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What James Harden Needs

Before the season started, many questioned whether James Harden could thrive without Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Three months later, he looks like a lock for the All-Star Game. After several years of wandering in the wake of Yao Ming’s retirement, the Houston Rockets have a new franchise player, a 23-year-old already in the discussion for best shooting guard in the NBA. The next step is building a team around him that maximizes his strengths and minimizes his weaknesses.

Harden has prototypical size (6’5, 220) and shooting ability (career 36 percent from beyond the arc) for a shooting guard, but what separates him from his peers is his uncommon feel for the game. Unlike most great players, Harden isn’t a plus athlete for his position, he just does an incredible job of maximizing his physical abilities. He’s a young player with the game of a 40-year-old man. If he can attack a defense in space, he will almost always make the right decision. LeBron James is the only non-traditional point guard in the NBA who averages more assists a game than Harden (5.3).

What Harden does have is exceptional length (6’11 wingspan) and timing. Very few guards can be efficient when they start playing amongst the trees in the lane. Harden’s ability to extend the ball in front of him and create contact with defenders allows him to draw fouls at an absurd rate. Dwight Howard is the only player in the NBA who averages more free-throw attempts a game than Harden at 9.8. And since he’s rarely jumping very high off the ground, Harden isn’t as likely to get injured as guys like Dwyane Wade.

He is one of the rare players who can knock down three-pointers, draw free throws and distribute the ball at an elite level. Not only is that an unbelievably efficient combination of skills to have, stars with his skill-set make the game so much easier for their teammates. He creates shots for them with the ball in his hands and creates space for them just by spotting up off the ball. And by drawing fouls at the rim, he puts his team in the penalty earlier in the game and forces opposing team to go to their bench.

There isn’t a position in the NBA as thin as the SG; Harden’s success with Houston has moved him near the top of that very short list. Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade, Joe Johnson and Manu Ginobili are all in their 30’s while Brandon Roy’s comeback looks headed for a premature end. Eric Gordon is the only under-25 shooting guard in the NBA with Harden’s skill-set and he hasn’t been healthy in years. Even after a recent shooting slump that has coincided with a seven-game losing streak for Houston, Harden trails only Wade and Kobe in PER among two-guards. I’m going to give a shout-out to Ben McLemore of Kansas right here; he could be Harden’s greatest competition down the road.

However, as good as he is offensively, his lack of athleticism means he’ll never impact the game defensively as much as guys like Durant or Westbrook. On top of that, he has to spend most of his energy on the offensive end, where he’s responsible for an inordinate load of the Rockets offense. He’s their only player with a usage rating above 21. That’s where the rest of their roster becomes so important. Harden needs to be protected defensively, in much the same way Phoenix protected Steve Nash in the mid-2000’s. Jeremy Lin and Chandler Parsons are going to have a hard time guarding Westbrook and Durant in a seven-game series.

When Nash was winning MVP’s, his weakness on defense was never a big deal because he was protected by Shawn Marion and Raja Bell. Conversely, Nash made those guys better on offense by creating high-quality looks at the basket. You want players who complement your best player’s games, not replicate it. Harden, for example, was somewhat redundant in Oklahoma City, who are actually better offensively now that Durant has the ball in his hands more often.

The fit of Lin and Harden, playmaking guards who need the ball in their hands to be effective, has been problematic from the start. Defenses don’t need to respect Lin’s three-point shot (28 percent), which limits the space Harden has to work with in the half-court. The Rockets have made up for that by starting Patrick Patterson (36 percent) and Parsons (36 percent), but that creates a domino effect in terms of the number of athletes they  have on the floor. Ideally, they would have an elite shooter at the point guard position, allowing them to start at least one defensive-minded forward without compromising their floor spacing.

Lin is a credible NBA point guard with the ball in his hands, but he isn’t the playmaker or finisher Harden is. That’s why many have suggested that he be moved to the bench, where he could serve as the primary ball-handler on their second unit. It’s no coincidence his best game of the season, a 38-point 7-assist effort against San Antonio in December, came when Harden was out and he could dominate the basketball. The Rockets should sell Lin on the idea of being a sixth man, especially now that they may have found the ideal fit next to Harden.

Patrick Beverley, a 24-year-old PG whom they signed out of Europe in late December, has had an impressive NBA debut. He’s always had the physical talent to be an NBA player; he just kind of slipped through the cracks as a second-round pick who declared out of school too early. A hyper-athletic 6’1, 185 guard with a 6’6 wingspan, Beverley has the tools to be an excellent defensive player. If he can knock down shots and not turn it over, he could end up becoming a combination of Mario Chalmers and Norris Cole.  He’s only played in four games, but his lengthy experience in Europe suggests he’s capable of stepping into a role in an NBA rotation immediately.

Even if Beverley doesn’t work out, since Harden can essentially run the point himself, it won’t be hard to find an athletic guard who can shoot to put next to him. Just as important is upgrading at the forward position next to Parsons. Last year’s second-round pick from Florida is a very nice passer at shooter at 6’10, 215, but he’ll be more effective defending the weaker defensive player upfront in a seven-game series. Patterson and Marcus Morris, the two 6’8+ combo forwards they play at the 4, don’t have the physical tools to be an elite defensive player. The good news for Houston is that, much like with Beverley, their front office’s eye for talent may have already found them an answer.

Terrence Jones, their rookie power forward from Kentucky, has been overshadowed by the soap opera surrounding Royce White. Nevertheless, his skill-set fits better with what the Rockets need. At 6’9 250 with a 7’2 wingspan, he’s bigger than Patterson and Morris and far more athletic. As a sophomore at Kentucky, he averaged 7.2 rebounds, 1.8 blocks and 1.3 steals a game while also displaying the ability to create his own shot out of the high post. He slipped in the draft because he was overshadowed by Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, but he was a key component of the Wildcats NCAA championship season. I think his best-case scenario is somewhere around Josh Smith.

In the long-term, the Rockets recent struggles may end up being for the best. Their current ceiling is a first-round exit; they can’t afford to ignore upside plays like integrating Jones and Beverley into the starting line-up. Daryl Morey is a big picture guy. Even if Jones doesn’t have the upside to allow them to compete with the Thunder and the Clippers down the road, he could help them get in on the seemingly inevitable Kevin Love sweepstakes two years from now. Harden may be the best SG in the NBA by that time, but as Wade and Kobe’s careers have shown, he’ll still need a lot of help to make the Rockets a legitimate championship contender.

 

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