Huq’s Pen: Harden, Harden, Harden and some Paul/Rivers, (but mostly Harden)

  • I’m looking at the standings right now and the Rockets are at fifth, tied in the loss column with Portland, after already having played through the most difficult stretch of the year, with Eric Gordon already back and Chris Paul on his way. Clint Capela will be back eventually and I guess Kenneth Faried is filling the void there anyways. So the Rockets are right there. They’re not missing the playoffs. And they’re in the hunt for homecourt. At this point, your priority is just to get into the postseason at full health, with your full team assembled (i.e. they still have trades and acquisitions to make). Looking at the rest of the bracket, aside from Houston’s own issues, really nothing has changed – the Rockets are still the second greatest threat out West. They’ve already thoroughly handled the Nuggets and Thunder, both of whom are ahead of them in the standings, without their full roster. They don’t fear anyone.
  • I tweeted this already in ‘hot take’ fashion, but are any of the rest of you not that excited about Paul’s return? I almost feel like its just an exercise in awaiting the inevitable re-injury to the hamstring. Which essentially begs the unavoidable elephant-in-the-room question of whether Daryl Morey made a mistake in resigning Paul (assuming the opt-in and trade was not contingent upon such an agreement). I’ll touch more on that in an upcoming post over at Forbes later this week.
  • I know I keep coming back to this, but it’s fun to think back to the early days when we would have just been happy getting Chris Bosh. The Rockets just wanted a star – any star. And now they have a guy who is being mentioned in the same breath as Wilt Chamberlain on a nightly basis. When the Harden trade was made, I thought his ceiling was as an All-Star. I hoped he could give us the same level of production that O.J. Mayo had just given the Dallas Mavericks that previous season. That seems extremely silly in hindsight.
  • I noted earlier last week that the floater is one of the recent developments in Harden’s arsenal. Against the Raptors, with Ibaka inside, Harden almost never drove the ball fully inside but rather, after effortlessly getting past his man, floated it up from the midrange. It makes him as close to unstoppable as can be conceivable with respect to a perimeter player. No longer can he be bothered at the rim by giants deployed to protect it. I first noted after the Clippers’ series in 2015, when DeAndre Jordan gave Harden problems at the rim, that the latter would benefit greatly from developing and weaponizing a floater so that he would not need to regularly contest inside. I believe it was that same season where Houston famously lost a game against San Antonio (I think?) where Tim Duncan or LaMarcus Aldridge (I think?) actually fouled him on the arm on the potentially game-winning play, as he drove in to attempt the layup. This takes situations like that out of play.
  • I wonder what comes next for James Harden in the realm of skill development? The inquiry evokes memories of the belief in the late 80’s and very early 90’s, upon the advent and popularization of the fax machine, that society had reached a point of diminished capacity for innovative output. Nothing further of utility could be achieved it was thought. If you watch clips of Harden from his early days with the Rockets, you can see how his preferred moves have evolved over the years. I think it was 2015 when he started using the Hardaway crossover as his go-to whereas now, while he’ll set up between the legs, he’ll just use a simple hesitation to drive because the defender knows the stepback is just as likely to come. His game is so advanced that he’s actually been able to simplify things.
  • And the above leads to the point largely everyone, aside from a few thought pieces on alternative places like The Ringer, has missed entirely. Harden’s high usage and shot selection is denigrated as selfish or even at the most compassionate level, appreciated as a necessity of circumstance. But this reductivism misses the significance entirely. The volume itself is a form of weaponization. When Harden has the ball, and the defender knows that there is just as high of a chance that he will step back into a shot as there is that he will drive, said defender is not as prepared to defend the drive as he would have been otherwise. This ties into the fact that because James is capable of converting the shot at a respectable percentage, the defender is not willing to concede it. Thus, the end result is that you see drives into the paint from James Harden which appear almost effortless and result in either lobs to Capela or Kenneth Faried, floaters, or open three pointers for his teammates.
  • Its always amusing to me to hear former players discuss how “[I] would have defended James Harden.” The dialogue always involves some platitude about the need to “make things uncomfortable” as if all-world defenders like Kevin Durant and Draymond Green aren’t trying that and still geting roasted, or as if P.J. Tucker is not doing that in practice every day to help him get ready.
  • I forgot to finish the bullet point three bullets above. So what’s next? You think he can’t possibly do anything else, but he’ll find something. Many of you have suggested a postup game which I could see being a possibility. It would preserve energy. Though it takes his most dangerous weapon in the stepback out of play.
  • I see Austin Rivers and Kenneth Faried and I think to myself as you all are as well, that I really hope the Rockets can find a way to bring them back next season, maybe splitting up the midlevel. But this happens every single year. Houston always finds guys off the scrap heap who can contribute in big ways. That’s just what happens when you have a Harden-D’Antoni ecosystem.
  • I write the following fully aware of possible recency bias, but the distinction with Rivers is his youth and the urgency regarding Paul. The Rockets desperately need someone capable, long-term, who can keep Paul’s minutes down, and fill in as a starter when necessary, while possessing the desired qualities that Rivers does such as defense, shooting, and scoring off the dribble.
  • Regarding the weaponization of volume – the same principle somewhat applies on the use of midrange shots. I’ve long argued that the Rockets need to incorporate more midrange shots into their overall shot chart, just to keep the defense from loading up on the three-point line and chasing them off as the top defenses have done over the past few seasons. This was the thinking behind the Paul acquisition and how Paul beat Utah in Game 5 and why Houston likely would have advanced past Golden State had Paul not gotten injured. This might have also been part of the thinking in the Carmelo Anthony acquisition. In any event, if Paul can’t go, there might be something to incorporating a few midrange shots per game, even at the sacrifice of overall efficiency, if it can open up other options.
  • I don’t know how this Harden rampage ever ends as its not like he’s shooting at a jaw-droppingly accurate percentage. He’s just simply embodying efficiency at an almost caricatured level, when he was already the paragon of efficiency his entire career. As long as James Harden keeps taking thirteen three pointers per game, he’s going to keep putting up 35 points a night. The only way that changes is if his usage is drastically reduced, and I can’t see that happening because Paul is no longer the same player and won’t have the same role as he did last season.
  • To the above, when Harden talks about his confidence, what he means is two-fold: a) he knows he can get the stepback, and make the stepback, whenever he wants it, but perhaps more importantly b) he knows now it’s okay to defy conventional norms established over the course of decades and spit in the face of polite basketball and shoot the step-back whenever he wants. And this really is at the crux of why so many people are triggered over what he’s doing. We’ve been taught and conditioned into thinking that there is a “correct way” to play basketball. But there isn’t anything inherently or intrinsically superior to taking a limited number of shots or deferring to teammates. It’s been done historically by great players to keep their ‘mates involved and interested. But if the best shot is the best player coming down and shooting it every time, what is intrinsically wrong about that route? Harden now knows, through empowerment from his coach and general manager, that his innovative usage, in an inverse of norms, is what open things up for everyone else.

About the author: Rahat Huq is a lawyer in real life and the founder and editor-in-chief of Red94.net.

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