A Glimpse Of Greatness

How James Harden can help turbocharge the Rockets' offense
by Jason Friedman
Rockets.com Writer/Reporter

HOUSTON - 35.3 points, 6.3 rebounds and 6.3 assists per game.

Yep, those are James Hardens’ numbers from his first three games as a member of the Houston Rockets and also the primary reason why he was an emphatic choice to be the 2012-13 season’s first Western Conference Player of the week. The bearded one did his best Michael Jordan impersonation from a statistical productivity standpoint, putting up video game numbers during a dream debut that saw the Rockets roll to a pair of impressive road wins before running out of gas Saturday night during an overtime defeat at the hands of the Portland Trailblazers.

But while it’s difficult to imagine Harden playing any better than he did last week – at least from a purely statistical output perspective – there’s no denying the fact Houston’s offense still has plenty of room to improve. Of course they do – they’d only practiced together three times prior to returning to the practice floor Monday morning. The Rockets currently rank 18th overall in offensive efficiency to date, scoring 98 points per 100 possessions – a number that would have placed them in the league’s bottom-five a year ago.

Now let’s be clear: Just three games into the season, it is waaaaaaaaaaaaay too early to start sounding alarms of any kind. The sample size is too small and these numbers and rankings are going to fluctuate wildly until enough games have been played and a trustworthy baseline is established. The only point here is that the Rockets have plenty of work left to accomplish in order to get where they want to be on offense – a statement, by the way, that applies to pretty much every other team in the league right now as well.

It should go without saying that the most glaring issue right now is simply one of familiarity since this team as currently constructed still has yet to even celebrate its 10-day anniversary. Junior high crushes last longer than this team has been together thus far. So what the Rockets really need more than anything right now is some good old-fashioned alone time on the practice court in order to discover each other’s likes and dislikes and maybe make a mixtape or two. Fortunately they’ve currently got some time to do precisely that (minus the mixtape making, though who knows what these two might get up to) since they don’t play again until the Nuggets invade Toyota Center Wednesday night.

The biggest reason for optimism, however, stems from the fact that Houston, in addition to boasting one of the game’s elite offensive talents in Harden, has a starting five filled with talented, smart, heady players, each of whom possesses a basketball IQ way above average. That alone should help to expedite the process of playing off one another in that singularly telepathic way that all strong offensive teams do. In fact, the Rockets have already shown glimpses during which they’ve exhibited that sort of chemistry; little peeks into the offensive machine they might one day become.

The first play especially is a thing of beauty; a coach’s whiteboard seemingly come to life with all five players perfectly, exquisitely spaced and synchronized, flashing, cutting and moving off the ball in such a way that results in a monster dunk courtesy of Cole Aldrich. No player ever dribbles the ball more than once as the Rockets pick Portland’s defense apart with ease. This is what Houston is capable of and what you’ll see more of as this team continues to congeal and coalesce over time. It’s also what was unfortunately lacking during the vast majority of the second half and overtime when the Rockets’ offense devolved into a sluggish, iso-heavy outfit that was lacking in pace and far too often content to simply stand around and watch Harden and Jeremy Lin attempt to create something out of nothing.

“It all comes down to little things,” says Chandler Parsons. “It comes down to where you’re supposed to be on the floor, cutting hard, screening, guards have to wait for their screens, you have to set your man up – it’s all the little things that add up.

“At this level you can’t just go out on the floor and expect to score. Guys are good defenders. Like (Blazers’ wing Nicolas) Batum, he’s long so on that loop play I’ve got to walk him into the screen, wait for Marcus (Morris) and then come off so Batum can’t deny me the ball. All those little things go into making a play like that work.”

Regarding the subject of pace, the Rockets largely did a good job of enforcing their preferred tempo upon their opponents during the first two games of the season before falling flat against the Blazers (somewhat understandable, given the fact Houston was playing the second end of a back-to-back and its third game in four nights). And when the offense is sagging, there are few better ways of injecting life into a team’s scoring punch than getting out in transition for easy baskets – even after opponents’ makes, as the Rockets looked to do early and often against Detroit and Atlanta.

