James Harden's putting up numbers we haven't seen since Michael Jordan
When Mike D’Antoni announced during training camp that he planned to use James Harden as the Houston Rockets’ full-time point guard, it seemed like the change was more about name than game. After all, in addition to his team-leading scoring, Harden has long served as the Rockets’ primary ball-handler and playmaker, routinely ranking among the league’s leaders in usage rate (the share of a team’s possessions a player finishes with a field-goal attempt, foul drawn or turnover) and time of possession.
Even so, the Rockets’ new head coach felt it made sense to make a more concerted effort to get the ball in his main man’s hands as soon as possible on every trip down the floor.
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“Normally, they would just bring it up, move it two times, then give it to him, then let him [initiate the offense], and after he’s struggled to get the ball or had to wrestle to get the ball,” D’Antoni explained before a recent meeting with the New York Knicks, according to FanSided’s Jared Dubin. “We’re just trying to make it easier for him. Why camouflage it? You know that’s where it’s going. You know he has to make plays. So why not do it?”
The early returns have been nothing short of spectacular. Harden carved up another opponent on Monday night, notching 10 assists before halftime and scoring 25 points after intermission to lead the Rockets to a 114-106 win over the struggling Washington Wizards at Verizon Center:
Harden shook off a shaky start that saw him miss eight of his first 10 shots and cough up six turnovers in the first two quarters, dominating the Wizards defense in the second half to finish with 32 points, 15 assists and six rebounds in 40 minutes of work.
That marked the fourth straight game of at least 30 points and 10 assists for the hirsute playmaker, which puts him in some very rare Air:
James Harden (@HoustonRockets): First player since Michael Jordan (1988-89) with 30 points and 10 assists in 4 straight games. pic.twitter.com/ibEa8pz8XF
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) November 8, 2016
Back in September, our Kelly Dwyer invoked that sainted 1988-89 Michael Jordan season as a template for the havoc about to be wreaked by an unchained Russell Westbrook. Who’d have thought we’d be blessed enough as basketball fans to have two dudes carving that kind of swath through opposing defenses night in and night out this season?
Harden has 4 games this season with at least 30 pts and 15 ast.
The entire NBA combined to do that 4 times since the start of last season. pic.twitter.com/GOBSyi0KSP
— NBA on ESPN (@ESPNNBA) November 8, 2016
Per Elias, @JHarden13 is the 1st player in NBA history with four 30+ pt / 15+ ast games in his team's first 7 games of a season pic.twitter.com/vwPQCb3e42
— NBA.com (@NBAcom) November 8, 2016
Harden has 30+ points & 15+ assists in 4 of his first 7 games.
Curry has 5 such games in the last 5 years.
CP3 has 4 in the last 5 years.
— Josh Eberley ???????? (@JoshEberley) November 8, 2016
After spending the bulk of the game feeding Ryan Anderson, Clint Capela, Trevor Ariza and Eric Gordon, Harden started to get himself going late in the third quarter, scoring 10 points in the final 4:11 of the frame to help Houston head into the final frame with a one-point lead over a Wizards squad spoiling for its second win of the season behind strong nights from the backcourt of John Wall and Bradley Beal.
The two teams traded runs to start the fourth before Harden went for the jugular, producing a 12-0 mid-quarter run in which he scored or directly assisted on every point to put Washington into a double-digit hole out of which Scott Brooks’ club could not climb.
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James Harden breaks out of a double team and scores in the clutch. Big play. pic.twitter.com/a2dIBCDnPA
— ClutchFans (@clutchfans) November 8, 2016
Through seven games, Harden is averaging 31.6 points, 12.7 assists and 7.1 rebounds per game. Nobody’s ever averaged 31-12-7 for a full season before; if you drop it down to 30-10-5, Oscar Robertson joins the party, and that’s it, which ought to give you a sense of the kind of all-time run Harden’s on to start the campaign.
He’s also doing all of that while shooting 50 percent from the field, 41 percent from 3-point range on 8.7 attempts a night, and 84.9 percent from the foul line on 10.4 attempts per game, which flouts most generally accepted rules of usage. Typically, the more plays a player uses, the less efficient a producer of offense he becomes. Harden, though, is using 33.7 percent of the Rockets’ possessions — which would be a career-high, and is the sixth-highest mark in the NBA thus far — while posting a ludicrous True Shooting percentage (which takes into account a player’s 2-point, 3-point and free-throw accuracy) of 66.4 percent.
Basically, through seven games, James Harden is having Stephen Curry’s 2015-16 shooting season (albeit with fewer 3-point tries and more free-throw attempts per game) while also leading the league in assists. That’s how out of his mind “The Beard” is right now.
That’s crazy, but what’s crazier: with shooters Anderson (45.5 percent from 3 this season), Ariza (39.1 percent) and Gordon (37.5 percent) holding up their end of the bargain by knocking down open looks, and emerging pick-and-roll beast Capela (9.4 points per game, with Harden assisting on 17 of his 32 maks this season) feasting off Harden’s service to open interior space for the maestro to conduct, it feels like this might be more or less sustainable.
This was the vision that D’Antoni and general manager Daryl Morey had in the offseason — Harden with the ball in his hands, a perfectly spaced floor and weapons to activate — and through seven games, it’s been brutally effective, with Houston boasting a top-five offense in points scored per possession. The other end, as expected, has been a problem — after allowing Wall, Beal and Otto Porter to all score 20-plus on Monday, the Rockets rank 27th among 30 NBA teams in defensive efficiency — which is why Houston’s just 4-3. With Harden dealing like this, though, they’ve got a chance to be in every game, and to pose major-league problems for even the best defenses in the game on any given night.
“Chemistry with everybody is getting there,” Harden said after Monday’s win, according to The Associated Press. “It’s just predicated on me making the right decision.”
Thanks, in part, to his coach making the right decision back in September.
Mike D'Antoni on James Harden: "That's a pretty nice weapon to have. I don't know if you noticed or not."
— ClutchFans (@clutchfans) November 8, 2016
We have, Coach. And the league’s on notice, too.
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Dan Devine is an editor for Ball Don’t Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter!
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