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State of the Rockets: James Harden dominates scrimmages, and a conversation about Eric Gordon

Composite photo by Brandon Strange

With no scrimmage stats available, we're going to change up for format a little bit today.

Eric Gordon goes down with ankle injury

On last week's episode or Red Nation Hoops, I talked with SI's Michael Shapiro about what we were looking to get out of these scrimmages from the Rockets. Shapiro and I came away with the same answer: "How does Eric Gordon look?"

We both said this because we know the Rockets have a playoff ceiling without Eric Gordon. When he's playing well, he turns them into a different, more dangerous team and their entire micro-ball concept relies on them having multiple capable ball handlers like him. Gordon had also been pretty bad this year, presumably due to injuries, so it was natural to be curious how he would look after a four-month layoff.

So then the scrimmages started and Eric Gordon shoots 2 for 8 from three-point range in his first game. No big deal, right? It's the first sanctioned NBA game in months, and he wasn't the only player that was rusty. Then he shot 0 for 6 against Memphis in the second game and while it was a little head scratching, it still was pretty easy to write off. Before turning his left ankle against Boston, Gordon shot 1 for 6 from three-point range.

"Uh-oh," said Rockets play-by-play announcer Craig Ackerman on the broadcast. This was naturally my first response as well as a slew of panicking Rockets fans weighed in on the injury on Twitter. Then the broadcast replayed the play where Gordon turned his ankle. Then Gordon was shown being helped off the floor, but he was noticeably able to put some weight on the ankle.

Let me be clear: I am not a doctor, but as someone who's watched a lot of basketball over the last 10 years, the injury didn't look that severe in the moment. I say all of this to say, before the X-ray results came in and before we were briefed by Mike D'Antoni post-game with an update on Gordon, I had a thought that may be somewhat controversial:

As long as Gordon is able to safely return to the floor in a month, this may end up being good for him and the Rockets as a team.

Again, let me reiterate what I said at the top of this diatribe - the Rockets need Gordon and they have a playoff ceiling without him. However, temporarily as the Rockets are trying to find a rhythm on both ends of the floor, it may be better for Gordon to be re-introduced to the group later on, when they are rolling.

"Of course Eric is a huge part of what we're doing and what we're trying to do," said James Harden after the game. "Hopefully he can get his ankle healed as soon as possible. But we've been dealing with adversity all year. It's an opportunity for guys to step up."

Players like Danuel House, Austin Rivers, and Ben McLemore can sufficiently fill in the gaps for Gordon until the playoffs roll around and these players may benefit from the extra reps themselves.

For example, someone like Austin Rivers, who seems to struggle as a tertiary ball-handler, seems like an obvious temporary beneficiary with an expanded role. It's a really dark thing to say, but Rivers' highest of highs with this Rockets team have come when he's been the third guard - meaning when there was an injury in the guard rotation. I sort of expect that to happen now.

When asked who will start if Gordon is unable to return, Mike D'Antoni was pretty vague.

"We'll see," said D'Antoni. "I started Ben [McLemore in the second half] for a couple reasons. One is it's an easier rotation because Danuel [House] has to backup Covington at forward so it's better. Danuel also thought he could start. We'll see."

Mike D'Antoni is big on role definitions, and he's actually said that he likes Danuel House as the sixth man and backup forward a few times throughout the season. It's possible Ben McLemore starts on Friday. However, if I were to venture a guess, I would say D'Antoni caves and inserts the better player into the starting lineup at some point during Gordon's absence. Either way, both House and McLemore will see more playing time.

Eric Gordon has not been particularly strong defensively this year and I suspect the Rockets will temporarily be better without him in the rotation.

Again, I don't think the Rockets are better in the long-run without Gordon, but I suspect they will see temporary benefits because of how poorly he's played.

Bringing Gordon off the bench in a minutes restriction before playoff time sounds more natural than force-feeding him over thirty minutes a game when he's struggling so badly.

James Harden is ready for real basketball

If you were ever worried about James Harden's conditioning or ready-level for the resumption of the regular season, he crushed those worries about 15 minutes into his first scrimmage. Harden has been firing on all cylinders in Houston's training camp and it's actually quite incredible to watch - even after all these years.

90 points

25 assists
20 rebounds
5 steals
2 blocks

23 of 46 from the field
16 of 29 from three-point range
28 of 33 from the free throw line

74.4% True Shooting

+47 in 90 minutes

These are cartoon statistics that feel like they have to have been fabricated. Harden credits his offseason conditioning and doing things like sprints and stairs after practices for how well he's played. Whatever the case, the 30-year-old guard certainly looks ready for games that count.

Jeff Green has been solid

I want to careful as I'm writing this because Jeff Green has a tendency to get fanbases across the NBA excited only for the up-and-down nature of his game to upset them. However, so far, Green has been a really solid pickup for the Rockets.

