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Good riddance, Rockets

The Rockets' train-wreck season that nobody expected or enjoyed is finally over. What lessons should we take from it?

Harry How/Getty Images

The Houston Rockets just wrapped up one of the most embarrassing playoff performances in memory. Three of Houston's four losses were by at least 26 points. Golden State played without the league MVP for three and a half of the five games ... and still outscored the Rockets by 94 points over the course of the series. Everything we found disturbing about the Rockets during the regular season -- the lack of spirit, the lack of camaraderie, the lack of effort -- manifested itself majestically in this series. The Rockets are exactly who we thought they were: a talented collection of individual players who simply could not give a flying flip whether they win or lose.

Or is it more complicated?

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That's Andre Iguodala comparing a playoff game to a practice scrimmage.

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Much is made of James Harden's defensive effort. That's actually a misnomer -- James Harden doesn't actually exhibit defensive effort. Labeling it as such is giving too much credit. Let's try this again: Much is made of James Harden's defensive disinterest. It's so blatantly apparent to even the most casual observers that Harden is not locked in and ready to execute a gameplan on defense for much of each game. Some players who are poor on defense can at least fake it. Harden doesn't bother. He defends like a Rodin and he looks like he defends like a Rodin. There's no illusion there. That's what makes it both so easy to mock and so curious to grok.

Why wouldn't Harden try to save himself the embarrassment? He defended solidly in 2014-15. He isn't the quickest wing moving laterally, but as a genius attacker, he knows how guards like to gain advantage. He has some wonderful basketball intuition with the ball. That should carry over to the other side.

Why doesn't he care that he's the butt of every joke? Why doesn't he care that his team is getting blown out by 30 in an elimination game and dozens of dudes on MacBooks are ready to Vine his matador swipes at dribble penetration every moment? Why doesn't he care that Charles Barkley jokes that he finished 479th in Defensive Player of the Year voting and that he'd actually be pretty close if a) there were 479 players in the NBA and b) ballots went that deep? Why doesn't James Harden care about defense?

What if he can't?

What if the immense offensive load he carries is already too much, and wearing himself out trying to prevent Harrison Barnes from hitting him with a crossover will burn him down to ash? That immense offensive load is not at all optional; have you seen Patrick Beverley or Corey Brewer try to create off the dribble or Dwight Howard post up lately? The maximal offensive output from Harden is a necessity. We note that he came into the season out of shape. He also nursed an injured ankle in the offseason, after playing 3,500 minutes in 2014-15. He still played 3,000 minutes this year, more than anyone in the league.

The modern NBA punditocracy holds itself up as civilized and empathetic. We acknowledge that there are physical limits to greatness. We offer compassion to those who fall short. Except for special cases, of which Harden is one. Why can't we have empathy for a man who, it appears, can offer no more?

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This is a strong example of what James Harden brings to the floor defensively at this point.

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The latent mutual distaste that exists between Harden and Howard has been the narrative for much of their partnership. Howard rubs a lot of teammates the wrong way. ESPN's Calvin Watkins dove into the details this week. It's all so petty and small. Howard wants the ball more, but he's too meager/quiet/passive-aggressive/deferential (take your pick) to demand it. Meanwhile, his supposed lack of killer instinct combined with his goofy nature apparently sets Harden's teeth on edge. Sounds familiar to anyone who followed the Kobe-Dwight partnership closely.

Harden and Howard have incompatible personalities. That's a problem because they were purported to be the co-stars and co-leaders of this team. You can't have strife within leadership and thrive. It just doesn't work, especially when you have an overmatched rookie coach at the top of the chain. (Pray for J.B. Bickerstaff.) Howard won four straight DPOYs, carried a team of role players to the Finals and finally got two different superstars to team with him. Howard clashed with both, and failed to regain his status.

