James Harden is “having a blast” in Houston. Well, of course he is.
You would be too if you got to dominate the ball for a pro basketball team while making over $26.5 million this year, and over $91 million between next season and 2020. You would be too if you were well on your way toward, if not 15 assists per game, the first 30-point, 12-assist season in NBA history. You would be too if the lane looked wide open, what without Dwight Howard calling for the ball and all. With the rock and Rockets all yours in times of either storm and stress, and fun and gun.
Harden’s Houston mates don’t add much “run” to the “fun and gun” these days, they’re only in the middle of the pack in pace this season – a veritable mudfight in coach Mike D’Antoni’s terms. But the team is 6-4 after a blowout win of the Philadelphia 76ers on Monday evening, getting healthier by the day with backcourt defensive maven Patrick Beverley set to return sometime later this week.
Prior to Beverley’s return sits the team’s Wednesday evening matchup with the Oklahoma City Thunder, a team that was denied use of its lead superstar Kevin Durant last July when Durant declined owner Clay Bennett’s overtures prior to signing with the Golden State Warriors as a free agent. The star that Durant left behind, Russell Westbrook, mirrors Harden when it comes to touches and time spent glomming onto the ball during a contest.
Though he didn’t ask to be left alone (as Harden, no fan of Howard’s offensive game, likely did), Westbrook is also enjoying his wide open spaces. Like James, Russell signed a contract extension with his team during the offseason, and Harden knows a kindred spirit when he sees one in his former Oklahoma City teammate.
From Wednesday’s shootaround:
Harden on OKC without Durant: "It's Russ. It's a one-man show."
— Jenny Dial Creech (@jennydialcreech) November 15, 2016
Harden is currently making nearly half his shots, averaging 30.3 points, 12.6 assists, 7.9 rebounds, a steal and 5.7 turnovers a contest. Westbrook, working for his 6-5 Thunder, also is on pace to become the first player to average over 30 points and 10 assists since Oscar Robertson: 32 points, 9.9 assists, 9.7 rebounds, a steal and an un-italicized 5.3 turnovers for OKC.
They remain two of the more intriguing basketball experiments in recent NBA history.
Harden and his former teammate, whom he played with in Oklahoma City from 2009 through 2012, gave platitudes about growing a team in the hours before their first showdown as singular stars. The Rockets’ All-Star went first:
“Honestly, I’m just trying to come out here and find ways to help my team and learn how to be a better leader and grow and how to get everybody on the same page to where we all got one goal, superstar or not, whoever is on the team, to make sure we’re on the same page.”
Then Westbrook, via Calvin Watkins and Royce Young at ESPN:
“I’m looking at everything,” Westbrook said. “I’m looking at guys seeing if their confidence is high, seeing if they’re engaged in the game, seeing if they’re locking in on what’s going on, seeing if they’re reading the coverages. I’m looking at everything in itself and not worrying about myself but just worried about other guys and making sure they’re ready to play and making sure they know what’s going on.
“Communication is key, not just for me, but for our team, when you’re able to communicate what you see on the floor and make sure it happens.”
The cynic can point out that, on the surface, it would seem that “communication” in these instances would be limited to setting a screen and/or getting out of the way for two players that, again, lead the NBA in time of possession counts and touches. All while pointing to the team’s records – at just a notch (OKC) or two (Houston, aided by that 27-point win over Philly) over .500.
Westbrook, however, is doing what he can with something he didn’t ask for – a Kevin Durant-less Oklahoma City Thunder squad. OKC is just 23rd in offense despite the presence of a guy that is putting up better stats than Oscar Robertson (whose similarly singular post-up game also encouraged stat-hounding) ever did, but that comes part in parcel with losing a former MVP and league-leading scorer, while watching as rookie center Domantas Sabonis and late-camp pickup Jerami Grant act as your best floor spacers, percentage-wise, thus far. Anthony Morrow hasn’t even hit a three-pointer this season.
Offseason acquisition and backcourt mate Victor Oladipo is making a respectable 37 percent of his three-pointers while averaging a second-best 15.3 points per game, but there is hardly anyone on this roster that you can say Westbrook is holding back with his dogged ways. The Thunder need Russell to be the pit bull that some think he is.
Harden has more help, at least offensively, with three other Rockets working in double-figure points; led by an applause-worthy bounce-back year from the oft-injured Eric Gordon at 16.6 points on 41.9 percent three-point shooting. As a result, the Rockets are seventh in offense. And, while Dwight Howard (“We never got into a heated argument — it just didn’t work out,” says Harden) flourishing in his new Atlanta Hawk digs, replacement center Clint Capela has done well to know his role.
He came through with a career-high five blocks against the 76ers on Monday, in a contest Harden could not help but “love,” and is at 9.8 points, 8.2 rebounds and 1.7 blocks in just 23 minutes a contest on the year. Together with frontcourt reserve Nene the two stand as a formidable duo, but the team has a ways to go before it can begin to rank itself alongside the defending Western champion Warriors, and a Clippers team working (aided by a blowout win of its own over Brooklyn on Monday) with some historic point differential numbers at this space of the season.
Though the Rockets outrank the Thunder when it comes to immediate contributors, Oklahoma City seems to be ahead of the pack when it comes to trade-worthy assets to put the club over the top. If a 30-and-12 season or triple-double average is unprecedented, so is the rare one-man team to contend for a championship. The LeBron James-led 2006-07 Cleveland Cavaliers were the last of those, and they were severely outclassed in a terrible Finals loss to the San Antonio Spurs. Before that came Allen Iverson’s 2000-01 76ers, who needed seven games in the second and third rounds just to make it out of one of the worst conferences in NBA history.
Those two teams, the Sixers especially, came through with dominant regular seasons at times. In contrast, the Rockets (10th) and Thunder (15th) aren’t exactly blowing anyone away thus far, in ways that can’t be blamed on its Western setting.
The hope, though, is that they can unleash hell – one player at a time – in a seven-game setting this spring. We’ll get a preview of as much, amongst all the fallen leaves, on Wednesday night.
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