Why the Rockets are the NBA’s most polarizing team

The Rockets are breaking basketball with an incredible commitment to taking the most efficient shots in the game, yet fans aren’t embracing them in the ways they once did the Golden State Warriors. Twenty games in, James Harden is producing the best scoring season anyone aside from Wilt Chamberlain has ever played, the Rockets are playing with the third-best offense in the league, and the team is 13-7 despite losing Eric Gordon for 11 of those games.

But the discourse surrounding Houston remains the same: ‘Sure they’re good, but I don’t have to like it.’

Few are denying that what the Rockets do is successful, or arguing that what Harden does isn’t incredible. Houston’s won 53 or more games each of the last three years, and reached the conference semis twice and conference finals once in the process. But the NBA’s loophole-finding analytics gurus have developed an unfavorable reputation amid their analytics beauty.

Tuesday night’s double overtime loss to the San Antonio Spurs was the latest reminder.

The Rockets led by 22 points in the second half against a LaMarcus Aldridge-less Spurs team, and blew it in the fourth to Lonnie Baxter IV’s hot shooting, only to fall 10 overtime minutes later. It was embarrassing. After the game, Houston’s focus was on a badly missed call by officials. A James Harden fourth-quarter made dunk, when the team led by 13 points, was ruled a miss when the ball came through the net and back over the top of the rim again.

Houston — the same team that conducted an internal investigation into the officiating in their 2018 seven-game Western Conference Finals defeat to the Warriors — is considering protesting the league.

Here we go again.

Complaining is what the Rockets do

There’s no shortage of reasons to be annoyed by the Rockets even past their basketball-playing abilities. At the beginning of this calendar year, Houston sent a memo to the league detailing 81 instances where calls or non-calls influenced their 2018 playoff loss to the Warriors — you know, the series where they missed 27 consecutive threes. From that point on, they publicly became the NBA police. Nobody likes a sore loser, and this instance wasn’t a one-off.

James Harden’s 2018-19 season was historic. He scored the most points by a non- Chamberlain or Jordan NBA player per game at 36.1, along with eight assists and seven rebounds. He pushed the boundaries of how frequently he could shoot from distance, no matter how defenses played him. He was tremendous. But he lost out to an equally deserving megastar in Giannis Antetokounmpo for MVP.

In the moments after it was announced, the Rockets started a Twitter thread with “Congrats to the new MVP, but we respectfully disagree,” so you can do the math on how that played out to fans. Then, months later, Harden spoke out at 97.9 The Box, a Houston-area radio station, on his reaction to losing the award. “It’s out of my control. I think once the media, they create a narrative about somebody from the beginning of the year. I think they just take the narrative and run with it the entire year.”

This has been a year of sore losing for the Rockets. That’s why the team’s latest complaint about Harden’s dunk, no matter how correct (the refs even admitted they were wrong), comes off as another instance of them whining. It coming after a blown 22-point lead to a bad Spurs team is just the icing on top.

Of course, the Rockets took their dunk argument to another level, too. According to ESPN’s Tim MacMahon, the team is hopeful that the league will give them the win or say that the final seven minutes and 50 seconds need to be replayed. There’s no precedent for the former, though the latter happened in 2008 in a game between the Hawks and Heat.

Aside from the franchise’s antics, Harden’s fan-relations are at a new low

The NBA is an entertainment league, and fans outside of Houston aren’t enjoying Harden’s game as much you’d expect from someone scoring the most points since Jordan, at 39 per game. In the first quarter on Tuesday, a fan yelled to Harden as he stepped to the free throw line. “Nobody wants to see a free throw shooting contest.” Harden replied, “Nobody wants to see fouls either god damn it.”

Harden’s game rubs people the wrong way, even if he’s incredibly efficient and historic from a numbers standpoint — and he’s helping his team win games. His search to draw fouls, no matter how tactical, grows old. What’s good for basketball isn’t always easy to cheer for.

In the loss to San Antonio, Harden scored 50 points on hard-to-watch, yet semi-efficient shooting. He only made 11 out of the 38 shots from the field he took, the worst shooting percentage for any player who’s ever scored 50 points. That includes 16 missed three-point shots, also a league record. But he also got to the free throw line 24 times, and made all 24 of them — yet another league record. This is Harden’s unpopular aesthetic. These levels of statistical confusion are his norm, and could lead him to a second MVP award.

That doesn’t mean fans to have to like what he does, though. And that’s what irks Harden and Rockets fans.

“I think it is only with me and Russ,” Harden said in October, according to the Houston Chronicle’s Jonathan Feigen. “Like if Russ gets a triple-double, it’s (considered) normal. If I get 55 or 60 points, it’s (considered) normal. If somebody else was to do that, to have a career night, it’s like ‘Oh my God.’ But I don’t care. I just try to go out there and try to win games.”

There’s no denying Harden’s greatness. He’s bending the game in the same ways Steph Curry is. When Harden’s locked-in, his game is nearly unparalleled. But when it’s off, it’s really off. And while making up for it at the free throw line is productive for his team and the stat books, free throw points aren’t as appealing as other ways points are scored. His game demands respect, but it doesn’t have to be loved.

Russell Westbrook is the clincher to the Rockets’ negative public perception

The Rockets irked its already strong contingent of detractors (and some of their own fans) when they added another of the league’s most polarizing players in Westbrook over the summer. Since joining Houston, he hasn’t been very good. He’s shooting 41 percent from the field and 23 percent from three.

Often criticized for his empty triple-doubles, even in his MVP season when he had a league record 42, Westbrook’s had an up-and-down relationship with fans. What was once special became played out, and what was once a historic anomaly became blatant stat-hunting.

Westbrook’s flawed game next to Harden’s criticized one, packaged with the franchise’s complaining antics makes for a whole new beast of Rockets hatred. Even if the Rockets are playing a style conducive to winning, and Harden’s changing the way a single player can dominate the league, fans don’t have to like what they’re doing.

The Rockets are structured by numbers, computers, science, and what ought to happen. It’s smart. It’s supposed to work, and it has worked to some degree. But it hasn’t worked all the way yet. And until then, math isn’t meant to be beloved.

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