"Oh yeah," said Mike D'Antoni when asked if he could see Green playing in Houston's playoff rotation. "Jeff's going to play. Jeff's a heck of a basketball player."

Green posted 18 points on 6 of 7 shooting from the field and 3 of 4 shooting from three-point range against Memphis. He's been averaging 18.6 points, 5.7 rebounds, and 1.6 blocks on 73.9% True Shooting per 36 minutes ever since he signed with the Rockets. He's been solid on the small-ball forward/center role he's been asked to play for the team and it may be a situation where this is what he is as a basketball player from now on.

Again, it's only been 10 games with Houston and Green is infamous for his inconsistency. It's something to monitor and acknowledge for right now.

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The media has mixed feelings about the James Harden trade. Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

James Harden was 100-percent exactly right earlier this week when he said the Houston Rockets were "just not good enough."

How could they be? Not when their moody superstar scorer, who makes about half a million dollars per game, shows up chubby, looking like a kielbasa about to explode in the microwave. Hey, some people eat when they're unhappy, it's a defense mechanism. In Harden's case, the only defense he's exhibited this season. At least he had a good excuse for missing pre-season training camp and alienating his teammates - he was busy partying with Cinnamon and Cherish in Atlanta and Vegas without a mask. Worst of all, he went into the tank his last four games in a Rockets uniform, standing around, arms folded, scoring fewer than 20 points each time, all Rockets losses. Fans in the front row were asking him to move, he was blocking their view of players who cared about winning. James Harden sabotaged his own team, a team that offered him $50 million a year to stay. Something that crazy could only happen in professional sports these days.

There's a saying that drives the American labor movement: "a fair day's wage for a fair day's work." It's the motto of the American Federation of Labor. The National Basketball Players Association is not a member. Harden's sulking on the court, cheating the Rockets and their fans, was unforgivable.

Harden, sitting out games while somehow being on the court, forced the Rockets to trade him - and quick - to Brooklyn. The trade, when you ignore the fine print and unindicted co-conspirators Cleveland and Indiana, sent Harden to Brooklyn in exchange for Caris LeVert (immediately flipped for Victor Oladipo), Jarrett Allen, three first-round draft picks and four swapped first-rounders. It's true, when you trade a superstar, you never get back equal value. The other team wins.

If it makes Rockets fans feel any better, the media in New York already has problems with their new problem child. I should say newest problem child. Kyrie Irving plays for the Nets.

"They (the Nets) gave up everybody! There's nothing left now. I just want to cry, It's awful," weeped WFAN Radio talk host Evan Roberts. For those who don't subscribe to weekly Arbitron ratings reports, WFAN is the most powerful, top-rated sports talk station in the Apple.

"You're leading down the road of doom. Harden and Durant could be gone in a year and a half. I'm not convinced this gives them a better chance to win a title. I'm living a nightmare again. They better freaking win."

Circle March 3 on your Rockets schedule. That's when the Brooklyn Nets, with their Big 3 of Kevin Durant, James Harden and possibly Kyrie Irving visit Toyota Center. I hear talk radio salivating over the record jeers that will cascade over Harden's name, although I'm not buying it. Fans don't think like the media does. I'm thinking that Rockets fans will welcome Harden back - one night only - with cheers.

Toyota Center public address announcer Matt Thomas: "Usually when former Rockets come to town for the first time since leaving, I give them a positive introduction. It's up to the fans how to react."

James Harden spent eight seasons with the Rockets. He is a spectacular player who watched other NBA players engineer trades so they could compete for a title. Harden didn't think the Rockets were good enough, and he's right. So he wanted out. We've all been there, a job we didn't like for a company we didn't like, for a boss we didn't respect. Harden wanting to be traded is understandable. How he went about it was deplorable. He hurt his co-workers.

Houston will make Harden pay for his disrespectful departure. He has an upscale restaurant set to open here. The name of the steakhouse will be "13." Harden's business partners may want to change that number ... before the restaurant's telephone number is disconnected. There are plenty of other restaurants in Houston. Rich people who can afford steakhouse prices hold grudges.

Rockets fans searching for a silver lining say, "We got two decent players and a whole bunch of precious first-round picks" for a malcontent who would rather be anywhere (except maybe Sacramento) than Houston." Yes, a bunch of first-round picks does bode well for the future. Anywhere, except maybe Houston.

Houston's draft war room isn't the most successful operation in the NBA. Over the past decade prior to 2000, under the direction of general manager Daryl Morey, the Rockets made 16 draft picks. Not one of them is still in a Rockets uniform, many of them have sought employment outside of America, some outside of basketball. Among their first-round whiffs: Nikola Mirotic, Terrence Jones, Sam Dekker - all out of the league. Best of all, Royce White, who played three whole games in his NBA career and finished with a scoring average of 0.00 points per game.

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