Just last season, nobody gave Houston Rockets guard James Harden a second look despite his MVP numbers. Harden averaged an impressive 29 points, 7.5 rebounds, and 6.1 assists but he could never get away from the stigma of a mediocre 41-41 win-loss record. Houston was eventually clobbered by the Golden State Warriors in the first round of the playoffs. The snub became complete when Harden was not even included in any of the 3 All-NBA teams.
During the offseason, the Houston Rockets let go of Harden’s erstwhile partner Dwight Howard and signed two dominantly perimeter players in Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson. The combination of Howard and Harden never produced the results expected of two superstars still at the top of their game.
The team also named Mike D’Antoni their new head coach. D’Antoni is an innovative offensive coach who created the Phoenix Suns’ 7-seconds or less offense, the precursor to the pace and space NBA game that we know today. He also had a way of bringing out the talent of his personnel. Notably, point guard Steve Nash won back-to-back MVPs under his mentorship as he allowed Nash the freedom to call the offense under his dynamic system.
At the start of the season, D’Antoni “transformed” James Harden into a full-time point guard to tap the latter’s court vision and passing abilities, talents that were overlooked before. Harden has blossomed in his new position with his ability to shoot or drive by opponents, allowing easier scoring opportunities for his teammates.
Harden is now the league’s leading playmaker averaging a whopping 12.7 assists, four more than the next assists leader. Couple this with his scoring average (31.6 points) and rebounds and we may be just looking at the league’s best player. His new role has made him more efficient shooting career bests in three-point percentage and overall field goals.
What was difference from last season? Harden used to be given the ball at the elbow from the primary ball handler and it quickly became isolation sets or slow pick-and-rolls. This gave team defenses more time to collapse on Harden, forcing harder shots. With Harden as the primary ball handler, he can opt to walk the ball to his sweet spot or start the offense earlier. It also helps that Houston has more shooters on the wing to help space the floor and open up the lanes from him.
Whether Harden can keep up this amazing pace throughout the eighty-two game season remains to be seen but he looks to be finally unleashed. The only thing lacking in his game is his defense but one has to wonder why he can’t be a stopper given his athleticism. Harden is well on his way to regain his place as one of the top superstars in the league. He may even win his very first MVP Award.