The D’Antoni Effect Has James Harden Thinking History

James Harden is trying to make history and at the same time the 27 year old is committed to a Rockets playoff berth with a high enough seed so it won’t be a one and done April story. The history part of his quest would make Harden the second player in NBA history to lead the league in points and assists. Tiny Archibald did it in 1972-73, playing for the Kansas City-Omaha Kings who are now the Sacramento Kings. Archibald averaged 34 points and 11.6 assists. The cautionary tale in all of it is that the Kings, who were coached by Bob Cousy, were a 36 win team and didn’t make the playoffs.

By design, a point guard is rarely, if ever, the best offensive player. The shooting guard is usually the voluminous shot taker. Or a skilled power forward making a lot of shots close to the rim. If you are lucky, you have a LeBron James or a Kevin Durant or a Kawhi Leonard small forward who make contested shots. Occasionally, a center like DeMarcus Cousins is the straw that stirs the scoring in bunches drink.

But when new coach Mike D’Antoni moved Harden to the point in an effort to reduce his usage rate and bring the rest of the team into the Rockets offense party, he legitimized Harden’s other talent: passing. Harden leads the league in assists with 12.5 per game, 2.0 assists more than his former teammate Russell Westbrook who is second on the list.

Harden is also the fourth leading scorer, 28.7 points per game, 3.1 points less than Russell Westbrook. Frankly, it is hard to see Harden ending the year north of 30 points a game. He has more weapons on his team (Ryan Anderson, Eric Gordon) than Westbrook has on the Thunder, players able to score 25 points on a given night.

The Thunder need Russell Westbrook to drop 30 just to stay in games. Anthony Davis has Jrue Holiday back and is sharing the offensive load though everything in the Pelicans world is about Davis. DeMar DeRozan’s iso game is central to the Raptors. But Harden has the luxury of stepping back in games and scoring when he needs to or when the opportunity presents itself.

Regardless of whether he can match Tiny Archibald’s record or even if the Rockets get a coveted seed in the playoffs, James Harden has won. So retire all the jokes and shade. He came off a disastrous season of barely being interested and fighting with Dwight Howard and dating a Kardashian and the coach being fired, to creating for everyone besides himself.

Harden is finally doing what great players do naturally: making everyone better. Harden can get his hesitation dribble to the rack and his pull up three whenever he wants. But he has to enable his less talented teammates. And yet, still be James Harden.

Mission accomplished, so far.

He is making 8.6 field goals this year, a career high.  His 3.0 threes made per game are a career high, as well as a career high 8.2 threes attempted per game. He has a career high in offensive rebounding numbers, 1.5 per game. A career high defensive rebounding stat, 6.2, per game. The previously mentioned 12.5 assists per game is his highest assist mark. Before this year, his previous high was 7.5.

What is down on the stats list? His steals are down, his free throw attempts and free throw percentage are down. His 2-point attempts are down (D’Antoni effect at work). His defensive rating is the same as last year which is really bad news for the Rockets. Harden was dismal on defense last year when he was exceptional the year before (2014-15) but the D’Antoni effect guarantees defense that is an afterthought. But his offensive rating is way up, from 115 a year ago to 121, the highest it has been in five years, when he was with the Thunder.

Speaking of the Thunder, neither Harden nor Westbrook have the versatility or depth on their rosters to be a Western Conference finalist but both can make the playoffs. They met a few days ago and Harden lost, had his worst game of the season, 25% shooting but 13 assists. The game before OKC, Harden had an easy 33. In OKC, he had 13 points. A lot of meaning has been attached to a game in November but all it really signifies is that Westbrook and Harden are in the same place, single handedly trying to carry their team when the history of the league mandates multiple star players are necessary.

Want to stop James Harden?

Defend him for the pull up J. He is knocking them down 35.5% of the time. He is a little bit better on catch and shoots, 42.9%. But he eats off of shots at the rim. 10 feet of the basket he shoots 62.1%.

Another way to stop James Harden is to make him give up the ball early in the shot clock. When he shoots the ball early, 24-21 seconds, he is making 72.7% of his shots. When the shot clock is dwindling, 4-7 seconds left, he makes 19.2% of his shots. It’s that particular stat that frustrated Dwight Howard, Harden always having the ball in his hands late, not passing, but not making shots with high efficiency either.

Unfortunately for defenders, Harden’s talent is supreme. He makes shots whether you are in his jersey or whether he is wide open.

Harden drives to the rim 12.5 times a game and makes a nice 58.8%. He’s basically unguardable.

His assists are the product of his 66.3 passes per game. He touches the ball 99.8 times which is more than LeBron James and Chris Paul (86.3 and 86.1). The Rockets offense is Harden dominant, enough so, he dribbles the ball 5 times per touch before he passes it.

Comparing him to the top point guards in the league:

Ponts Guards Points Assists Touches Passes Usage Rate
Chris Paul 18.4 8.5 86.1 63.8 24.0%
Steph Curry 26.4 6.2 78.3 52.3 29.7%
Russell Westbrook 31.8 10.5 99.8 60.5 41.2%
James Harden 28.7 12.5 99.8 66.3 33.8%

Enough of the Harden is an awful defender shade. Enough of the jokes. Why can some players be terrible free throw shooters (DeAndre Jordan) and that is part of the bio, or some players can’t shoot (Andre Roberson) and everyone accepts it. Harden is never going to be a great defender. He doesn’t know how to play hard on that end of the floor because offense is so easy for him. He misses details and he can drift in games. So what? What he does on offense makes up for it. What he is doing this year makes up for it. Mike D’Antoni brought out the best in James Harden and in a way it has rejuvenated the Harden career and made teams fear him more.

Winning a title? Well that’s a different story altogether. But this is the one thing that is true. This second coming of James Harden is for real.