The loss of Harden shouldn't spell disaster for the Rockets but an extended absence could have adverse effects on his MVP case.
The suddenly struggling Rockets were dealt another blow Monday when the team announced James Harden will miss at least two weeks with a strained hamstring. Harden had been putting together another MVP-caliber season until he suffered the injury against the Lakers on Sunday. The injury comes at a bad time for Houston, which has lost five of its last six after a hot start to the season. Will the Rockets be able to keep pace in the loaded West without their best player?
At first blush, Houston appears to be capable of surviving without Harden. In 196 minutes with Chris Paul on the court and Harden off this season, the Rockets have a net rating of 21.5, which is actually much better than Houston’s net efficiency when Paul and Harden are playing together. Remember, Mike D’Antoni has been staggering Paul and Harden’s minutes when both have been healthy, which means both players have had their fair share of time running the offense. Paul is obviously not the scorer Harden is, but he can be an equally effective playmaker, and Houston’s starting lineup with CP3 in place of Harden will likely still blitz opponents. Paul is having an incredibly efficient season, and his on/off stats are actually better than Harden’s.
The Rockets’ schedule for the next two weeks is also forgiving. They’ll play four under-.500 teams—the Suns, Clippers, Bulls and Magic. They’ll have a tough matchup with the Warriors at home, but will also play winnable games against the Pistons and Blazers. There’s also reasons to believe Houston’s recent struggles are more of an anomaly than the sign of a larger trend. Paul missed three of the Rockets’ last five defeats. And close losses against the Thunder and Celtics were 50-50 games that could have gone either way.
While the Rockets are capable of winning without Harden, it won’t be easy. Harden is one of the most devastating offensive forces in the league, and the increased burden on Paul could hurt his efficiency. Houston will also be without a secondary ball-handler to take pressure of Paul, especially when D’Antoni is forced to use his bench. The newly signed Gerald Green could see a bump in minutes, which is a boom-or-bust proposition. Eric Gordon has been a great scorer for the second straight season, but he may be asked to do more playmaking with the second unit if his minutes are staggered with Paul’s.
One thing is for sure: Harden’s MVP case will definitely take a hit, especially if he misses more than two weeks. LeBron James has been on a tear, and he can use Harden’s absence to move ahead in the race, particularly with LeBron continuing to play a large number of minutes. If James and Harden are still close by the end of the season, games played could become a deciding factor.
What’s most important, of course, is winning. The Rockets entered the new year second in the West. They likely won’t make up any ground on the Warriors while Harden is out, but the Rockets shouldn’t free fall down the standings either. If any team is able to survive without James Harden, it’s one that can replace him with Chris Paul.