Somewhere in this country, Kevin McHale is limping around his living room as he used to do on the Rockets’ sideline, wondering how in the world somebody finally got this team to start playing good basketball. Dwight Howard is enjoying his time in Atlanta, but is probably utterly confused as to why he is getting along with his coaches and teammates- something that has grown to be a foreign concept for the 6’ 11” big man with more back problems than my grandfather and Tony Romo combined. Ever since the Rockets were able to come back from a 3-1 series defecit in the 2015 Western Conference Semi-Finals against the Los Angeles Clippers, only to be embarrassed by the eventual champion Golden State Warriors, the Houston Rockets have been a living and walking synonym of the word “mediocre”. This left many Houston fans spending the majority of last season saying the words, “its still early” until there were single-digit games left in the regular season and the Rockets were fighting for an 8-seed, or as I liked to call it: the team that Golden State gets to embarrass first.
The Rockets went on to secure that 8-seed and lost in five games to the Warriors, with their only win coming at home in a one-point nail biter against a Curry-less Warriors team. Bravo, Rockets. During the Rockets offseason, after learning that the grass is green and Roger Goodell sucks, we also were informed that there was quite a rift between James Harden and Dwight Howard within the Rockets locker room, leading to the departure of the prima donna. The Rockets went on to lock up Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon for the next four years for a combined $155M, which appeared to be the biggest splash Houston had made this offseason. However, in my opinion, the landing of guard-developing genius Mike D’Antoni is truly what was going to allow the Houston Rockets to break the barrier between average and good.
This sought-after coach was nothing short of a magician when it came to taking his guards to the next level. If you recall the emergence of Steve Nash following his departure from Dallas to Phoenix, Nash went from an all-star point guard to a two-time MVP in just TWO seasons under Coach D’Antoni. If you take a look back and compare his years in Dallas under Carlisle to his time in Phoenix, the numbers don’t lie. In those years under D’Antoni, Nash’s usage rating hit a career high. As a result of this, his assist numbers rose from 11 to 16 assists per game, he continued scoring upwards of 25 points each night, saw his player efficiency rating rise nearly two full points, and similar to a situation going on under Mike D’Antoni’s reign right now, his turnover numbers took a slight increase as well. Yes, I’m getting to something here.
However, Coach Mike didn’t need a Nash-caliber type of player to get guards to play to their fullest potential. Under Coach Mike D’Antoni, along with Steve Nash, guards Chris Duhon, Raymond Felton, Jeremy Lin and Kendall Marshall all saw similar results under this system. Combined, these guard’s points per 100 possessions saw an 18 percent increase, while their assist numbers and player efficiency ratings took a 26 and 21 percent jump from previous years with different coaches. This goes to show you that Mike D’Antoni doesn’t need an All-NBA Guard to improve their numbers with flying colors, but, when he DOES have one, watch out NBA. Early on in this 2016-2017 NBA season, we’re starting to see shades of retro Steve Nash in Houston, Texas.
James Harden has always been an MVP candidate since joining Houston back in 2012, yet the evident improvement in his game continues to wow the rest of the league. Not only is he the first Houston Rocket to score 30 points and dish out 15 assists in a game, but he has managed to do it FOUR times this year- something that the rest of the NBA managed to do only three times last season. And yes, this includes Steph Curry. He’s racked up five games with 15+ assists this year, while the rest of the league has only managed to do that once. Not to mention, he’s the first player since Jordan in the ’88-’89 season to drop 30 points and 10 assists in four straight contests. James Harden has always been the standout star of this team, meaning the ball has been in his hands the majority of the time. The difference in this year is that he has learned how to execute the pass, posting a league-leading assist percentage of 62%. Rather than throwing up a step-back jumper with a hand in his face or driving through four defenders to the basket and throwing the ball 15 rows up in the stands behind the basket trying to draw a foul (both of which he tends to do pretty well), Harden has learned how to utilize the weapons on his team.
Playing the point guard position has changed his offensive intellect and has allowed him to look for the open man, rather than trying to score every time. His turnover numbers may be up a full turnover per game from last season, but scroll up two paragraphs if you’re going to tell me you can’t do that AND be successful. At 30.6 points per game along with a league-high 13 assists per game, Harden accounts for nearly 58% of Houston’s offensive output and ranks 3rd in the league over Curry, Durant, Lebron and Westbrook with a 32.4 player efficiency rating. He doesn’t feel the need to feed the ball to an excessively hormonal center, and has weapons in Ryan Anderson (boasting a career high 48% 3-point percentage) and sharpshooter Eric Gordon. This not only allows him to spread the ball more efficiently, but takes the pressure off of him when its his time to score.
Yes, certain numbers do and will continue to show that this offense lives and dies off James Harden. However, this isn’t the worst problem to have when he’s averaging 37.6 minutes per game. Their offensive +/- shoots down from 13.3 to 7.1 when Harden takes a seat and Houston’s offensive efficiency drops 32 points without James on the court, but what this team is finally doing which they haven’t done in awhile is play team basketball. The use of the pick-and-roll has never been so efficient for this offense. They join the Atlanta Hawks as the only other team in the NBA to rank in the top seven teams in the league in both points-in-the-paint per game along with three-point field goal percentage. We’ve seen the good and the bad of this Rockets team. We’ve seen them lose to teams like the Los Angeles Lakers in a game where Harden dropped 34, lose close games to above-average teams on the road in Cleveland and Atlanta, while they’ve also shown the league that they can come away with big road wins in Dallas, Washington, New York, and most impressively, San Antonio.
There are good things to come for this basketball team if they continue to rank in the top half of the league in offense, while playing defense similar to the way they did against Pop and the Spurs. Let’s be real here, they may not have the same talent as teams such as San Antonio, Golden State and the surging Los Angeles Clippers, but as you saw a few nights ago-the Rockets can challenge these teams. The good news for this team is that they managed to finish over .500 on a long and difficult road-trip to open the season. How far this team can go is all a matter of improving their defense and James Harden continuing to successfully morph into Mike D’Antoni’s system, something that guards of his caliber have proven to do in the past.