Can James Harden do what hasn’t happened in the league in more than 40 years? And, will that be enough to get the Rockets back into true title contention?
The Rockets got Harden from Oklahoma City in 2012. A year later, they added Dwight Howard in free agency. A year later, they came within an eyelash of adding Chris Bosh in free agency, too. A year later, they were in the Western Conference finals. A year later, they’d fired coach Kevin McHale and lost Howard to free agency, as his relationship with Harden deteriorated beyond repair.
Houston is now back to square one, with Harden. But there are worse squares to be behind.
Through nine games — seven of which have been on the road — Harden has been spectacular. He’s fifth in the league in scoring (30.0 points per game), while leading the league in assists (13.0 apg). For good measure, he’s leading Houston in rebounds (8.0 rpg). The only player in NBA history to lead the league in both categories for a season was the Kansas City Kings’ Tiny Archibald, who averaged 34 points and 11.4 assists in 1972-73. Nor is he being rash with the ball — his current PER of 31.3 is fourth in the league behind Chris Paul (32), Anthony Davis and DeMar DeRozan (each at 31.5).
After dropping off the Kia MVP radar last season — he’d finished second to Stephen Curry in 2014-15 — Harden’s back in the discussion, fully empowered by new coach Mike D’Antoni to both have the ball and make decisions with it. Officially naming Harden point guard before the season began was merely a depth chart issue. He already was the Rockets’ point guard. And there’s no longer a need to make sure Howard gets enough touches.
“There’s a lot more space,” Harden said last week, “a lot more opportunity for me to get to the basket, and to find guys. Previously, it was little bit more crowded. You’ve got to respect our shooters. You’ve got to be able to find them and know where they are at all times, or you’re going to pay for it.”
GM Daryl Morey went for what he knew and believed in over the summer, spending $133 million on free agents Ryan Anderson ($80 million for four years) and Eric Gordon ($53 million for four), with $15 million more to bring in D’Antoni’s space- and three-friendly offense. Once Howard went to Atlanta, replaced by Anderson and Gordon, the idea of Harden operating with the rock in space was immensely intriguing.
“That starts with Daryl and the front office,” D’Antoni said. “They know it. They’ve always played that way. They had Robert Horry sitting out there (as a stretch four); they’ve had that philosophy for a long time and in the works. Ryan is one of the best shooters out there that you can get, and we got lucky and we got him. And Eric, also, is a very good long distance shooter; he even shoots it longer than I thought. He does a heck of a job. We got lucky on that. Now, we’ve just got to blend that with some defense.”
That’s more of a problem.
Per NBA.com/Stats, Houston is currently seventh in the league in offensive rating (107.6 points per 100 possessions) and tied for ninth in scoring (107 per game). The Rockets are second to the Warriors in Effective Field Goal percentage (.542) and in True Shooting Percentage (.576). And Houston is sixth in the NBA in assist ratio (18), the number of assists per 100 possessions. The ball is moving.
But the other end of the floor is still a mess.
Houston is 27th in the league in defensive rating, allowing 107.8 points per 100 possessions, and is 20th in points allowed per game (106.7). And that’s not because the Rockets are playing fast; they aren’t. They’re just 17th in the league in pace (99.2 possessions per 48 minutes).
That responsibility this season in Houston will fall on assistant coach Jeff Bzdelik, the former Nuggets coach who learned under Pat Riley in Miami and returned to the NBA in 2014 with Memphis after college coaching stints at Colorado and Wake Forest.
Bzdelik, though, is somewhat limited — both by the personnel he has in Houston, and by the calendar. Once the season starts there are very few days for full-blown practices; starters need to rest from the games the night before or the next day, and no one is completely healthy.
“Defense has to be done every day,” Bzdelik said, “either through film, or walking through, or active, live drills.”
There are some pieces. Houston’s best shot at improving on its meh defensive numbers last season will come when Pat Beverley, one of the league’s best on-ball irritants, returns from arthroscopic knee surgery in a week or so. That will also allow D’Antoni to return Gordon to a sixth man role and lengthen the bench.
Small forward Trevor Ariza still provides textbook one-man weakside defense, and still stays in front of his guy much more often than not. With the pogo stick-ish Clint Capela taking over for Howard at center, and Nene providing low-post brute force in reserve, the Rockets should keep the paint clean most nights. But the rest of their defense doesn’t hold up. The Rockets are 20th in opponents’ made threes per game.
