James Harden waited patiently by his phone, stroking his fully grown beard, waiting for a phone call from his agent. Presumably, the five-time All-Star shooting guard was waiting on the hiring of a new head coach for the Houston Rockets.
Coming off a disappointing season by his standards, Harden averaged 29 points, seven assists, and six rebounds in 2015-2016. However, due to a slow start to the season and the firing of head coach Kevin McHale, the Rockets won only 41 games and lost in the first round after making the conference finals the year before.
Harden looked like he reached the apex of his ability with career highs in all statistical categories. When the Rockets hired Mike D’Antoni to be their head coach, one of the first decisions D’Antoni made was to put Harden at a position in which he can make himself and the team better.
“He’s more or less responsible for giving rhythm to the team, that’s what a point guard does… He’s going to be on the ball, and he’s going to be distributing the ball, and it will take some adjusting.” (ESPN)
Harden has needed little time to adjust as he has become the best distributor in the NBA, tallying 11.3 assists per game to go along with his 29 points per game. At this rate, Harden can become just the third player in NBA history to average 30 points and ten assists.
With D’Antoni in the mix, Harden has improved his game vastly at his new position as point guard despite only playing 4% of the total minutes in his career at point guard before this season, according to Basketball-Reference.
As easy as it was to swap Harden’s S for shooting into a P for point, the decision did not come without detractors; specifically in former head coach of the Houston Rockets Kevin McHale.
“James is a scorer, and at the end of the day, you do fall back on what you are. James is a scorer at heart… Can you change that for an entire 82 game season?”(Bleacher Report)
McHale has had a front row seat to the James Harden experience; the 50 point games, the meme-able defensive lapses, and a key motivator in the negative comments from McHale? The NBA record 13 turnover game against the Warriors in Game 5 of the 2014 Western Conference Finals. Setting defense aside, Harden’s ability to fill up the stat sheet has boded well for him throughout his Houston tenure except in one category.
Harden leads the NBA in turnovers per game at 5.8 per game and is on pace to shatter the record he set last year when he committed 374 turnovers. Harden has led the league in turnovers for three of the past four seasons. Despite being one of the top players in the NBA, the one criticism of his game this season voiced loudly by television and radio host Colin Cowherd is that Harden is “a turnover machine that doesn’t play defense.” (Fox Sports)
Since his arrival in Houston, Harden has become worse at limiting turnovers with his giveaways per game, increasing each season from 3.8 in 2013 to 4.6 in 2016. This year, his turnover spike has been due to him playing the entirety of his minutes on the floor at point guard this season. Despite Harden’s creativity handling the ball, the fact that Harden is the Rockets only viable distributor with Patrick Beverley only averaging 4.5 assists, shows the reliance the Rockets have had on Harden this season.
The Rockets lack of options and belief in Mike D’Antoni’s ability to mold great point guards justifies the faith put in Harden to lead the offense. D’Antoni coached Steve Nash during his two best seasons passing the ball in 2005 and 2007, along with back to back MVPs in 2005 and 2006. Jeremy Lin, due to the success he experienced briefly playing under Mike D’Antoni, was able to receive a max contract by none other than the Houston Rockets in 2013.
Harden’s turnover exploits remain an Achilles heel for this Rockets team that is on pace to win 55 games and break the NBA record for most threes made in a season. This turnover vice could become fatal once the playoffs begin as the Houston Rockets could potentially face the Memphis Grizzlies or the Utah Jazz, two teams that rank in the top three league wide in defensive rating.
In years past, D’Antoni’s run and gun Suns couldn’t win, lacking a formidable defense; fast forward to this season, the Rockets suffer from the same issues except they have James Harden’s turnovers to worry about as well. The 2017 playoffs will prove whether or not the uptempo shot making run and gun Rockets will be shackled when play grinds to a halt in the postseason.
photo via lllananba