James Harden didn’t need a rebirth — he was already one of the best players in the NBA — but he’s in the midst of one anyway.
In first-year Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni’s system, Harden is now the primary ball handler — call it point guard if you want — and the results have been staggering for not only the eighth-year guard but also the Rockets offense.
It makes so much sense, it’s amazing no one thought of doing it sooner.
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Houston is 4-3 on the season — they can thank their porous defense for those three losses — but they have one of the most efficient offenses in the NBA — arguably on par with Golden State and Cleveland — with Harden in his new role. Houston leads the NBA with a 58.6 true shooting percentage and 55.4 effective field goal percentage, averaging 1.13 points per possession.
Make no mistake — this is Harden’s doing — in four games this month, he’s averaged 33.25 points and 14.25 assists per game, with no sign that it’s a mirage or that it will abate anytime soon.
Before the season started, one of the favorites to win NBA MVP was the Western Conference point guard who lost his All-Star counterpart. It’s early yet, but it looks like we had the description right yet probably mixed up the names — we were thinking of Harden, not Russell Westbrook.
What’s behind Harden’s point guard “rebirth”? It’s all scheme — Harden hasn’t added any wrinkles to his game or found a long-lost skill. He’s had this stuff all along — it just needed to be utilized correctly.
Even as an off-ball shooting guard (wing, two-guard — whatever you want to call it) Harden was a frequent ball handler, bringing the ball up the court in his trademark methodical fashion. From there he would either work out of isolation or give the ball to another ball handler so he could be could get to the elbow, where he preferred to do his work.
The Rockets offense was centered around Harden last year, but it didn’t rotate around him — literally. There was no pace, no verve, to the Rockets offense — just Harden and his defender.
This year, the Hardencentrism has some orbit. The Rockets are running a four-out (sometimes five-out) system that has all the trademarks of a modern motion offense (unsurprising, considering that D’Antoni’s 7-seconds-or-less Suns were the league's proto pace-and-space team).
First thing D’Antoni removed from the Rockets’ look last year was the secondary ball handler. Harden had the ball in his hands for six minutes a game last year — the highest number of any non-point guard in the league — and his touches lasted 4.43 seconds and typically had fewer than four dribbles. The world seemed to stand still when Harden had the ball, because the Rockets were playing 1-on-1, or, at best 2-on-2 with a high pick-and-roll.
By taking away the secondary ball handler — whether that be Patrick Beverley or Ty Lawson or Jason Terry — and replacing him with a spot-up shooter D'Antoni is cutting directly to the chase — why bother going through the motions of setting up a play for Harden when, if he wants to go to the elbow, he can just go to the elbow? Why waste steps?
The Warriors’ offense of past years (this year’s offense is still a serious work in progress compared to those teams) was predicated on this concept — Stephen Curry could pull up from anywhere inside half court and sink a 3-pointer, and that forced defenses to come out to greet him, creating more space for him — and the Warriors’ four other players — to work.
But the threat of Curry (and others, like Damian Lillard) to defenses wasn’t solely his ability to shoot from anywhere — it was his ability to get to, and finish, at the basket. Curry led the NBA in shooting percentage on layups last season at 68.7 percent. It’s an inside-out game, and that’s what it does to defenders, too — turns them inside out.
So, a conundrum: if you don’t check him from 30 feet out, he’ll drill a three; but if you guard him too close on the perimeter, he’ll drive past you and finish at a rate similar to LeBron at the basket or draw a foul; and if you double-team him either on the ball or in a pick-and-roll trap, he’ll find the wide open man almost every time.
The same conundrum has always applied to Harden, but it wasn’t as pressing for an entire team defense because he was so often in static isolation sets.
That’s no longer the case.
For what one would expect to be the majority of NBA fans, the revelation of this season isn’t Harden’s ability to be an exceptional dribble-drive ball handler — he’s always been that — but rather his incredible court vision and passing ability.
In Oklahoma City, they were more frequently seen, but both skills had been stifled upon his arrival in Houston. They broke through every now and again, but they weren’t critical components of his, or Houston's, game. The new Rockets system requires them, as well as excellent judgment, and Harden is providing and thriving.
Harden leads the league in assists with 12.7 per game because of not only his ability to put a defender on his hip and drive to the basket, drawing help from all directions (and often a foul), but also his ability to spot the open man — even at a distance, while both parties are moving — and hit him with a pass, often through traffic.
Those players weren’t necessarily open last year — typically, Harden would drive and four teammates would stand around and wait for him to make the basket or go to the line. There weren't many outlets.
With those outlets now there — and hitting open shots — and Harden’s full offensive game actualized, the question is how does a defense stop it?
They probably can’t. And if the Rockets defense ever finds a way to stop their opponent — a big ask, no doubt — Houston could turn into a serious contender in the Western Conference with Harden as the league's MVP.