There are also, simply, limits to the current personnel. Harden’s not as bad defensively as YouTube clicks would have you believe, but he’s no stopper and not nearly consistent enough with his effort (understandable if not acceptable, given the burden he has to produce one way or the other almost every time down at the offensive end). Anderson has been an okay rebounder most of his career but is limited at this stage of his career chasing stretch fours like, well, himself. Corey Brewer is long but doesn’t cause as much havoc as the Rockets would like. Without Beverley on the floor (“he brings something we don’t have right now — that dog defensive point guard mentality,” Harden said) there just isn’t anybody who can get under anyone’s skin.
“We’re working,” Nene said. “We have good players, good effort, but we’ve got to maintain more focus and be more consistent. We’re doing good things. Offensively, we’re going to be fine, but defensively, we’ve got to be more consistent.”
And they have to do so without fouling. Howard was often in foul trouble (not always his fault, as he often had to jump out at the last second to try and cover up for teammates who’d been broken down off the dribble), and Capela is still young and susceptible.
“The whole team has to improve on that,” Bzdelik said, “understanding the rules and using the rules to your advantage. Playing with your hands and arms up and back, and verticality, and being in the proper position early so you’re not late. Ninety percent of fouls are defensive mistakes.”
Ariza says Bzdelik is emphasizing, in Belichick-ian fashion, that everyone just do their job.
“Everybody being on a string, everybody being there for one another, to help one another,” Ariza said. “’Cause when you do that, you just go hard doing those things, when one person is not doing it, they’re going to stick out. That’s what we’re trying to eliminate.”
In the meantime, there’s no law against trying to win shootouts. And with Harden, Houston is damn near impossible to stop.
Double-teams are pointless when he’s spread out in a 1-4 or similar set; he can see them coming, and shreds them. Capela’s already capable of flowing off pick and roll action for lobs if defenders opt to stay home on Anderson and Gordon. Teams that hard show on side pick and rolls run the risk of Harden looking over the top — he is 6-foot-5 — and finding the open wing. Anderson and Gordon also get involved in the pick and roll fun with Harden, leaving them either with a smaller defender on them or on him. If it’s him, it’s a near-certainty Harden’s going to the foul line — which helps the Rockets defense more than a made three.
“Before I got here, I already knew he was a pretty good passer, but he never had really good shooters around him enough as we do now,” Gordon said. “And for him, if people was like, he couldn’t be a good enough point guard, it’s easy. He’s used to having the ball to create and he can score. When you have guys like me and Ryan and Trevor on the floor, you’ve got to pick your poison. Somebody’s going to be open almost every play down the court, and all he has to do is find somebody. Every time he comes off of pick and roll, he knows somebody’s open or he’s just going to take a shot.”
In Harden’s first year in Houston, the Rockets obliterated the franchise record for 3-pointers in a season with 867. It’s been that way ever since. With Harden freshly extended through 2019 (he has a player option for 2020), and Morey one of the most aggressive GMs in the league, the search will begin anew for another star. Eventually, will the style and “The Beard” entice another difference-maker to Houston?
“Yes,” Morey said Sunday, “and (because of) our season this year — we expect to go deep in the playoffs.”
…AND NOBODY ASKED YOU, EITHER
Thunder up. Or, down? From Juan Felipe Murgueitio:
I’ve been thinking a lot about the Thunder. I’ve always considered myself a passive NBA fan in that I’ve never really supported just one team. The Spurs and OKC have been two mainstays but, you know, nothing terribly passionate.
However, Durant’s decision grabbed me (and most of us) by surprise and really broke my heart. Only then did I fully realize the Thunder’s my team. So now I watch every game they play (mostly online, we don’t get as much NBA in Colombia). And though I realize they’re a flawed squad, I also know they are really young.
So I want to know what assessment you’d give to that roster in terms of potential as a championship contender. Is there enough talent to develop and take them back to near the top, or is a rebuild inevitable? Also, can Steven Adams become a superstar or is his ceiling at “really good”?
The current roster? Not much chance it can be championship material. It is a good roster, but again, it was constructed with Durant in mind. Victor Oladipo is a terrific third option, but I’m not sure how he’ll do as a second — and that’s not a criticism of Vic. OKC will need Domantas Sabonis to develop quickly, too. As for Adams, I think star is possible, and likely, given his work ethic. I don’t see him becoming an offensive monster, but he’s certainly capable of being a reliable 18-20 point guy with enough touches.
