If Daryl Morey tried to create his ideal basketball player on a computer, he would probably design one similar to James Harden. Much has been written about Harden’s preternatural propensity for threes, layups and ability to draw fouls. The three most efficient ways to score are his specialities.
Harden took a combined 65.2 percent of his attempts at the rim and behind the three point arc during the 15-16 season. This sort of efficiency is a statistician’s dream. But Harden’s game isn’t limited to scoring. He is an elite distributor, his 35.4% assist percentage was second only to Lebron James among non-point guards. The biggest knock on Harden, aside from the obvious defensive issues, is that he is a ball stopper. His 566 plays in isolation more than comfortably led the league last year. In this modern, pace and space obsessed, version of the NBA, this is an aberration. If the Rockets are ever going to win a championship, these isolations need to go away. The offseason hiring of Mike D’Antoni shows the Rockets are well aware of this.
The “Seven Seconds or Less” Suns teams coached by D’Antoni have been credited with creating the modern NBA. An offense which places emphasis on pick and rolls, ball movement and transition attacking is perfect for the Rockets. While they could use more creativity in their halfcourt game, this team did lead the league in transition opportunities last season. By adding more firepower to the roster, Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson, the Rockets should have little trouble spacing the floor around Harden’s playmaking.
Houston’s expected starting center, Clint Capela, has shown a willingness to operate in the screen and roll. Last season, as a backup, his frequency to act as a roll man in pick and rolls was double that of Dwight Howard, 18.5% to 9.3%. Capela’s points per possession were slightly higher than Howard’s at 1.17 compared to 1.10. More opportunities should equal more assists for Harden, which in turn should open up the floor for everyone.
While the team around Harden this season appears to be more well suited to his game, his willingness to adapt will be the ultimate deciding factor. According to his own internal projections, D’Antoni expects Harden to average between 11 and 12 assists per game. To achieve this level of playmaking, Harden will need to buy in to D’Antoni’s philosophy.
On an individual level, Harden will have to make plenty of adjustments. Harden shot just 41.2 percent on shots that were attempted after seven or more dribbles. These attempts accounted for 25.7 percent of his overall attempts. These possessions overwhelmingly carried the Rockets into late shot clock situations where Harden took nearly 18 percent of his shots at a roughly 35 percent rate. Harden is far and away the league’s worst high volume shooter in these situations. These types of inefficient possession should be avoided. Not only do they trigger shots with a higher degree of difficulty, contested jumpers and step-backs for instance, they also stagnate the offense.
One of the things that stands out about Houston’s offense last season is the lack of off-ball cutting. When players are not involved in the offense, as was frequently the case last season, they have a tendency to stand around. This isn’t entirely due to lack of engagement. When playing around a player in isolation, it can be difficult to predict their movement, so rather than potentially kill the ISO player’s space or driving lanes, players often make smaller movements along the baseline or wings in case of a pass. The Oklahoma City Thunder had this problem last season as well with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook often alternating ISO possessions. When you have talented isolation players, there is certainly a place for it in your offense. The ability to get a bucket is still the most valuable skill in the NBA. But for a more efficient offense and greater, championship level, success, isolation plays should be limited.
The questions about the fit of D'Antoni and Harden are clearly valid, but the Rockets could see a huge jump in the quality of their offense with just a little buy-in from their incumbent superstar.