How Far Can James Harden Carry the Rockets?

The Rockets have fully unleashed James Harden and embraced their offense-first style. But how good can this team really be?

When the Houston Rockets didn’t extend the contract of interim head coach J.B. Bickerstaff this summer, it came as a bit of a surprise to followers of and people around the NBA. After all, Bickerstaff did lead a pretty dysfunctional team (that frequently failed to exert the minimum level of energy required to play an NBA basketball game) to the playoffs. You could chalk Houston’s failure in 2016 to personnel and chemistry issues, but it also felt like Bickerstaff’s style wasn’t a long-term fit for that roster.

Rockets GM Daryl Morey helped pioneer the NBA’s movement toward the ultra-pace-and-space era and the use of advanced stats, and he wanted to bring in a coach who did the same. Mike D’Antoni was one of the first head coaches to commit to playing smaller and faster when he revolutionized the modern offense with his extremely up-tempo, wildly entertaining Seven-Seconds-Or-Less Phoenix Suns in the mid-2000s. Those Suns only lasted five years and never got past the Conference Finals, but D’Antoni was onto something. Not long after his stint in Phoenix, the league started to embrace his once unconventional offensive philosophies, and now the whole league has turned toward smaller, more versatile players in place of old school, back-to-the-basket brutes.

Now, D’Antoni is taking those philosophies from his Phoenix days to Houston: he has a roster full of athletic, offense-first players, and he’s not trying to hide the fact he wants to outscore opponents in high-scoring track meets.

The Rockets have made it abundantly clear—like, super clear—that they want everything to go through James Harden on the offensive end. Through six games, Harden’s usage rate is 33.5 percent, with an league-leading assist rate of 61.3 percent. That means Harden is responsible in some way for nearly 95 percent of Houston’s offense. Ninety-five percent! That number will probably descend into the 80s as the season progresses, but Harden will remain near the top of the league in both usage and assist rate.

The Beard is averaging 31.5 points and 12.3 assists on the young season. (Eric Gordon ranks second on the team in both categories with averages of 16.2 and 2.2, respectively.) That heavy a load automatically puts Harden on a short list of MVP candidates, where he’ll almost certainly remain for the rest of the year. So far, he leads the league in assists, win shares, win shares per 48 minutes, and Player Efficiency Rating. With the possible exception of Anthony Davis in New Orleans, no team will rely as much on a single player this year as Houston will rely on Harden.

But this was Houston’s plan. By declaring Harden their starting “point guard”,[1] the Rockets basically made Harden an offensive puppet master with absolute control over every possession. Everyone knew that Harden was one of the league’s best scorers, but until this year, his place as one of its best passers mostly flew under the radar. He’s a fantastic passer with a near LeBron James-like understanding of where his teammates are on the floor and how to get them the ball, and he’s thrived as Houston’s point guard.

Houston starts most of its sets with a Harden pick-and-roll or isolation and shooters spotting up around him. Once he attacks, he simply reads the defense and decides whether to take it to the basket himself or kick out to a wide-open shooter:

He’s also developing a nice P+R combo with Clint Capela, a strong rim-roller and my preseason choice for Most Improved Player. Capela doesn’t create his own offense, but he knows how to get into the right positions to receive gorgeous passes from Harden.

When that’s Ryan Anderson in Capela’s place, he pops behind the three-point line, where he’s shooting slightly under 42 percent on the season. Anderson and Eric Gordon were somewhat surprising signings over the offseason, especially given their high salaries and apparent allergies to defense, but they’ve performed well spotting up around Harden.

Surrounding the Beard with excellent spot-up shooters has really boosted the Rockets’ three-point attack. Houston leads the league in three-point attempts per game and three point attempt rate (the percentage of total field goal attempts that come from behind the arc) and ranks second in made threes and effective field goal percentage.

This is far from a perfect strategy, though. Relying on one guy to create 95 percent of his team’s offense and launching boatloads of threes is inherently a dangerous gambit. Harden will inevitably turn the ball over at a high rate (4.8 per game!) and the Rockets’ lack of a secondary creator hurts them when Harden rests. Houston’s offense sinks when he sits; the Rockets are a miserable minus-25.4 points per 100 possessions without him on the court. When teams deny Harden the ball or pick him up full-court, like the Lakers did last week, who do the Rockets turn to for a bucket? Getting Patrick Beverley back will at least give them someone who can penetrate and kick, but Beverley doesn’t score or pass half as well as Harden does.

Of course, the most glaring weakness comes on the defensive end. The Rockets remain one of the worst defensive teams in the league, giving up just under 112 points per 100 possessions. Lineups featuring any two of the Gordon/Anderson/Nenê trio hemorrhage points, and units with all three have not survived. Again, Beverley will help on enemy point guards so that Harden doesn’t have to, but don’t expect him to drastically alter the team’s defense. Houston understandably doesn’t prioritize defense, but it’s really hard to win games with the 28th-best defense in the league.

The Rockets have the personnel to stay afloat defensively; Harden is big, quick, and extremely long; Trevor Ariza has been a good 3-and-D guy his whole career; Capela poses a threat at the rim; K.J. McDaniels, Montrezl Harrell, and Corey Brewer are athletic and scrappy enough to defend off the bench. Ability means nothing without effort, though, and that’s where Houston has to improve.

We’re only six games into the season, so there’s plenty of time for them to ascend into the top 20 defensively, which is really all they need. This team will put up points like crazy, and should be good enough to outscore teams so long as it holds opponents in the low-100s.

Harden may be good enough to maintain this high a level of play and carry Houston to the playoffs, but for the Rockets to become a real threat in the West, they’ll need to find offensive balance and defensive vitality.

 

Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference, NBA.com, and NBAwowy!

[1] I put “point guard” in quotes because the league is, as we know, moving away from traditional positions and more toward versatile combo players. Harden is really more of a combo guard who happens to be his team’s best facilitator.

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