That particular sequence surely brings a smile to the Rockets’ coaching staff because it harkens back to the message they’ve been attempting to pound into their players’ collective central nervous system since day one of training camp.

(See this quote from assistant coach J.B. Bickerstaff: “We don’t want to use made baskets as an excuse not to run. You think about how many times somebody comes down and scores and they’re celebrating, so we want to get the ball out quickly, push it and make them pay. So obviously the more stops you get the better, but we’re not using made baskets as an excuse not to push the basketball. So if the ball goes through the net, our big guys are trained to get the ball out and convert from defense to offense as quickly as possible so we can keep putting pressure on the other team’s defense.”)

With aggressive, attack-minded players like Harden and Lin, and another capable ball-handler in Chandler Parsons, the Rockets’ starting lineup has ample ability to make opponents pay any time they’re caught napping. Expect Houston’s coaching staff to constantly remind their club of that fact continuously throughout the season.

Here’s another fun little wrinkle the Rockets’ coaching staff has already added to the team’s offensive repertoire now that Harden is in Houston. Last week Grantland’s great NBA writer Zach Lowe touched on the 23-year-old’s uncanny ability to make these kinds of sublime, cross-court passes but it bears repeating simply because of the ridiculous skill level required to do so and the relative ease with which Harden unleashes them (right on the money and perfectly in the recipient’s preferred shooting pocket, it should be noted).

There’s a risk factor involved here to be certain, but Harden is so smart and skilled that it’s a safe bet he’ll ensure the Rockets come out ahead on these plays by the time the final ledger is calculated. That is, after all, what great players do: Otherworldly talents like Chris Paul, Steve Nash can make the difficult and downright dangerous rather routine when the ball is in their hands. The rest of the league is rapidly learning, if they didn’t know already, that Harden possesses some of those rare qualities as well.

Of course, the vast majority of the time there’s no need for the spectacular – or it’s simply ill advised and unwarranted. As the season unfolds, teams will tighten up their defensive schemes and it will grow increasingly difficult to beat them via designed plays they’ve seen dozens, if not hundreds of times. It is in these situations where the simple beauty of possessing a player capable of teaching a pick-and-roll master class comes into play. And few operate within the confines of the NBA’s bread and butter play any better than does Harden.

The 23-year-old generated 1.06 points per possession via the pick-and-roll last season according to Synergy Sports, good enough to put him in the league’s 97th percentile. He’s off to an even more scorching start this year, putting up 1.39 points per possession, placing him yet again in the NBA’s 97th percentile.

Watch the above video and there’s nothing particularly exceptional about what transpires (though that dish to Greg Smith and the ensuing slam are pretty sweet); it’s just a player drawing in the defense and making the proper play. Of course, neither clip would rate as a highlight if not for the subsequent finishing ability shown by Parsons and Smith respectively. And ultimately, this is what all offense comes down to and something that has at times let the Rockets down, most notably during their loss to Portland: It’s one thing to get good looks; quite another to knock them down.

As anyone who watched Saturday’s contest knows, Houston missed a bevy of wide-open threes against the Blazers and the problem was compounded by the club’s mystifying inability to finish near the rim. But just because the end result was flubbed doesn’t mean the build up was similarly flawed. The Rockets are currently ranked 24th in the league in three-point percentage, having hit just 27.7 percent of their shots from beyond the arc. That won’t last. Big picture, the Rockets will convert those opportunities at a rate more in line with the historical percentages possessed by the players on their roster.

Thus far, opponents have, quite understandably, responded to Harden’s offensive brilliance by either blitzing him in an attempt to get the ball out of his hands or packing the paint in order to deter penetration. Either strategy should result in open three-point opportunities galore if the ensuing execution is sound. Sooner or later, and with increased practice time and familiarity, the Rockets are going to start taking advantage on an increasingly regular basis.

When they do, their offense will really start to sing. And slowly but surely, those brief glimpses of greatness will extend into prolonged periods of basketball bliss.