Mike D'Antoni hopes James Harden can average 15 assists per game this year

Mike D'Antoni and James Harden stand their ground. (Getty Images)
Mike D’Antoni and James Harden stand their ground. (Getty Images)

Mike D’Antoni keeps amping up the stakes.

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First, he wanted James Harden to average “12 or 13” assists per game,” per a conversation the new Houston Rockets coach had with The Vertical’s Adrian Wojnarowski back in July. That mark would rank amongst the highest assists per game totals in league history, accomplishment enough for a player who nominally acts as a shooting guard.

On the eve of his team’s first game of the season, a close Rockets loss to the Los Angeles Lakers on Wednesday evening, D’Antoni upped the ante. He’s looking for some all-time record sort of noise from Harden; and The Beard responded as one would expect. From Kevin Ding at Bleacher Report:

“Hopefully, he’ll double his number of assists, and he had seven or eight [7.5] last year,” D’Antoni said. “I hope he can average double that. He’s one of the best passers I’ve been around.”

When Harden, who couldn’t remember how many assists he had last season, was told about his coach’s projection, his eyes widened under those thick eyebrows.

“S–t! That’s 14 assists, brother!” he said.

Told it’s actually 15 assists, Harden began to chuckle.

“Coach trippin’,” he said. “Coach trippin’.”

Coach trippin’? One shall see if coach will indeed, commence to trippin’.

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As Ding mentioned, Harden averaged 7.5 assists per game last season on a Rockets team that ranked seventh in pace, and seventh in offense under coaches Kevin McHale and J.B. Bickerstaff. That mark worked as a career high for Harden, whose assists per game totals have chipped up to set season highs in each of his seven NBA campaigns.

Still, doubling one’s team-leading (Patrick Beverley and Ty Lawson finished tied for second on the Rockets last year, with 3.4 a contest) stats per game is quite the challenge. Harden’s minutes will be about the same in 2016-17 as it was last season. This isn’t akin to, say, new Pacers starter Myles Turner shooting for 20 points per game in 2016-17 after averaging 10.3 in his rookie year. This would be some record-setting stuff, ‘ere.

Then again, Turner has a shot at those 20 points per game (especially after contributing 30 points with 16 rebounds, four blocks and two steals in Indiana’s season opener on Wednesday) due to his team’s expected uptick in pace. The Rockets ran quite a bit last season, but could Mike D’Antoni’s ascension to head coach be enough to drive the statistics batty?

Why not?

Harden contributed 14 first half assists on Wednesday evening in the loss to the Lakers, and 17 total. The Rockets didn’t even run all that much, comparatively, as they currently rank 10th out of 26 NBA teams that have played entering Thursday night in pace. D’Antoni is known for pushing his former Phoenix Suns teams to the brink when it comes to initiating his hoped-for Seven Seconds of Less-offense. Even in his years running alternately decrepit or lacking Knicks and Lakers teams saw D’Antoni’s clubs only fall out of the top five in pace once since his departure from Phoenix – hitting for “only” eighth in 2009-10 in New York.

Chris Duhon was the starting point guard on that team, and though James Harden shares Duhon’s interest in getting after it, Harden can be trusted to want to keep things Rockets moving. Especially with Dwight Howard (and his insistence on calling for the ball down low) off to Atlanta, and with rollers (Clint Capela), shooters (Ryan Anderson) or both (Nene) now dotting Houston’s front court.

This is Harden’s show, especially with the injured Patrick Beverley out for a spell. Still, will that be enough?

Rajon Rondo led the NBA in assists per game last season with over 11.6 a contest in Sacramento, and he hit the same mark in 2011-12 at the height of his “no layup for me, let’s dish it out and see if Mickael Pietrus can hit a three-pointer”-tenure in Boston. Steve Nash hit for around 11 and a half assists per game three times with D’Antoni as coach, as did Chris Paul during New Orleans’ best run in 2007-08. Mark Jackson, in a fast-paced Denver offense suited to build up his numbers (until he was dealt back to Indiana midseason), also hit for the same mark with the Nuggets in 1996-97.

No mention of 12s, here, much less 13s, 14s or 15s.

Only four players – John Stockton (five times), Magic Johnson, Isiah Thomas and Kevin Porter – have ever hit for 13 or more assists per game in a season. No player has topped 12 since Stockton during 1994-95, working within an offense (and this isn’t to dissuade you from considering him the greatest passer in NBA history) that was designed to see just about every score work through his rather large hands.

And now James Harden, a shooting guard, is going to reach those heights?

Probably not, lest we go trippin’. All the elements are in place for Harden to act as a boffo stat-monger this season, and possibly one (in spite of his team’s work in Los Angeles on Wednesday) that could lead the Rockets back to middling Western contention, but chalk this up to another case of a coach getting his tentacles too caught up in the wrong kind of math.

Even if the idea that Pace + Dude Who Has the Ball All the Time (can) = lots of assists.

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Kelly Dwyer is an editor for Ball Don’t Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at KDonhoops@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!