James Harden is set to have a season for the ages

Let’s start here: James Harden was already playing like a point guard before Houston Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni acknowledged in September that it would become Harden’s full-time position this season.

“I’ve been [running the offense] since I’ve been here in Houston,” Harden said Wednesday night, after his team blasted the New York Knicks in Madison Square Garden. And he’s right. Harden initiated the action for the Rockets over the last few years, almost every trip down the floor. He had the ball in his hands more than any other player on the team, and more than almost any other player in the league.

Per NBA.com’s SportVU player tracking data, Harden had the ball for an average of 6.0 minutes per game during the 2014-15 season, 21st in the league. The only player not listed as a point guard that had the ball more was LeBron James. The next-closest Rocket in time of possession per game was Patrick Beverley, at 3.9 minutes a night. And most of those 3.9 minutes were spent trying to get the ball into Harden’s hands to let him initiate the offense.

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The story was the same last season. Harden had the ball for 6.3 minutes per game, 13th in the league. All 12 players ahead of him were point guards. Beverley was again the next-closest Rocket in time of possession, averaging 3.1 minutes of possession per game. Again, a majority of that time was spent trying to get the ball to Harden.

All D’Antoni did this season was cut out the middle man.

“Normally, they would just bring it up, move it two times, then give it to him, then let him [initiate the offense]. And after he’s struggled to get the ball or had to wrestle to get the ball,” D’Antoni said. “We’re just trying to make it easier for him. Why camouflage it? You know that’s where it’s going. You know he has to make plays. So why not do it?

“And it gives him a sense, also, of purpose for the team that he understands: to get everybody involved to a certain degree without losing his identity.”

Five games into Houston’s season, it’d be difficult to imagine the “transition” having gone any more smoothly.

“I was hoping for like 60 and 20. I’m only getting about 40 and 15. He’s a little underperforming right now,” D’Antoni joked, only halfway kidding about the ridiculous numbers Harden’s putting up so far. “The good thing about him is he sees the game as a point guard. He understands where he wants players and he does a terrific job. His efficiency is — sometimes as a coach you look and go, ‘Man, maybe I should come up with some novel idea instead of just letting him go down the middle every time.’ And then his numbers are off the charts.”

And off the charts they are.

Harden set a career-high with 17 assists in Houston’s first game of the season. He nearly matched it a week later when he dished out 15 against the defending champion Cavaliers (in a game where he also scored 41 points on 20 shots, because he’s still James Harden, after all), then dished out 15 more the next night against the Knicks. He’s averaging 12.4 assists per game, easily a career-high (he’s actually set a new career-high every season of his career, cresting at 7.5 last year), and the single best figure in the league.

He’s assisted on at least 10 baskets in three of five games, putting him on pace for 49 double-digit dime nights this season. That would obliterate the career-high of 18 such games he registered in each of the last two years, and it would put him in some pretty exclusive company as well — only 12 players (all True Point Guard types like Magic, Stockton, Isaiah, Nash, Paul, etc.) have had as many as 49 double-digit assist games in the last 30 years. (He’s also on pace for 49 games with 15 assists or more, which would pass Stockton’s 44 for the most in a season in the last 30 years.)