The Houston Rockets finally have the franchise point guard they’ve coveted for years. He just also happens to be their franchise shooting guard. At the team’s Media Day, head coach Mike D’Antoni announced that James Harden will assume point-guard responsibilities this season, per ESPN’s Calvin Watkins:
“He’s more or less responsible giving rhythm to the team, that’s what a point guard does,” D’Antoni said. “He’s going to be on the ball and he’s going to be distributing the ball and it will take some adjusting. He’s got a lot more responsibilities as a point guard. A playcaller, a good basketball mind, he’s already telling guys we can do this we can do that.”
Houston has been trying to find someone to pair with Harden in the backcourt since “The Beard’s” arrival in 2012. It started with Jeremy Lin, but he eventually lost the job to Patrick Beverley. Last season, the team brought in Ty Lawson, but that experiment failed almost immediately. This past summer, Houston chased after marquee free agent Mike Conley, but he wasn’t interested in leaving Memphis.
So, the Rockets decided to just cut out the middle man and put the ball in their best player’s hands from the start:
“He doesn’t have to wrestle with people to get the ball,” D’Antoni said, via Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle. “He’s got it right from the get-go. He doesn’t spend all the energy down there in a wrestling match, people trying to deny and all that. There will be times he’s off (the ball). We’ll find the happy medium between the two, but right now, he’s directing traffic.”
While the move was the biggest takeaway from Houston’s Media Day, the title change is more cosmetic than anything. Harden dominated the ball as the team’s top offensive creator last season. His 85.1 touches per game were 13th-most in 2015-16, per NBA.com. 11 of the 12 players ahead of Harden were point guards, with Los Angeles Clippers power forward Blake Griffin being the lone exception. He also led the league in minutes per game (38.1) and finished third in usage rate.
According to Feigen, Harden will even have a familiar face as his battery mate in the backcourt:
Almost certain to be like last season: Beverley and Harden in a backcourt, Harden handling ball, Beverley matched up with points. https://t.co/OFIX9zpxof
— Jonathan Feigen (@Jonathan_Feigen) September 27, 2016
Beverley will maintain his spot in the starting rotation as a Tony Allen-esque defensive specialist. He will continue to guard opposing point guards, alleviating any concern over the defensively-challenged Harden trying to stick with quicker opponents. Eric Gordon, who signed a four-year, $53 million pact with the team in the offseason, will also get time alongside Harden and even be involved in three-guard sets as well.
Still, while the changes are minimal, the decision to make Harden the full-time point guard (or “points guard,” as D’Antoni jokingly coined it) makes an already strong offensive group even more dynamic.
History has been favorable to point guards in D’Antoni’s “Seven Seconds or Less” system. Steve Nash went from being a multi-time All-Star to a two-time MVP as the engine behind those formidable Phoenix Suns teams. Lin went from virtual unknown to global phenomenon in New York under MDA. D’Antoni was even able to breathe life into the career of draft bust Kendall Marshall for a short period of time in Los Angeles.
Now, he’ll combine his creative offensive philosophies with Harden’s immense talents. Harden was already the team’s best playmaker and facilitator. He’s led the team in assists in three of the past four seasons, and his 35.4 assist percentage was 12th-best in the league last year. Plus, no player in the league is as adept at getting to the line as Harden.
This season, the team will utilize the 27-year-old in more pick-and-roll situations, which should make him even more dangerous attacking the basket:
Expect Harden to handle ball in p-n-r waaaay more often. Ranked 98th in how frequently handled in p-n-r last season, 25.9 % of his touches.
— Jonathan Feigen (@Jonathan_Feigen) September 26, 2016
During the summer, Harden claimed he had “a little bit of (Steve) Nash” in him. D’Antoni was able to bring the best out of Nash by pushing the tempo and surrounding the Canadian floor general with shooters. It seems that blueprint will carry over to Houston. The Rockets were seventh in pace last season, and it doesn’t look like they plan on abandoning their running shoes anytime soon. The team also brought in three-point marksmen Gordon and Ryan Anderson to go along with Beverley (career 37.3 percent from three) and Trevor Ariza (35.2).
The position switch won’t just benefit Harden. It raises the ceiling for those around him, as well. With Harden assuming a bigger piece of the offensive pie, Beverley can focus even more energy on the defensive side of the ball. Despite being plagued by injuries, Beverley has established himself as one of the game’s premier lockdown defenders. He ranked fifth among point guards in Defensive Real Plus-Minus last season.
The defensive attention paid to Harden will also create open looks for Gordon and Anderson, who didn’t have that luxury playing on injury-riddled Pelicans teams the past four years. It should also help Ariza, who experienced a slight decrease in his scoring from the previous season but raised his three-point accuracy by 2.1 percent.
The biggest beneficiary of the change (literally and figuratively) might be 22-year-old center Clint Capela. The likely starter in the wake of Dwight Howard’s departure, Capela is a breakout candidate heading into his third season. The increased usage in pick-and-roll situations should allow the Swiss big man to get the ball more often near the basket, where he converted 65.6 percent of his attempts last season. If Capela can add being an offensive factor to his emerging defensive repertoire, he could easily climb the league’s center ranks.
The biggest question will be how the added offensive duties will affect Harden’s already troubling defensive effort. Harden’s defense was comically bad last season thanks to a mixture of a heavy scoring burden and not being in ideal playing shape. Harden’s teammates are adamant he’ll be better defensively, but that will need to be seen before it’s believed.
Regardless, the decision to have Harden orchestrate the offense was long overdue. His combination of size, speed, power, court vision and shooting stroke could raise the bar that Nash set a little over a decade ago. If he can somehow get Houston back into the title picture, Harden is a sneaky dark horse contender for MVP honors.