I woke up in New Orleans/Angry at the world and all alone. From Alexander Hudetz:
The Pelicans screwed it up, haven`t they? Davis is averaging 31.1 ppg, 10.7 rpg, 3.0 bpg, 1.7 spg, shooting 50.2 percent and 81.4 percent from the line and the Pelicans seem already destined for the lottery after starting 0-5.
Yes, Jrue Holiday has all the reasons in the world to sit out as long as he wants or must to take care of his family (I really hope his wife & daughter will ultimately be fine and healthy), and they have other players already injured.
Still the Pelicans screwed it up. And you could see it coming since they traded Ariza for Asik and then gave him an overblown contract – in addition to (over-)paying Gordon, Evans and Ajinca.
Naturally Davis seems a bit frustrated. But the Pelicans have locked up Davis until at least 2019. Still I think that every Basketball fan on earth (with the exception of Pelicans fans) want to see Davis competing for championships as soon as possible and not spinning the treadmill in New Orleans until halve of his career is over.
My question is: shouldn`t teams stacked with trade-assets (like Boston) throw as much of their assets as possible at New Orleans in exchange for getting Davis? It’s clear nobody in New Orleans wants to trade their franchise player but if somebody gives you multiple future lottery picks and a bunch of young players — wouldn`t that be the right time to start a proper rebuild?
Pelicans fans may not want to hear this but the alternative is in my view that they will be at the fringe of reaching the playoffs until Davis finally leaves as a free-agent.
If New Orleans would trade Davis at the deadline or at the end of the season to Boston, the Celtics would still have a massive collection of assets to offer. The longer they wait, less and less picks will be left in Ainge’s treasure chest.
My trade scenario: Boston gives: 2017 first round draft pick from Brooklyn (swap, Boston), 2018 Brooklyn first rounder, 2019 first from Memphis, one or two 2nd rounders, J. Brown, Amir Johnson, Bradley or smart FOR Davis (and maybe if the salaries work, Asik).
Nah. Way too early for the Pels to think about trading the franchise for a bunch of picks that may or may not pan out. New Orleans will have cap room next summer when Tyreke Evans’ and Holiday’s salaries come off, and the Pels better hit a free agent homer. If the roster isn’t significantly improved by this time next year? Circle the wagons and be very afraid.
Apparently, I do not love L.A. From Jay Srinivasan:
One team has beaten three of the teams in your top 15, and yet does not have a place among them. What gives?
Can’t imagine who you’re thinking of, Jay. But a gander at this week’s TOTWM! should calm your nerves.
Send your questions, comments, and other carnivorans who are familiar with Rule 18-1 of the official Rules of Golf to email@example.com. If your e-mail is funny, thought-provoking or snarky, we just might publish it!
(Last week’s averages in parenthesis)
1) LeBron James (23 ppg, 9 rpg, 6 apg, .446 FG, .750 FT): Another milestone passed Friday: James became the youngest player in league history to surpass the 27,000-point mark, at 31 — more than half a year ahead of the previous record holder, Kobe Bryant.
2) Kawhi Leonard (23.7 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 0.6 apg, .417 FG, 1,000 FT): How this stayed off everyone’s radar this long is amazing, but good on Tom Haberstroh for unearthing a long-held secret to better shooting.
3) Kevin Durant (24.3 ppg, 7.8 rpg, 4.8 apg, .514 FG, .900 FT): Streak of consecutive games with 20 or more points ended Thursday against the Nuggets.
4) Russell Westbrook (30 ppg, 9.5 rpg, 10.8 apg, .420 FG, .813 FT): Posted his third triple-double of the season Sunday against Orlando. But it ended a streak of 20 consecutive victories for the Thunder in which they won when Westbrook has a triple-double. The last time OKC lost a game in which he had one was on April 5, 2015, when Westbrook went for 40, 11 and 13 in a 115-112 loss to Houston.
5) DeMar DeRozan (34.7 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 4.3 apg, .535 FG, .771 FT): There is, apparently, a way to score at a high and efficient level in the NBA without having to take 97 3-pointers per game.
BY THE NUMBERS
22 — Teams in the NBA Development League this season, an all-time high. All of the teams are now directly operated or owned by an NBA team. With Charlotte, Chicago and Brooklyn now running D-League squads, only eight NBA franchises don’t have an NBDL affiliate, and Atlanta has announced plans to start one in 2019.
