HARDEN HAS TO DO LESS FOR TEAM TO DO MORE

Winning the Harden way won't get it done in the playoffs

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When James Harden addressed the media following the team's exit from last year's playoffs, he said he knew exactly what the team had to do in order to get better and go further going forward. Not soon after that GM Daryl Morey pulled the trigger on a trade to acquire Russell Westbrook for a package that included Chris Paul and several draft picks. After the trade was finalized and Westbrook was introduced in Houston, Harden, head coach Mike D'Antoni and Westbrook all said the offense would be a work in progress and that the team would work together to find the right balance between its two best players while trying to define the roles all the players would be counted on to play.

Harden and Westbrook have been quick to say they don't care about individual statistics and that team's success is the only objective for the season. 23 games into the season there are still more questions than answers for the Rockets as James Harden hasn't changed one thing about his game, while Russell Westbrook has tried to adjust his skill set to fit the Houston offense while shooting less and trying to do more in other areas of the game. The team has shown flashes of brilliance and moments of embarrassing failure as they try to figure out how they get better on both ends of the floor. One thing seems certain if they don't change the way they play and the offense they run, as well as their effort effectiveness on defense, they will once again find themselves on the couch watching the conference finals come this summer.

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No matter what James Harden says or has said, statistics and individual accomplishments are important to him and to this point in his career they are what has defined him and his Hall of Fame-caliber career. The same numbers that have put him in the elite company of names like Chamberlain, Jordan, Kobe, and LeBron are also the same stats that are holding him back from accomplishing what all four of those greats did and multiple times in their career and that's winning an NBA title. While Harden has said all the right things about sacrificing stats for more team accomplishments, he has done just the opposite.

All his numbers have gone up or maintained similar averages as he logged a season ago, as he continues to etch his name in the Rockets and NBA record books. The team as a whole still relies on Harden, and he spends a majority of every game with the ball in his hands. More times than not, the rest of the team stands around and watches while the Beard does his thing. As we've seen in the past, that's a formula that can work in the regular season but fails miserably in the playoffs.

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Westbrook has struggled to find his niche since getting to Houston and doesn't seem comfortable with his shot since joining the Rockets. The skills that have won him an MVP and allowed him to average a triple-double for multiple seasons while in Oklahoma City seem to be put on a back burner as he defers to his buddy James. When Russ is really at his best he is relentlessly attacking the rim and running the fastbreak at a feverish pace. Especially from three-point range, which you can't do in a Mike D'Antoni offense, as well as still taking too many mid-range jumpers which are a huge no-no in the Houston system.

The tempo right now is too slow for Russ, and he isn't getting enough opportunities to run in transition, drive downhill and attack the basket. Westbrook is paid too much and is far too talented to be a casual observer on the wing, watching Harden do his thing. There is still time to tweak things and fix the offensive issues and it's important to notate that things aren't broken, they just aren't clicking on all cylinders. To his credit, Russ has been a consummate pro, has remained patient and continues to facilitate when he has the ball while distributing the ball to open teammates.

In order to maximize his talents, the team needs to play faster, get the ball in his hands in the transition to push the tempo and attack the rim every chance he gets. James can still handle the ball and run the point in their half-court sets to maximize his strengths, but he needs to defer to Westbrook when the Rockets get the ball in the open court.

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One final point that needs to be made is that both Harden and Westbrook need to put more effort into the other end of the floor. The team as a whole has struggled mightily on defense as they have fallen out of being one of the top 10 defensive units in the NBA like they were when they were coached by Jeff Bzdelik just a few seasons ago. With that said, it all starts with the teams' dynamic duo, who set the tone with their energy, communication and willingness to engage in getting stops. The effort is key on "D" and the Houston backcourt tandem has a tendency to relax on defense, sometimes failing to rotate and far too frequently electing to skip getting back in transition, so they can argue with officials over calls they did not get.

Houston is not a very big team and aside from PJ Tucker is not very physical, so they have to play outstanding team defense, rotate, hustle and contest shots. There is no reason why these two world-class athletes can't join Tucker, Clint Capela and a wing-like Eric Gordon or Danuel House to form a lockdown unit that can get stops at key times like the lineup two years ago that had Trevor Ariza, Chris Paul, Capela, Harden, and Luc Mbah a Moute. To be fair, both guards do an outstanding job rebounding the basketball and defending the low post, but they have to do more and be more consistent and focused on the perimeter, individually and in the passing lanes defensively if this team is going to make a long playoff run.

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The Marlins are showing interest in Yuli Gurriel. Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images.

As the reporting date for pitchers and catchers draws near, there are still some decisions hanging over the Astros. One of them is whether or not to bring back Yuli Gurriel. “La Piña,” as he's affectionately called, is 38 years old. He turns 39 in June. His leadership and instincts cannot be matched. The man has seen a ton of baseball and comes from a family of baseballers. So, what's the holdup?

Enter the Miami Marlins. The ownership group, led by Bruce Sherman, is undoubtedly trying to capitalize on the heavy Cuban population in the Miami area. Bringing in the Cuban Babe Ruth is a great way to attempt to get more fan engagement. The franchise has only been to the playoffs three times. First two times (1997 and 2003), they won it all. In 2020, they were swept in the NLDS. They're most likely offering him a ridiculous amount of money to come to a team with a losing history. Knowing the Marlins are willing to hand out stupid money, would you blame La Piña for taking one last ridiculous payday?

Think about it. He's got two rings and made a ton of money. He can safely retire very comfortably. The lure to come back for another year or two would definitely be about money. The Marlins aren't a real threat in the next couple of seasons to do anything, but are willing to pay me like I'm still a star? Plus, I'm closer to my home country with all my family and friends? Sign me up!

This is where the Astros have to make a decision. Bring Yuli back for another year or move on. If he follows through with his last four years, this should be a bounce back year. Since 2016, his first year in Houston and MLB, he's hit .262, .299, .291, .298, .232 (pandemic shortened season), .319, and .242 last season. The man is a professional hitter. He knows how to work an at-bat and can drive pitchers nuts. His defense isn't bad either. He's a more than capable first baseman.

This won't win me any favor, but I think it's time to move on. Yuli will always have a place in my heart because he was a major factor in the Astros' two World Series wins. Last season's title run was even more satisfying since it helped silence the haters. That was the mouthwash that got rid of the stench of the sign stealing scandal. Piña was there through it all.

Now, it's time to start transitioning towards the future. Piña, Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman, Justin Verlander, and Lance McCullers Jr were the only holdovers from the 2017 team. Verlander was one of the guys the Mets backed the Brinks truck up for this offseason. Altuve (32), Bregman (28), and McCullers (29) should be all that's left of that group. While it would've been great to have Verlander (39) back, the emergence of the youth movement in the pitching staff made his loss somewhat expendable. At some point, the nostalgia wears off. Father Time and Mother Nature are both undefeated. If they were to bring Piña back, he should be a part timer transitioning into a hitting coach. Careers come to an end. It's time to start looking at his exit.

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