This article originally appeared on The Field at scroll.in on November 19, 2016
This is the most fun Houston Rockets’ James Harden has had in years. Even by his admission.
“I’ve been having fun all year, even in games we lose,” the NBA’s assist leader said in a blowout 126-109 win over the Portland Trailblazers. “This is a special group of guys, coaching staff included, and this locker room is definitely enjoying this ride right now.”
And what a ride it has been.
Harden, the eight-year veteran, picked third by the Oklahoma City Thunder in the 2009 Draft, is carving up NBA defences, doing so effectively and, more importantly, efficiently. Averaging a near triple-double, Harden’s 28.5 points per game, 8.2 rebounds per game and 12.5 assists per game make him an even bigger all-round offensive threat, with NBA teams unable to figure out how to contain him when he’s firing on all cylinders.
Those rebounding and assists numbers are career highs by some margin*, yet have barely eaten into his offensive efficiency as he continues to score the ball at a near career-high* while shooting 47% from the field and 37% from three-point land, both career highs for Harden as a Houston player.
Things were not this rosy as recently as eight months ago.
After barely scraping through into the 2016 Playoffs**, the Rockets were pitted against a historic Golden State Warriors team, that would have swept them, if not for a game winning three pointer in Game 3 at Houston by none other than, well, James Harden.
That Houston made the 2016 Playoffs, was in itself a surprise. Discord plagued the team’s locker rooms right from the start of the season as the Rockets began with a dismal 4-7 record***. Harden, the 2015 NBA Most Valuable Player runner-up, showed up for the season disinterested, his fitness (or lack thereof) and body language, making that message loud and clear. Dwight Howard, brought in to be the cornerstone of a dynasty that Rockets’ General Manager Daryl Morey was trying to build, did not help matters as he too played accomplice to the lethargy of the Rockets’ star. The organisation reacted by firing Kevin McHale and replacing him with J.B. Bickerstaff, the former assistant coach.
That move rejuvenated Harden, who went on to post career highs in nearly all categories, and the rest of the team. They still struggled during the season, finding their groove in spurts, but eventually stumbled over the Playoffs finish line.
The Mike D’Antoni masterstroke
It was, however, in the summer of 2016 that Morey did his best work as Rockets GM this far. Recognising the offensive force that Harden is, Morey decided to switch directions and create an offensive powerhouse in Houston. In addition to locking up Harden with a four-year, $118 million contract, he snagged Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon, two prolific scorers capable of dropping 30 on a given night. But the master stoke was hiring Michael. That is Mike D’Antoni for the uninitiated.
One of the greatest offensive masterminds to walk the sidelines, D’Antoni’s penchant for quick possessions and blistering offense makes the Rockets the perfect team for him.
D’Antoni’s check list:
- Highly skilled offensive wingmen – 2. Check.
- Aggressive big men to set screens and crash the board – 2. Check.
- Reliable and Effective bench guys – 3 to 4. Check.
- All-Star Point Guard to spearhead the offensive juggernaut – 1. Double check.
And that’s why this is working.
Offensively, the Rockets feature in the top 10 in nearly every category. They are scoring 108.9 points a game (fourth in the NBA), are shooting 46.4% from the field (fourth) and 37.4% from deep (fifth), and, thanks to Harden’s new found confidence in running an offense, 60.8 % of their baskets have come from assists, good for seventh in the league. More importantly, they have achieved all this with a +/- efficiency of 3.8 (10th).
A mild cause for worry would be their pace (possessions per 48 minutes), which at 99.77 puts the Rockets at just above the middle of the pack ranked at 13th.
Then, there is the Rockets’ defence.
Defensively, the Rockets are still below average. It does not help that the team let go of Howard, brought on two wingmen (Gordon and Anderson) who are not exactly known for their defensive abilities, and a coach who heavily favours the “offence is our defence” strategy.
Trevor Ariza’s 2.3 steals per game (fourth in the NBA) and Clint Capela’s 1.8 blocks per game (11th) keep the Rockets somewhat honest on defence. However, the team can barely hold its opponents to 105 points per game (17th), and gets scorched for 45.4 % from the field (20th).
There is some hope.
Defensive specialist, Patrick Beverly is back and suited up against the Portland Trail Blazers. That should take care of any defensive slack on the second unit. And although he is on the wrong side of 30, the Rockets will take any defensive intensity that veteran Nene brings to the team.
It is important to remember that, the Rockets’ still have to gel as a seamless unit to ensure a smoother flow on offence and better communication on defence. That responsibility lies squarely on the shoulders of Mike D’Antoni, and one of the most prolific offensive guards the NBA has ever seen, Harden.
At least, this time around he is having fun.
*His previous career highs: 29.0 ppg, 7.5 apg and 6.1 rpg (2015-16)
**Houston and Utah were tied for a playoff spot up until their last regular season game
***Fresh off a 56-win 2014-15 season, and taking care of both Dallas (4-1) and LA (4-3) before falling to the eventual champions, Warriors (4-1).