How did the Rockets win without James Harden? Telling a better story…


The Houston Rockets had an interesting game on Saturday night. Prior to the game the Rockets learned that James Harden would not be playing. This season, Harden has averaged 26.0 points per game and 16.9 shots from the field. So the Rockets – who average 82.5 shots from the field per game – were going to be missing about 20% of the team’s shots. And the Rockets were playing the LA Clippers, the 4th best team in the Western Conference. In sum, it looked bleak.

But when the game was over, the Rockets had managed to take 80 shots from the field (and two more free throws then their season average). More importantly, the team outscored the Clippers by 17 points. So how was this possible?

Here are some quotes from the recap of the game:

  • “We had a lot of guys play well,” Rockets coach Kevin McHale said. “The ball was really moving tonight, and it was good to see that. Everybody was in tune.”

  • “When your best player is out, everybody has got to step up,” (Francisco) Garcia said. “That’s what we did tonight. We stayed together and got the win.”

  • “If you look across the board, no one really did anything spectacular,” (Jeremy) Lin said. “But everybody played their role, did their jobs, and that’s what you need when you’re playing without your star player.”

So the coach and the players seem to be emphasizing the idea that everyone played like a team. And Lin goes on to add that “no one really did anything spectacular”.

When we look at the box score, though, we see a different story.

For the game, the Rockets grabbed 10 more rebounds than the Clippers. And this allowed the Rockets to take more shots from the field and the line. Coupled with somewhat better shooting efficiency, the Rockets were able to blow the Clippers off the court.

This game seems to teach two lessons:

  1. Shots are generally taken, not created. Harden takes shots on the Rockets. Without him, though, essentially the same number of shots get taken.
  2. Getting possession of the ball really matters.

And that means, someone must have done something right. But it wasn’t everyone on the team.

If we look at Wins Produced (via Patrick Minton and The NBA Geek), we see the following performances from this game:

  • Omer Asik: 0.297 WP48

  • Carlos Delfino: 0.227 WP48

  • Francisco Garcia: 0.212 WP48

Average WP48 is 0.100. So these players were well beyond average in this contest.

Looking back at the box score, we see these numbers were driven by

  • Asik rebounding and hitting his shots.

  • Delfino and Garcia hitting their shots.

The other players in the game were not nearly this productive. In sum, this wasn’t a game where “everyone” contributed equally to the team’s success. And it wasn’t a game where “no one did anything spectacular.” Instead, as is often the case in basketball, a few players contributed more than most to the team’s level of success.

And again, the recap of the game and the quotes from the coach and players indicate that the big story in the game was missed.

Now can we expect the Rockets to keep winning without Harden? A problem with looking at one game (or as some do, just small segments of games) is that performance by NBA players is not constant in every moment in an NBA season. But across an entire NBA season we tend to see players converge on a specific spot in the NBA production distribution. In other words, although players can be “good” or “bad” in a given game, when we look at performance across an entire season we tend to see “good” players converge to “good” and “bad” players converge to “bad”.

When we look at the Rockets this season, that is the general pattern.

The above average veteran players on this team in 2012-13 are Harden, Asik, Chandler Parsons, and Carlos Delfino. And when we look at each player’s career performance, we see that each player has been above average in the past. So what they are doing across this season is not surpising.

Of these, Harden is easily the most productive. And again, given what happened before this season,  this is also not surprising.

So can the Rockets keep winning without Harden? Yes, if Garcia keeps performing as he did on Saturday night. Unfortunately, when we look at Garcia’s career performance we see that this is unlikely.

Yes, the Rockets do need their leading scorer to keep winning. This is not because they need Harden to create shots. What they need Harden to do is get the shots he takes to consistently go in the basket. And without that skill, the Rockets can probably expect to struggle. At least, that would be our expectation if this team tried to play an entire season without Harden.

Update:  I wrote this post before the Rockets game on Monday night. On Monday night we see a similar story.

  • The Rockets didn’t have Harden.
  • The team still managed to find someone to shoot without Harden.
  • Asik and Garcia were again amazing. Delfino wasn’t so great, but Lin also had a very good game.

Of course, now we have two games. And in both of those games, Asik and Garcia were great without Harden. So I guess that proves it. Take Harden away and Asik and Garcia will be amazing!

Yes, that was sarcasm. And yes, I still think the evidence still tells us that the Rockets need Harden to be successful!



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