playing hurt himself, they are just not a quality substitute for what the team had in Harden. Both of them combined are not enough. The rest of the roster is currently a jumble of injured players, youngsters and guys who probably shouldn't be in an NBA rotation.

Injuries obviously have played a significant role. Most teams would struggle without their best player on the floor. The Rockets just didn't think that guy was Christian Wood. Since he went down with a bent-if-not-broken ankle, they have not won. No team wants one guy to be so indispensable that they cannot win without him. As good as Wood is, the Rockets should not be bad enough to lose repeatedly to teams like Cleveland and Chicago without him.

Perhaps the most overlooked casualty of Harden's departure is the impact it has had on once prolific role players. When Eric Gordon is healthy, he is being forced into a role he isn't equipped to handle at this point in his career. And without The Beard, P.J. Tucker has become a shell of his former self on the offensive end of the floor.

You might think, well why don't they just turn up their defense as they did when they were winning six straight? That would be true if the Rockets could hit anything on the offensive end. When they lost by 49 to the .500 Memphis Grizzlies recently, they shot 27 percent from the floor. Not from the three-point line, from everywhere. It's tough to muster up the strength to keep defending the other team when you you're missing more than 70 percent of the shots you take.

There has without a doubt been a confluence of factors that has led to this god-awful skid for the Rockets. Injuries, youth, lack of consistency and time to build chemistry, it's all in there. But, even when they faced those issues in the past, there was one constant. And they could hand him the ball any time they wanted with the knowledge that most of the time, he was going to figure out a way to claw out a win, or, at the very least compete.

Now, James Harden plays for another team that is likely going to lay a serious beating on his former team. It would be the thirteenth loss in a row courtesy of No. 13.

Sometimes, it can be difficult to fully grasp the reality of what was lost when a player leaves. This time, all you have to do is look at the standings, and you know.
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Jeff Balke is a writer, editor, photographer, tech expert and native Houstonian. He has written for a wide range of publications and co-authored the official 50th anniversary book for the Houston Rockets.
Contact: Jeff Balke