Houston superstar James Harden, working against the Knicks’ Sasha Vujacic in pre-season, is projected to have a career year with Mike D’Antoni taking over as Rockets coach. Photo: Scott Halleran/Getty Images.
Mike D’Antoni has a unique gift when it comes to point guards. He can turn bench players into effective starters (see: Chris Duhon), role players into overnight sensations (see: Jeremy Lin) and star players into two-time MVP’s (see: Steve Nash). Now in his first season in Houston, D’Antoni hopes to work his magic on James Harden.
For the NBA’s point-guard whisperer, this should be a slam dunk.
“That’s what he does,” Harden said. “He makes really good players better players. He has a formula that’s proven it works.”
With the NBA season starting this week, D’Antoni has already gotten Harden to buy in, as evidenced in pre-season when the four-time NBA all-star took a pass-first approach for the first time in his career.
You know what that means? All fantasy-league players would do themselves a world of good to select him No. 1 in their drafts.
Now the centerpiece of D’Antoni’s offense that has taken the NBA by storm over the last decade, Harden is bound to put up huge numbers. Even bigger than two-time reigning MVP Stephen Curry, whose production figures to decline now that Kevin Durant is a teammate in Golden State. LeBron James? He’s going to continue to cut back on his regular-season minutes to ensure he’s fresh for a chance to make his seventh straight Finals and win his fourth NBA title. Although everyone expects Russell Westbrook to have an MVP-caliber season in Oklahoma City, it will be next to impossible to duplicate his assist numbers from last season – 10.4 per game – without Durant or a legitimate No. 2 scoring option.
Harden has always been an elite scorer, but now he’ll be D’Antoni’s chief facilitator as the Rockets compete for a top-eight finish in the Western Conference. That means he’ll likely average in excess of 10 assists per game for the first time in his career. But he’ll also continue to score and be a one-man parade to the foul line, where he has led the NBA the last two seasons, with 10.2 FTAs per game.
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“James is more or less responsible giving rhythm to the team, that’s what a point guard does,” D’Antoni said. “He is one of the best pick-and-roll players we have in the league, without a doubt. He does some things that are incredible. His strength and his ability to see and to finish, he can be one of the best pick-and-roll players ever.”
Nobody who’s ever had to stop a D’Antoni team will argue that point.
“Harden is going to have the ball a lot,’’ said Dallas coach Rick Carlisle. “He’s that great. What Mike’s done, he’s basically labeled him as the “playmaker/scorer.” In some ways, that’s going to heighten the challenge for defenses. Certainly, he hasn’t slowed down any. It’s got to be one of the hardest match-ups in basketball.”
According to Synergy, Harden led the league with 566 isolation possessions last season, 173 more than any other player. Those days are over. During his career, Harden has averaged 4.9 assists per game, with 7.5 assists, a career-high, last season. He’s been one of the top players working out of double teams and picking up assists, but his efficiency rating, which dipped from No. 4 overall two years ago (26.7) when he finished second in the MVP race, to No. 8 last year (25.3), should be among the top three in the NBA.
Other reasons to go with Harden in your draft: The Rockets went from Western Conference finalist to a 41-win team that went out meekly in the first round to the Warriors. Harden had another great statistical season, but as the team’s leader he caught the heat for getting coach Kevin McHale fired after 11 games and then barely getting the team to the playoffs, as the last seed in the West. He’s done a mea culpa for his lack of effort on defense and the team’s .500 record last season. “It left a bad taste,” he said.
Now he wants to prove to his critics that the Rockets did the wise thing this past off-season in giving him a $118-million extension that will keep him in Houston through 2020.
“This is a great group and we’re going to build this together,” he said.
D’Antoni brought the blueprints from Phoenix, when he and Nash got the Suns to the Western Conference Finals twice. Nash was already an All-Star performer in the NBA playing in Dallas, but implementing D’Antoni’s X’s and O’s with the Suns took his game to an unexpected level. He was voted MVP in 2005 and 2006, when he averaged 17.5 points and 11.2 assists while winning the award over such superstars as Shaquille O’Neal, LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan. But more than that, he started amassing shooting stats (51.3 FG%/45.1 3-pt%/90.4 FT%) that Don Nelson, another acclaimed offensive mind, never got out of Nash when he coached him in Dallas.
Led by GM Daryl Morey, the Rockets wisely re-configured their team in the off-season with D’Antoni’s system and Harden in mind. They let All-Star center Dwight Howard, a lane clogger, to leave via free agency. They recruited perimeter shooters and scorers who will take advantage of Harden’s passing. To attract Ryan Anderson, a forward who can shoot from beyond the three-point arc, and Eric Gordon, a veteran guard who made 39, 45, and 38 percent of his three-pointers in the last three seasons, the Rockets showed videos of Nash in D’Antoni’s offense in Phoenix. They told the two recruits that Harden will be the new Nash.
“I got a little bit of Nash in me,” Harden told ESPN. “He had his own pace to the game; that’s what I took out of that. You could never speed him up, you could never make him do anything he didn’t want to do. That’s what separated him from any other point guard at the time. And that led to two MVPs.”
Harden wants one and so long as the Rockets win, he’ll be in contention for the award. So make him your top pick, if he’s still on the board.
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