James Harden.

James Harden: What does the future hold for the Houston Rockets guard?

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Houston Rockets All-Star James Harden has had his fair share of critics this season, and for a large part, with good reason.

It has been a huge fall from grace for the man who many believed was the deserving winner of the MVP award last year after guiding a shorthanded Rockets team to a second-placed finish in the Western Conference and then following that up by leading them to the Conference Finals in the postseason.

Harden is still a force on the offensive end, he is undoubtedly one of the game's best attacking players. His work on the other end of the floor, however, leaves a lot to be desired.

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Since Kevin McHale was fired in November after a 4-7 start to the 2015-16 campaign, things have gone from bad to worse for the franchise and, as the 'leader' of the team, Harden has had to accept a large portion of the blame.

I say 'leader' because not everybody classes the shooting guard as that. Just this week newly inducted Hall of Famer Shaquille O'Neal called Harden out on his leadership skills while analysing the Rockets' game two loss to the Golden State Warriors and, quite frankly, said he doesn't possess any.

"The problem with James Harden is he has no leadership skills. I know for a fact as the main player, when you come to play, others will follow. If you're the leader of a team, you gotta do what you're supposed to do. If you don't do what you're supposed to do, then others will not do anything," Shaq said.

Sacramento Kings v Houston Rockets

"He doesn't lead by example. There's two types of leaders. The vocal leaders get in people's face like Draymond Green and those who lead by example."

From a man who has achieved almost everything there is in the sport, his opinions are well respected and they were strong words that will resonate.

He may have been the league's second leading scorer behind Steph Curry with an impressive 29 points per game, to go along with 7.5 assists, 6.1 rebounds and 1.7 steals, but the lack of effort on defence has been laughable, literally.

The 26-year-old has featured so commonly on O'Neal's 'Shaqtin-a-fool' blooper segment on Inside the NBA it may earn him the unwanted 'Shaqtin MVP'.

Sacramento Kings v Houston Rockets

His half-hearted attempts to play defence have continuously done the rounds on social media throughout the campaign when, in fact, a player of his ability should be creating a buzz with his gifted offensive skills.

There are not many players who will put up 29 points a night and get the criticism that Harden does, but as the team's highest-paid player, he must be held accountable, it comes with the paycheck. But is he a good fit for Houston?

With Dwight Howard expected to opt out of his deal with the team in the offseason in search of pastures new once again, Houston general manager Daryl Morey may also have a decision to make on the role of Harden with the organisation.

Could he conceivably consider trading the guard in search of a better two-way player? Or is the answer to surround Harden with multiple defenders so he can just concentrate on offence? In both cases, I would be inclined to say no.

The simple answer is, or not so simple in this case, that Harden must improve on his defence and lead by example. Houston has been one of the worst defensive teams in the league and it almost looks as if the rest of the team has taken the approach of, if our best player, who earns the big bucks, isn't playing any defence, why should we? This would explain their miserable campaign.

It would be slightly unfair to pin 100 percent of the blame at the feet of the four-time All-Star. The problems in Clutch City run deeper and GM Morey must take his share of the criticism for not assembling a good supporting cast for his star player.

With an ageing and out-of-sorts Howard, Corey Brewer, Donatas Motiejunas, Clint Capela and Patrick Beverley as his teammates, who aren't blessed with an ability to score, it isn't a major surprise that Harden has been the league leader in minutes played at 38.2 as he is the designated scorer and creator in the team.

Take into account the trade for Ty Lawson which didn't go according to plan and you can see that the front office must take a good hard look at themselves.

Minnesota Timberwolves v Houston Rockets

However, despite all of this, it doesn't help the team's cause when Harden, who has to guard some of the league's best players in his position on a nightly basis, simply can't or doesn't defend.

A player such as Paul George, who doesn't have the most talented roster, is evidence of how you can lead a team with your production on the floor at both ends. George's intensity and willingness to do everything for his team is one of the reasons why the Indiana Pacers made the playoffs and had a winning record despite losing so many players from the 2014 team that made back-to-back Eastern Conference finals appearances against the Miami Heat.

So it can be done, there's no doubt about it. It all comes down to appetite and how much you want it and this summer James Harden must decide how much he wants it or he'll have to put up with the ridicule and the criticism for a bit longer.

Western Conference
Houston Rockets
Southwest Division
Dwight Howard
James Harden

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