I expect that a major reason why Mike D’Antoni pursued the Houston Rockets head coaching job was because of James Harden. One of the league’s best scorers and creators at lead guard, Harden has the ideal skill set to quarterback D’Antoni’s offense.
Steve Nash was the perfect point man of D’Antoni’s system in Phoenix. Since then, D’Antoni has yet to coach the kind of star player that would embrace his high-paced, trigger-happy system. His last two stars were Kobe Bryant and Carmelo Anthony. Now that more NBA offenses are employing the very style that D’Antoni made infamous in the 2000’s, including the Golden State Warriors, it might be a lot easier to sell to his new star.
I have three main reasons why Harden is D’Antoni’s new golden boy and why he could pan out as D’Antoni’s best individual project.
Harden can score and pass
Even though Harden’s game is stylistically different from Nash’s, they both have the ability to score and assist the ball at elite rates. Harden has averaged seven assists for the past two seasons. He’s yet to hit the double-digit assist average that Nash lived in during his prime Phoenix days, but that’s the standard Mike D’Antoni is setting for Harden now.
Harden’s advantage on Nash is in the scoring department. Nash never cracked 20 points per game in a season while Harden has averaged no less than 25 per game for the last four seasons. As a lead guard who can score and make plays, Harden’s game is much more suitable for D’Antoni’s system than his last two stars, and he has the individual ability to surpass what Nash was for D’Antoni (which means I’ll probably have to bet on him to snag at least one MVP in his career).
The Rockets had a head start
D’Antoni’s fit with the Rockets made sense because their “Moreyball” style is similar to the style made popular by D’Antoni. They’ve already been playing fast and shooting threes, albeit with truly unfitting personnel to thrive with that offensive style. Still, the Rockets have a head start with this kind of play. With some more talented offensive weapons like Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon, transitioning to D’Antoni’s system won’t just be eye-opening for Harden, it’ll be seamless.
I expect to see Harden pushing tempo even more and being encouraged to make quick decisions. Harden led the league by far in field goal attempts in isolation scenarios (430) last season. D’Antoni’s polishing of the Rockets’ frantic offensive habits can even aid in taking Harden’s efficiency and production to another level.
Changing of the guard
Referring back to my first reason, Harden represents the trend of today’s combo 1-2 guard. While Harden is listed as a shooting guard, D’Antoni is perfectly fine referring to him as the point. He has lead guard responsibilities. Even though scoring guards are at the forefront right now, they’re still called to be playmakers. Harden’s approach as both under D’Antoni makes him a dangerous candidate to flourish in his system.