In mid-August, James Harden was getting up shots in Guangzhou, China, 7,000 miles away from where most of the other 400-plus NBA players were preparing for the new season. He was shooting a basketball, shirtless and perspiring, later posting the shot on Instagram with the caption ‘stay the course….’ From the shape of his body, it could have been construed as a glimpse into the results of his assault course training, but more likely was a statement of his intent to chase the two things he doesn’t yet have: an MVP award and NBA championship.
Harden’s drive this season was to make it better - and different - than the rest. He had already recruited Chris Paul from the Clippers, witnessed GM Daryl Morey, aka Mr. Always In, beef up the bench with the additions of P.J. Tucker and Luc Mbah a Moute, all the while comfortable in the knowledge he’s the centrepiece of a Mike D’Antoni system he revels in.
That image of Harden should have warned us he was coming back with a vengeance, but how were we to know he could improve on a stat line of 29.1 points/8.1 rebounds/11.2 assists from last season? The man is 12 pounds lighter and as confirmed by his coach and teammates in the last days is making scoring look easy.
Not limited to scoring, the game of basketball looks simple for Harden, the court providing an environment in which he can test his abilities and experiment against the best to play the sport. He is more patient than ever, tricky and evading, quick to the basket, dangerous as a creator and shooting at a mind-blowingly efficient clip.
The Rockets’ bizarre second round exit from last year’s playoffs against the Spurs, headlined by Harden’s game six meltdown in a 39-point loss, has faded into the exterior. We are witnessing a better version of a top class model, driving around on a different track.
“I’ve seen it all the last few years”, Harden said of the defensive coverages teams are showing him. “Ain’t nothing they can do about it.”
Having watched him closely, I must say I agree.
Harden’s volume of shots have increased this season, but so has his efficiency. He’s connecting on a career-high 39.5% of his 10.8 three’s a game. He leads the league in points (31.1) and assists (9.8), flirting with an achievement not seen since Nate Archibald did it way back in 1973.
Thanks to Michael Lewis, Moneyball and to a lesser degree Brad Pitt, it’s easy to back up an argument with numbers these days, but an irritating and overused sentence is necessary for this case study. Harden is ‘passing the eye test’. Forgive me, but it’s like fine art. You gaze at it, you can take your time with it, it’s a joy and delight. Whereas two years ago Harden’s shot attempts were often a result of head-down dribbling and aimless side to side meandering, the floor is now his to control, full of visible teammates, infectious creation and a devastating shot selection. From the step-backs, shoulder fakes and alley-oop lobs that touch the moon, Harden looks inspired, and so damn smooth.
In a recent 105-83 win over a Memphis team that always bring a physical presence on the defensive end, D’Antoni’s teachings were in full effect and producing results on a separate scale to their opponents. Whether the Rockets conceded the basket or not, the returning Paul or Harden accelerated on offence. Every dribble they took was with a purpose and after crossing half-court, a screen was on its way or already there. Shooters were aligned and passes were kept to a minimum so to maximise impact. Conversely, the Grizzlies had a four-on-two several times and with it spent eight seconds slinging the ball sideways to each other, passing up open shots and ultimately missing out on easy points.
I’m certainly not comparing talent, which is tipped aggressively in Houston’s favour, but their style is wired on D’Antoni’s Phoenix teams from the mid-2000’s, dubbed ‘seven seconds or less’. Sometimes it’s less, sometimes it’s more, which leads us nicely into the skillset of one James Harden.
There are many moments watching Houston’s offence when you see the Steve Nash Suns running. If Harden is gaining a head of steam off a defensive rebound, the likes of Eric Gordon and Trevor Ariza disperse to the wing and as their star remains central, he inevitably draws a double team. One pass to the wing leads to the inevitable defensive scramble and the extra pass to the corner results in an open three. Sometimes, Harden dribbles from coast to coast with Clint Capela or Nene just floating in front, not quite setting an illegal pick but close enough to aid a bucket in quick time.
However, the Rockets aren’t always able to run and gun and the big change with Harden has been his ability to slow in the half court, avoiding for the most part his show of circle dribbling for a stationary audience of four. Whereas Nash would run until the cows come home, those seven seconds have become invaluable for Harden’s calculation and setup. The Rockets offence is predicated on the pick and roll and it’s often set very early. Capela, or said big, will split half court and the three-point line and set up during in which Harden is controlling the ball with his head up, his knees and hips dancing and his shoulders shaking, giving fits to the best of defenders. The challenge here is attempting to stay in front of him while tracking the screener behind.
