How scathing criticism of James Harden could impact Rockets homecoming

Will James Harden return to the Rockets? Composite Getty Image.

When my son was 4 years old, I signed him up to play kiddie soccer. The whole family, plus friends and even my boss from work, came to the park to watch him play his first game, a baby step toward what surely would be a championship athletic career. I had my camcorder ready to roll. His uniform was freshly washed. I even ironed it. How exciting! I just hoped he would allow some of the other kids to score goals, too.

Then, just before the team took the field, he started crying. “Take me home!” There was no stopping him from crying and sniffling – a total meltdown. “I want to go home!” So I picked him up and off we went home.

On that day, my son gave a better effort than James Harden gave the Philadelphia 76ers in Game 7 against the Boston Celtics last Sunday.

Harden, the three-time NBA scoring champ, scored nine points on 3 for 11 shooting, before eventually quitting on the team, moping around on the court, refusing to shoot and failing to hustle back on defense after blowing a layup. It was an unparalleled, yet typical, performance by Harden. That's how badly Harden stunk up the court. He did everything short of crying, “I want to go home!”

During the fourth quarter of Sunday's game, I texted my friend Glen Macnow, who's a sports talk show host in Philly. I asked him, are you enjoying James Harden's antics?

He fired back: “unbelievable, despicable, career defining as an embarrassing choke artist.” You could almost hear the disgust in his words.

I told him, down here in Houston, we've seen this before.

He answered, “We knew that. We essentially predicted it as a strong possibility on the show this (Sunday) morning.”

On Monday, ESPN's Stephen A. Smith really unloaded on Harden. “James Harden was so awful, so bad, he should actually shave his beard so he can hide his identity. It was really, really bad. I say that in all seriousness. I'm not joking. It was that bad. It will be difficult for him to walk the streets (of Philadelphia). You don't do what you saw him do on Sunday afternoon in a Game 7.”

And what about the rumor that Harden may return to the Rockets?

Stephen A. said, “They ain't giving him no max deal, they ain't giving him a major long-term deal, I can assure you of that. This performance right here turned a whole bunch of people off about James Harden.”

I wonder, does that include Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta, who has made his fondness, bordering on fatal attraction, for Harden very public? After Harden forced his way out of Houston three years ago, Fertitta famously told Harden he would be welcomed back to Houston in the future. If Harden agreed to a deal with Houston, it wouldn't surprise me if Toyota Center sold Boiled Bunny Sandwiches next year.

Given his stunningly gutless performance Sunday, why do we continue to hear that Harden to Houston is a real possibility? In fact, Vegas oddsmakers say it's likely that Harden will opt out of his contract with the 76ers and his No. 1 landing place, at -150 where betting is legal (not Texas), is Houston. Phoenix is the wiseguy's second choice at +250. Wow, can you imagine that? James Harden and Kevin Durant on the same team? You might as well just hand the Larry O'Brien trophy to the Suns now. Kyrie Irving is a free agent, right? What could possibly go wrong?

On Monday, NBA insider Adrian Wojnarowski wrote, “Houston is a very real possibility for Philadelphia's James Harden in free agency … there's a comfort level in Houston for James Harden … he's very comfortable in that environment … he knows ownership, he knows the front office.” Woj added, “Regardless of whether they win the lottery and can draft Victor Wembanyama, my sense is that it would not change the Rockets' intentions to pursue James Harden.”

Barring a reshuffling of the roster, the Rockets next year will roll out a team comprised mostly of rookies, second and third-year players without much hope of making a deep playoff run – given the team finished last in the Western Conference the last three years with records of 22-60, 20-62 and 17-55. Perhaps more than a big-time scorer who could help them inch closer to .500, the Rockets could use a mature veteran, a role model for the younger players, someone who can show them how to be responsible, professional NBA players, a real team-first kind of leader. That's not Harden, at least it wasn't his first time around with the Rockets.

Harden reportedly still calls Houston “home.” Last summer, Harden said, “My family is here, my mom, my sister, my brother – so this (Houston) is the place I would call home.”

Author Thomas Wolfe wrote a famous novel called You Can't Go Home Again.

We'll have to see about that.

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Numbers don't lie. Composite Getty Image.

The Astros better be mindful. The Texas Rangers are better than the Astros right now because while the Rangers’ offense has been awesome, the Astros’ attack continues to rate as screamingly average. The Rangers have opened up a four and a half game lead over the Astros in the American League West. 27 games represent one-sixth of the regular season schedule. Over their last 27 games the Astros have gone 19-8. Extrapolated over 162 games that’s awesome 114 win baseball. Over those 27 games the Astros have gained zero ground in the standings on the Rangers.

