Mike D’Antoni announced earlier in the week that James Harden would be the team’s point guard this season. In the follow-up, with commentators pointing out that nothing had changed, and that Harden already had been the team’s point guard, one key point was lost. In fact, I wrote about this back in July when speculation first began to mount about putting the ball directly in Harden’s hands.
…the significance in a positional change for Harden is not about Harden himself, but rather about who he plays beside and about the offense as a whole. The distinction as to whether Harden is the actual point guard or just serving as one is not of relevance – he’ll function roughly the same within the offense. But if he’s bringing the ball up too, it frees the team to start an actual shooting guard beside him, like Eric Gordon, rather than someone who can just passably hit open 3’s, like Patrick Beverley. It makes the offense that much more dangerous.
More from that July piece:
As you see, the shift would not be about changing Harden’s role, but rather making the offense even more dynamic by putting another scorer in the lineup. Under the current model, the Rockets are reduced to playing an inferior basketball player in Beverley just simply because he can dribble the ball up the court.
We know now that Gordon starting is out of the picture. Beverley will get the nod as the starting shooting guard. But with one of the game’s greatest players locked up long term through his prime, and with this current iteration of the Rockets probably not a contender, I’m thinking big picture, beyond just this year. As I wrote in the July piece, this positional shift, if even just in superficial appearances, holds real ramifications upon roster flexibility. If Harden by design is bringing the ball up, the player next to him doesn’t need to carry that skillset. This, in essence, expands the field of human beings available to start next to James Harden. You don’t have to find someone who can shoot threes, defend, dribble, and be content sharing the load, a description that probably only fits Patrick Beverley. You can mix and match and find someone who influences the greatest aggregate impact upon total net rating. Maybe it is someone like Patrick Beverley who, as D’Antoni pointed out, can sometimes bring it up to ease the burden. But maybe its someone who is 6’8, who, while not being able to dribble, can impact the team on the boards. Or maybe, as I suggested in the July piece, it is someone like Gordon who, while a poor defender, is such a good shooter that his presence makes up for the defensive deficiency. We know it won’t be Gordon himself, but going forward, you have the option of looking at real shooting guards who might not be as bad defensively as Gordon.
Beverley is elite defensively, finishing 5th last season among point guards in DRPM. And he shot 40% on 3’s. But that figure represented a career high for Beverley, after shooting around 36% from long distance the previous two seasons. He also only shot 21% on 3’s last postseason. If Beverley’s 40% shooting remains consistent or trends upwards, he’s probably the team’s best bet next to Harden going forward. But if that number regresses back towards his career norms, management would behoove itself to seek out an alternative, especially given that he provides nothing else offensively. (For instance, look at the disparity in pull-up three point shooting percentage between Gordon and Beverley, cited in the July piece – 48% vs. 35%; adding that skillset into the lineup would ease the burden on Harden from having to create everything).
One last point: aside from the personnel ramifications I just outlined, I don’t think its entirely accurate to say nothing will change on the court. I think there are going to be real effects from giving Harden the ball from the beginning. D’Antoni himself mentioned the energy expended from fighting ball denial in the half-court. But ontop of that, I just think this change will affect overall mentality. You’re eliminating an inefficiency and in essence, cutting the fat. Harden is now going to be getting it and immediately going, straight into attack mode. There won’t be that split second lost from the big man deciding whether to give the ball to Beverley (or Lawson).
This season already figured to be intriguing. But if James Harden is going to have the ball in his hands even more, with the shooting this team added in the offseason, the Rockets will really put up some offensive numbers.