James Harden is going to be out for a while -- two weeks at least, but possibly up to six -- with a hamstring injury. Regardless of whether he returns at the beginning or the end of that stint, Harden's injury is unfortunate, and will impact more than just the Houston Rockets. It will have ripple effects across the Association.
Harden's injury will obviously have the biggest impact on the Rockets. He's putting up an absolutely outrageous 32.3 points, 9.1 assists, and five rebounds per game, while shooting over 39 percent from downtown.
The Rockets are still a highly talented team, but as Chris Paul said following the news that Harden would be out for a few weeks at least, "that man averages 30 points a game." And not only is it difficult to replace the scoring load that Harden carries, but he's such a ball-dominant star that players will have to adjust their style of play as well.
Having Paul will help mitigate that aspect a bit, but it's still going to be different when a guy who uses 36 percent of the team's possessions suddenly isn't out there anymore. And considering the Rockets have almost no experience playing without Harden, this will be a big adjustment. Over the last three-plus seasons, he's missed just two games -- regular and postseason combined. It's not going to be easy to adjust to the lack of his presence on the offensive end, where he draws so much attention from opposing defenses.
However, in a small sample size, the Rockets have had success with Paul running the show this season. In 196 minutes (a little over four games worth), the Rockets have a net rating of plus-21.5 points per 100 possessions with Paul on the floor and Harden off. It's obviously different when you can run the Paul-only lineups as an adjustment versus doing that being your main lineup, but the Rockets shouldn't fall off a cliff. Well, as long as Paul stays healthy during Harden's absence.
Western Conference supremacy
Houston has gone through their first real rough stretch of the season lately, losing five of their last six games, and needing a huge comeback to squeak out a double-overtime victory against the Lakers for their one win in that stretch. Because of the skid, they've now lost control on the best record in the conference, and sit two games back of the mighty Golden State Warriors. And with Harden out for at least a few weeks, it's unlikely they'll gain any ground -- especially considering they'll have to play the Warriors at least once without their MVP candidate.
Overall, the Rockets don't have the toughest schedule over the next two weeks, but along with playing the Dubs on Thursday night, they have a trip to Chicago to face the suddenly frisky Bulls, and games against the solid Detroit Pistons and Portland Trail Blazers. It's not a murderer's row, but they'll certainly face some decent competition. At the very least, most of their games over the next two weeks are not definite wins.
Plus if Harden is actually out until closer to the six-week mark, he could end up missing another meeting with the Warriors (Jan. 20), as well as games against the Timberwolves (Jan. 18), Pelicans (Jan. 26), Spurs (Feb. 1), and Cavaliers (Feb. 3).
With Paul leading the way, the Rockets aren't going to suddenly fall apart, but in terms of the race for the top spot in the West, it could be all over by the time Harden gets back on the court. They're currently two games back of the Warriors, and falling even just to four or five games behind could be hard to make up over the final few months of the season given Golden State is now healthy.
Averaging 32.3 points, 9.1 assists, and five rebounds per game, while having guided the Rockets to a 26-9 record, Harden would likely be named MVP if the season ended today. However, LeBron James and Kevin Durant -- each putting up tremendous seasons of their own -- are not far off.
The biggest factor in how Harden's injury affects the MVP race will be how long he actually has to sit out. If it's on the short end, he could miss only six or seven games, and still be right in the mix. However, if Harden is out for a month or more, he can likely say goodbye to the MVP award.
Say he missed all of January, then that would cost him 14 games. In the history of the league, only once -- Bill Walton in 1978 -- has the MVP's missed games been in double digits. LeBron and Durant are breathing down his neck, so a significant absence from Harden could be the difference maker in who goes home with the award.
However, that might not be the worst thing for the Rockets as long as Harden comes back fully healthy. Harden certainly seemed worn down during the playoffs last season, and he played through a nagging wrist injury at the end of the regular season as he chased the MVP award. If he were out of the running for the honor, perhaps he would be more willing to take some games off here and there at the end of the season to make sure he's fresh for the postseason.