8 — Years since a protest of the outcome of a game was successfully upheld. Last Thursday, the Nuggets filed an official protest of their 108-107 loss to Memphis on Nov. 8, citing the league’s Last Two Minutes report from the game the following day that acknowledged possession of the ball with :00.7 left in the game was incorrectly given to Memphis instead of Denver after both the game officials and replay officials at the league’s Replay Center in Secaucus said a ball went out of bounds off of Nuggets guard Emmanuel Mudiay. Marc Gasol then caught Vince Carter’s inbounds pass and scored at the buzzer to give the Grizzlies the victory. The Nov. 9 LTM report stated: “Angles reviewed in the Replay Center appeared to show Mudiay (DEN) touch the ball prior to it going out of bounds. The call on the floor was therefore confirmed as MEM possession. However, upon review of an additional angle postgame, it was determined that Mudiay did not touch the ball and possession should have been awarded to DEN.” The last upheld protest came in 2008, when the Heat protested a loss to the Hawks in a Dec. 19, 2007 game because Atlanta’s stats crew incorrectly had six fouls listed on Shaquille O’Neal instead of five, leading to his disqualification from the game. Atlanta won 117-111. However, in January of 2008, the league upheld the Heat’s protest and ordered the game be resumed from the :59.1 mark of overtime, when O’Neal was incorrectly given a sixth foul, and with the Hawks ahead 114-111. The game was finished from that point on March 8, and Atlanta still won the game, 114-111.
6 — Players who have scored 300 or more points in the first nine games of the season, a mark reached by the Raptors’ DeMar DeRozan in Saturday’s win over the Knicks. After going for 33 points against New York, Toronto’s All-Star guard has 306 points total (34 per game), equaling the initial nine-game totals of Tiny Archibald (1972-73) and World B. Free (1979-80). Michael Jordan accomplished the feat four consecutive years (1986-90), including 347 points to start the 1986-87 season. Rick Barry did it twice — 1966-67 and 1974-75 — and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar did it (317) to start the 1970-71 season.
I’M FEELIN’ …
1) Because he hasn’t had quite enough on his plate the last couple of years, our friend Craig Sager’s book, “Living Out Loud,” hit the stands last week. Written with son Craig Sager, II, and Brian Curtis, Sages writes about his career and his battle with leukemia and how he continues to live with positivity.
The book is available for order through craigsagerbook.com.
“I am so proud of this book and proud of the story we lived through to make this the inspirational and up close and personal message we hoped to tell when we got this opportunity,” Craig II told me this weekend. “And we got this opportunity at the worst time (in April). The HBO Real Sports segment just aired about him having 3-6 months to live. We didn’t know about the ESPYS yet. All we knew was that he had leukemia for a third time and it was worse than ever. I thought I had seen the power of mental strength and support the first two years. But that third time was so incredible that it put the whole thing in perspective. It doesn’t feel like I wrote a book because the entire period; I was so in the moment and focused that the future I am living in now didn’t feel possible.”
2) As of this morning, the Nets have more wins than the Knicks, Heat, Wizards, Nuggets and Mavericks, among others. That is first-rate coaching being done by Kenny Atkinson with players that very few teams wanted.
3a) Jamario Moon!
3b) Jackie Moon!
4) The Wizards are awful right now, but Otto Porter is having the best start of his career (15.2 points, 55.2 percent shooting) — just in time for reaching restricted free agency next summer after not getting a 2013 Draft extension from Washington before the deadline last month.
1) Even in his last days, Greg Ballard wanted to know what was going on in the league, who was running new stuff, what the rumors were. From his days as a player to being a scout for several teams, Greg was one of the truly decent and gentle guys in the game. He died last week, far too young, at 61, from cancer, a loss that saddened everyone in the league that knew him and his good nature. Condolences to his family.
2) Good God, Mark Cuban, give them their credentials back. There’s no conspiracy; teams get more coverage when they’re winning regularly and/or are truly compelling. That’s all.
3) Dude, I know you’re a professional athlete, and in impeccable physical condition, but…damn.
4) Had to end some time, Mount Union. Congrats on an astonishing streak.
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Longtime NBA reporter, columnist and Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famer David Aldridge is an analyst for TNT. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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