While 19-8 is an impressive stretch no matter what, it is notable that within that stretch the Astros went 11-1 versus the A’s, Cubs, and White Sox, three bad teams. Winning five of six from the mediocre Angels was good, particularly beating Shohei Ohtani twice. The Astros lost two out of three to the Brewers, lost two out of three to the Twins, and need a getaway win in Toronto to gain a split with the Blue Jays.

Maybe the Rangers will be akin to the 1979 Astros, rising but not quite ready yet. July 4, 1979 the Astros led the Reds by 10 and a half games in the National League West. Reds’ pitcher and top 10 greatest pitcher ever Tom Seaver said no worries, the Astros would “fall like a lead balloon” in the second half. The Reds won the division. Here is one stat that points toward Rangers' slippage: as a team they are batting a preposterous .335 with runners in scoring position. No way that holds up all season. The Astros and Rangers have a four game series in Arlington starting June 30. That series looms as much more important to the Astros than one would have thought back in spring training.

Here's the catch

Dusty Baker this week offered his most elaborate explanation for his playing time split at catcher. It was largely balderdash. Thursday’s series finale in Toronto is Martin Maldonado's 45th start behind the plate. Yainer Diaz has 15 starts, Cesar Salazar three. Dusty talked of how there is more to the catching position than hitting. Fair point. His “points” deteriorated from there. It’s definitely attention getting that General Manager Dana Brown has publicly acknowledged talking with Baker about Diaz playing more. Good for Dana.

Let’s leave aside that Maldonado is a lousy offensive player, while Diaz brims with potential and recently has translated some of that potential into results. The Astros’ record is better with Diaz catching than with Maldonado. The pitchers’ earned run average is better when Diaz catches. The “Machete” blade has dulled. Maldonado has thrown out just six of 28 base stealers. Diaz has nailed seven of 18. Maldonado has three passed balls (and at least a couple more that were generously for him scored wild pitches), Diaz has none. All upside growth lies with Diaz.

Dusty sees it as tough to have rookie pitchers throwing to a rookie catcher. I guess if they stink that’s true. Especially dubious is Dusty’s “point” in having Maldonado catch Hunter Brown’s last six starts so that should Diaz get hurt, Maldonado wouldn’t have to start catching Brown with little familiarity. How about the inverse? Diaz catching all the other starters more so that should the approaching 37 years old Maldonado break down, Diaz is more up to speed. Oh, Brown’s earned run average over those six starts with Maldonado is 4.81. Over his first six starts, five of them pitching to Diaz, Brown’s ERA was 2.60.

Wednesday Dusty gave Alex Bregman and Jeremy Pena the night off. Nothing wrong with that. The 29-year-old Bregman had played in all 61 games this season to date, the 25-year-old Pena in 60 of 61. Meanwhile, 36-year-old season long disaster Jose Abreu was penciled into the starting lineup for the 60th time in 62 games. Abreu’s ended the night with his OPS at .534. He is the worst player in the Major Leagues getting everyday run. Thursday marks his 61st start in 63 games. Another spot where Diaz should be getting more time.

All eyes on Texas

Some more on those Rangers, who last season finished 68-94. They are now 40-21, and that with their desperate five year 185 million dollar contract dice roll on pitcher Jacob deGrom crapping out. deGrom finishes with all of six starts and now faces a second Tommy John surgery that could sideline him until 2025. One of the very few pitchers to ever pitch viably again after two Tommy John surgeries is Alvin native Nathan Eovaldi. The Rangers gave him 34 million guaranteed for two years, which so far is the best signing of the offseason. Eovaldi has been every bit as good as Framber Valdez.

Will he hold up is a very fair and very important question. Since 2015, only in 2021 has Eovaldi topped 125 innings in a season. He’s on pace for about 200 this year. Overall, Rangers’ starting pitchers have a lower ERA than Astros’ starters. The Rangers weakness is their bullpen. There is virtually no doubt they will strengthen it by the trade deadline. Their offense has had no weaknesses. Only one team since 1950 (1999 Indians) has amassed more than 1000 runs in a season. About 40 percent of the way through this season the Rangers are on pace for 1025. Going position by position, Yordan Alvarez remains the only Astro who would crack the Ranger lineup so far this year.

Reminder that there are no one game tiebreakers to decide division titles or wild card spots. Season series winners win out. Astros-Jays Thursday outcome decides the season series. It’s conceivable that could be very important come season’s end.

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Stone Cold ‘Stros is the weekly Astro-centric podcast I am part of alongside Brandon Strange and Josh Jordan. On our regular schedule a first video segment goes up at 3PM Monday on the SportsMapHouston YouTube channel, with the complete audio available in podcast form at outlets galore. Such as:

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