As Rockets icon Hakeem Olajuwon told me recently in Birmingham, “Harden is doing the dream shake in the open court.”
His fakes are subtle, but they’re deadly. He may utilise that screen conventionally and if Capela keeps rolling, Harden will draw the double team before lobbing it up for an alley-oop. These passes are thrown so high that defenders who commit cannot snag it. If a defender steps up even higher, as we saw in Houston’s roasting of Phoenix, Harden applies the Euro step to evade plodding bigs.
Taking it one step further, if he has to worm his way around defenders in the post, he’s worked out that keeping his dribble low and alive is a great way of slaloming to the rim. The new Harden also understands how much attention he draws and has mastered the one-handed bullet pass to the outside.
All of that is just a small part of the checklist you need to master in order to become the head of the snake that is D’Antoni’s desirable system. Except not even D’Antoni, who’s worked with Nash, Carmelo Anthony, Kobe Bryant and various Team USA stars, has ever coached a player like this.
So much of what Harden is able to generate is from smart team movement. Watch the Rockets establish themselves in the half court and you’ll see guys cross each other to cause some sort of confusion or enable a favourable matchup. Harden is so often waiting for a pick that when one is halfway there, the defender feels it coming and in an instant Harden is dashing to the basket. A direct result of that improved body, his step is quicker and he’s getting to his spots faster than last year.
Let’s talk about that ‘dream shake’ dribbling though, a masterclass that is getting lost in the shadow of Kyrie Irving’s mesmerising moves. Harden dribbles at opponents with body language that poses the question: ‘who wants to guard this then?’
Sometimes the answer is nobody.
Circling back to that game in Memphis, as Paul controlled the ball at the top, Harden went down to bounce off Mbah a Moute in a fake pick play. The latter went to the block while Harden popped outside. Both defenders went with Mbah a Moute, leaving the deadliest player currently alive wide open. Harden sunk the three and instead of drawing the conclusion that it was a misassignment, I’m concluding that neither defender wanted a piece of Harden.
The next play down, Chandler Parsons boxed Harden into the corner, harassing him and attempting to force a turnover. Harden kept swinging the ball left to right, pivoting strongly and when Mario Chalmers came to help, Harden faked right, sent both sprawling before heading into the paint and again lobbing it up for Capela.
Marc Gasol was just one of many defenders who doesn't commit early enough when Harden enters 15 feet. Bigs need to be quicker or hover at the rim and wait to contest his shot, a tactic the Spurs took in the playoffs last year to limit Harden’s passing and shooting window. Because of Harden’s speed and ability to read things ahead of time, for the most part they get stuck in no man’s land.
But what can you really do as a defender? Harden has developed his step-back move so well that as a defender, you’re at first naturally giving him space to ‘eliminate’ the drive, but are suddenly witness to Harden creating three or four feet of separation by applying weight into his front foot and springing back, allowing him to take an open three from what was a second before a one-on-one situation. If Harden wants to attack you on the dribble, he will subtly lean one shoulder to the floor and as he sees the tiniest movement from the defender, kickstarts his hard crossover and pounces the other way. He’s on a line, and the defender is always stepping across it.
While a lot has been made of Chris Paul’s addition to the Rockets roster, we’ve not seen him much because of a bruised left knee. Now back healthy, he’ll be on a minutes restriction only for another week or so and there seems to be no concern with how the first and seventh-ranked players in ball possession from last season fit together. Yes, Harden has played bonkers without Paul, but more importantly, the Rockets were eliminated in the second round of the playoffs last year without him, too. They need him and are better with both.
In tight games, Houston will always have an elite playmaker on the floor. One lightens the workload for the other, creates better shots for the other. Harden wanted this. He recruited Paul. Paul loves D’Antoni from their USA Basketball days. Paul may have been injured for the last month but he was coaching from the sidelines, and had already bagged a tonne of minutes with Harden in the offseason. Where the Rockets’ second unit was a weakness at times last year, Paul leads it with precision and strong communication. Imagine one of those two - or both - with options like Ariza, Gordon, Ryan Anderson, Tucker and Mbah a Moute. No wonder this team scored 90 points in a half.
Harden hasn’t given up his silent leadership, shots (over 20 attempts from the field) or the ball. He’s simply sharing it all with Paul, who’s a pit bull and is pushing Harden to be even better.
Back to that Spurs elimination game we mentioned, where the winner didn’t even have Kawhi Leonard available. It was just over six months ago, but you don’t hear about that after a quarter of this new season. There’s no backing down in Houston anymore, no softness or hard feelings.
They have a superstar who is ripping up defences, and there’s nothing you can do about it except watch.