The last time James Harden reached the NBA Finals he was the clear third-stringer in a blockbuster lineup that featured ruthless iso-heavy Kevin Durant and uber-athletic Russell Westbrook. Despite many fans gushing over the what-ifs pertaining to this generation’s ultimate fantasy team, most seem to forget how Harden flamed out royally in the five-game series against the Heatles: 12.4 ppg, 4.8 rpg, and 3.6 apg on .375 shooting, along with .318 from beyond the arc. It was perhaps the closest thing to a choke job one can ever attach to an inexperienced 22-year-old superstar-in-the-making.
Harden’s no-show against Lebron’s Big Three effectively signaled the end of OKC’s would-be dynasty. But from the ashes of this embarrassment came the first seeds for what would be the future of basketball that would grow and flourish under the shadows of manager Daryl Morey, coach Mike D’Antoni, and the rest of the Houston Rockets.
Harden has improved immensely from his time in OKC. From his roots as a throwback defensive guard with decent size, Harden has transformed into the NBA’s most elite isolation player. Aside from a brief, negligible blip in 2013, Harden has never failed to increase his point production every year since he entered the league. Despite being his team’s most elite scorer, Harden always seems to find ways to score the ball with increasing efficiency—as if he’s literally leaving the rest of the league in the dust.
HARDEN CAREER SCORING
(NBA Stats; 2009-2011 in OKC in BLUE, 2012-17 in HOU in RED)
His production becomes even more impressive considering he has transitioned seamlessly from two-guard to point-guard with no apparent drop-off in statistical production. Not counting this injury-plagued 2017-18 season, Harden has managed to improve his playmaking and rebounding well enough to resemble the league’s newest nightly triple-double threat since Westbrook and fellow MVP candidate Anthony Davis.
HARDEN CAREER REBOUNDING & ASSISTS
(NBA Stats; 2009-2011 in OKC in BLUE, 2012-17 in HOU in RED)
But collecting 30-point games aren’t nearly as impressive as how he collects them—as if lifted straight from a videogame, Harden seems to unconditionally embrace isolation plays to levels most coaches would scoff at. Despite the predictability of movements in isolation, Harden’s effectivity remains undeniable. A hybrid of Manu Ginobili’s herky-jerky movements, Michael Redd’s left-handed wizardry and shooting, and Steve Nash’s court awareness, Harden seems to have slowly but surely engineered the league’s most unstoppable one-man offense since Kobe Bryant.
Morey’s devious basketball architecture may be partly to blame for Harden’s seemingly endless ascent to greatness. To complement Harden’s elite solo talents, the Rockets have also managed to create the most perfect system ever constructed for the benefit of one singular anchor player.
Harden represents the ultimate triple threat under Houston’s system: he can deliver points on jab steps, step-backs, euro-steps, and blitzes. He is also one of the best foul-baiters in the league. And of course, when all else fails, they rely on Harden’s passing and Houston’s bombardment beyond the arc.
HOUSTON ROCKETS TEAM STATISTICS
Houston totally subverted the league by shooting more threes on average than twos. In 74 games so far they have attempted exactly 10 more three pointers than two pointers, and seem to be in no hurry to slow down. Credit Coach D’Antoni’s offensive genius in surrounding the hyper-efficient Harden with competent shooters, much like he did with Phoenix in his tenure with Steve Nash, and what Stan Van Gundy did for the Orlando Magic in Dwight Howard’s prime.
Their "shooters" aren’t even that exceptional to begin with. The Rockets have no rotation players that shoot .400 or better from long range. They just shoot a lot, far more than their contemporaries would prefer.
Houston has two of the top three in 3PA (3 Pointers Attempted): Harden and fellow gunner Eric Gordon (who isn’t even in their Top 6 in 3PT%). Houston also has four shooters in the Top 25 in 3PA, with newcomer Gerald Green and Chris Paul entering the fold. In essence, the Rockets are looking for players who aren’t shy in letting the three-ball fly, and it has manifested clearly in the way they play.
The secret to the Rockets’ trigger-happy long-range offense is, ironically, their short-range insurance policy. Despite shooting the league-worst 2PTA and 2PTM, the Rockets are second in the NBA in 2PT%, which means they’re less likely to shoot within the paint, but when they do, they’re likely to make it, thanks to a secretly effective Clint Capela who’s fourth in FGM within five feet from the basket. The next names on the list? MVP candidates Anthony Davis, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and LeBron James.
THE CHRIS PAUL EFFECT
One other important upgrade to consider: Combo God Chris Paul is here to stay. In his solitary year in Houston so far, Paul is shooting threes twice more often, and making them at a consistent clip. Despite dishing out 7.9 apg—his lowest since his first year in the league—he is still scoring at 18.8 ppg, as if he has embraced being a hybrid shooting guard next to a more ruthless offensive point guard in Harden. Outside of long-range, Paul is also a master of pull-ups from midrange, which almost completely complements Harden’s extreme layup-or-three scoring mentality.
Having a second option that understands how to create value off Houston’s system as well as a dynamic talent who can create his own shot is something Harden should cherish. Houston operates within a push-and-pull effect achieved with Harden’s one-on-one supremacy, their supporting cast’s shooting, Capela’s elite cleanup act under the basket, and Paul’s versatility and IQ. Combined with the game-breaking system Morey has put in place, it seems the Rockets are bound for a deep run with more than just a one-trick pony up their sleeve.
THE ADDED BAGGAGE
The Rockets couldn’t ask for a better year to see Morey’s plan come to fruition. The Golden State Warriors and the Boston Celtics are stuck in injury limbo and are under threat to lose ravenous lower-seed upstarts, San Antonio’s reign of excellency appears to be ending, and perpetual tormentor LeBron’s Cavaliers seem more vulnerable than ever.
But there’s a big reason fans aren’t flocking to Houston’s championship parade just yet. Harden has overachieved in the regular season before—but he has also choked countless times in key games where his scoring prowess was badly needed, and none more apparent than the Game 6 meltdown against the Spurs last year—10 pts, 2-11 FG%, 6 TOs, along with a head-scratching 18-minute stretch that saw him shoot zero field goals.
Harden’s inability to carry his team against all odds on high-pressure situations remains the biggest criticism to his otherwise superhuman game. Media outlets have battered Harden’s image senseless on live TV, even as they gleefully pronounced him an MVP candidate a few months earlier.
Paul’s addition is a small step towards the positive rehabilitation of Harden and the Houston Rockets’ image, but it’s not like Paul is the cleanest solution either. Paul—oft considered unlikeable by teammates, complains constantly, and has varying success with defense (ask Chauncey Billups in 2009)—hasn’t shown that he can reach the highest level of basketball despite his 13 seasons in league.
Perhaps together, Paul and Harden can exorcise their demons and reestablish their legacy in the NBA, but they will have to do so under the bright lights and across hordes of skeptic fans. The next few games will determine whether this Houston Rockets team is one of the NBA’s most prolific offensive teams ever or just another failed statistical experiment by Morey, D’Antoni, and Harden.