Also, he aged. He got hurt. He never fully healed. Winning is the best deodorant, and Howard's ability to help his teams win has diminished greatly. At this point, he is a superstar in salary and reputation only. He's 30 years old and has logged a ton of NBA minutes as a prep-to-pro guy. Back problems wreck careers; that Howard is fit enough to have played 71 games this season is a victory in itself. But 71 games at a very high level? Any number of games at the level he played at in Orlando? It's not happening.

Ignore the interpersonal drama for a moment. How much of Howard's failure in Houston is simply an indictment of his declining physical ability to dominate? What if this is less a story of Howard being unlovable by co-stars and more about Howard being unable to be one of the best centers in the NBA?

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Once the Rockets clinched the No. 8 seed on the final day of the regular season, a Houston television station asked viewers to rate the team's chances against the Warriors. The results were tellingly realistic.

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Houston is held up as the biggest underachiever this season. Houston was held up as the biggest overachiever last season. It doesn't take Einstein to consider that maybe both of those superlatives were exaggerated.

We are really enamored with so-called "deep" playoff runs. Two series wins gets you that achievement. Houston won a ton of games (54) in 2013-14 and lost unceremoniously in the first round. Houston won 56 games in 2014-15 and ended up facing an injured, in-fighting Dallas in Round 1. In Round 2, the Rockets were minutes from ejection in Game 6 when one of the most improbable comebacks in recent history against an exhausted Clippers squad helped Houston survive. (Harden was on the bench for the entirety of that comeback.) Howard was better in those series than he'd been on the court in two years, quite possibly because he played so few minutes in regular season. Of course, Golden State stopped Houston in the West finals.

When a team on the rise gets that far and trips up the following season, it looks really bad. But what if Houston was never as good as the 2014-15 edition? By judging their potential off of eight wins, four of them against the Rondo'd Mavericks, aren't we setting unrealistic expectations?

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The entire second half of Game 4.

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What a bizarre roster the Rockets have! And what a weird season of transactions! A slow start and murmurs of strife got Kevin McHale fired extremely early. That must have been unsettling. Most of the roster from the deep playoff run returned, except Josh Smith. In a desperate bid for rekindling the magic of 2015, general manager Daryl Morey actually traded for Smith early in the season. The team had a deal to send Donatas Motiejunas (a restricted free agent this summer) to Detroit at the deadline. After a few days of consideration, the Pistons recanted due to a failed physical. Welcome back, D-Mo! Houston added Michael Beasley -- a salve for any disaster, surely -- once the Chinese season ended.

The utter oddity that is the Rockets roster was interesting and fun in 2015. That didn't last, and now it's just weird. Brewer and Trevor Ariza are fleet defenders who should never handle the ball, yet were required to do so far too often. Beverley was (karmically) dinged up early on and never seemed to get his body back. Ty Lawson provided some rancid gasoline to pour on this fire. Clint Capela and Howard can't play together, neither Terrence Jones nor Motiejunas can stay healthy and Bickerstaff never trusted younger options like K.J. McDaniels or Montrezl Harrell. Veterans Jason Terry and Marcus Thornton played major roles at various points in this season.

Look at those names and add Harden and Howard. Does that look like an elite team to you?

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James Harden hit a presumptive winning jumper in Game 3, the biggest shot of the season for Houston. This was the bench's reaction.

Clint Capela, who is Swiss, is too sweet to be disappointed vacation has been delayed. The other veteran nihilists on this team know the score.

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The good news is that the Houston Rockets are dead, and when Morey brings them back to life, they will be completely different.

Howard can become a free agent, and would be insane not to bolt. Houston would be insane to offer him a dollar. It's not a fit. There should be resolution at power forward, where Jones and Motiejunas will find interesting markets as restricted free agents. Chances are Morey also swings for the fences at point guard and small forward. Capela will slip into Howard's slot if Morey can't acquire a top-flight center. Morey has draft assets, young players and cap space to use to build a squad that will help Houston forget this one. The nightmare is over.

Good riddance.