Can James Harden lead the league in assists?

I’ve been writing about the prospect of James Harden winning the MVP this season for some time now, expressing my belief in his chances.  Amin Elhassan of, in this week’s Truehoop podcast, posed the question as to whether we would be seeing, in Harden this year, the first player since Nate Archibald to lead the league in both scoring and assists.  The latter possibility was one I had not yet seriously considered, despite recognizing the odds of an overall Harden explosion across the board.

But a quick glance at the statistical league leaders reveals Harden sitting atop the group in assists per game at 12.0.  The only other usual suspect is Chris Paul sitting at third at 7.0.  The cynic of course will point out that all of the league’s brightest stars are playing under severe minutes restrictions, but Harden himself is averaging “just” 31.7 minutes per game, a figure that will normalize closer to 40 when the games begin to count.

Digging into the weeds, in three games this preseason, at a 29.0 usage percentage, Harden is assisting on 47.4% of his teammates’ field goals.  He’s averaging 35.2 assists per 100 of his own possessions, with an assist to turnover ratio of 2.57.  Last year, for the regular season, Harden had a usage rate of 32.5%, assisted on 35.4% of his teammates’ field goals, and averaged 20.6 assists per 100 of his own possessions, with an assist to turnover ratio of 1.64.  Overall, he averaged 7.5 assists per game in 38.1 minutes.

This is the very definition of sample size theater, particularly when including a game against the Shanghai Sharks, but so far, with a lower usage, Harden is assisting more than he did previously.  That’s partly because he has better shooters surrounding him (Ryan Anderson last season averaged 2 threes per game at 37% and Eric Gordon averaged 2.5 threes at 38%) and partly because D’Antoni’s offense is putting him in better positions to produce.  While the ball is still in Harden’s hands, so far, its with his teammates in motion, rather than watching him dribble the air out of the ball.

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What impact will Nene have this season?

Before David Stern nixed the deal that would have sent Chris Paul to the L.A. Lakers, (in a move that raised eyebrows across the legal ethics community), Daryl Morey’s masterplan for rebuilding his team involved pairing Nene with center Pau Gasol.  As we know now, that never happened, James Harden is a Rocket, and the rest is history.  After what seems like a decade later, Nene is finally a Rocket, now at age 34, after having spent the past five seasons in Washington.  The big man has been drawing raves in camp thus far, with Mike D’Antoni even calling him a top-5 center when healthy.  I personally was ecstatic upon hearing news of the signing, given the incredible value of the deal.  Even despite his age and injury concerns, one would think a player of Nene’s caliber would be able to garner an offer higher than the $2.9 million at which he agreed, especially in this market.

But he’s here now, at least for this season, and that is a boon given the team’s need to bridge the gap between Dwight Howard and Clint Capela.  I would not be shocked to see Nene starting on opening night, at least long enough until Capela is ready to take over the job and demonstrate that he can play starter’s minutes without incurring early fouls.

What can the Rockets expect from Nene this year?  He still averaged 17.3 points per 36 minutes, and shot 54% from the field last seasons.  47% of his shots came around the basket, 18% came between 3 and 9 feet, 13%  came between 10 and 15 feet, and 21% came between 16 feet and the 3 point line.  He shot 70% near the basket, 45% between 3 and 9 feet, 39% between 10 and 15 feet, and 39% between 16 feet and the 3 point line.  The Rockets have already talked a lot about Nene initiating the offense out of the high post.

While Clint Capela and Nene both had a defensive rating of 103 last season, Capela averaged 16.7 rebounds per 100 possessions, compared to the 11.8 per 100 possessions which Nene posted.  Capela ate up 18.7% of the rebounds in his vicinity, compared to just 13.2% for Nene.  Capela also grabbed 23.2% of the defensive rebounds available during his playing time, while Nene brought down just 18.7%.  I’ve written extensively in support of my premise that the Rockets would not miss Dwight Howard this season defensively and at the rim.  However, it appears Nene will not provide much help in the one department where the Rockets will miss Howard – on the boards.  That’s perfectly fine for essentially a vet minimum acquisition.  I just wanted to make that point clear in case anyone had any delusions of grandeur.  Rebounding will still be a problem.

Overall, this was a great pickup, even factoring in the expected 20 games Nene will likely miss due to injury.  If he can further mentor Capela and buy the team some time until the third-year center is ready, the Rockets will get great return on their investment.

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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.

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I joined Nate Duncan on his Dunc’d On podcast in an interview published Sunday night.  The call was recorded earlier in the month, hence the long discussion over the potential contributions of now former Rocket Michael Beasley.

We discussed a variety of topics, from the offseason additions of Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson, to the team’s potential strengths and weaknesses.  I ultimately predicted a 51 win season, but put the Rockets’ ceiling at 55 wins, reiterating a point I’ve been making for weeks: this current roster is as, if not more talented than the 2015 team.  And all of the chemistry issues figure to be gone.  Why can’t the Rockets repeat the success they enjoyed that year?

Nate and I both expect the team’s offense to be amongst the very best in the league, but naturally were in agreement that the defense will be the biggest barrier to a rise in the standings.  I should correct myself, however, over a point I made in support of my premise.  I stated that it was questionable whether Patrick Beverley was any longer a good defender.  On the contrary, as I recently outlined, Beverley was 5th best last year among all point guards in DRPM.  It was the prior season when he finished in the bottom 20’s.

The cause for concern is Trevor Ariza who slipped all the way down to 45th among small forwards, below even Chandler Parsons and Chase Budinger, and just ahead of Carmelo Anthony.  In 2015, Ariza finished 7th.  Unless Clint Capela turns out to be Dwight Howard circa 2010, Beverley alone can’t carry the poor defenders in this lineup.

You can tell from listening that I’m really excited about this season.  I know the Rockets probably won’t contend, but they’ll definitely be an intriguing team to watch and follow.  As I repeated many times, just simply removing the negativity of the past few years from the equation will be a step in the right direction.

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Reflecting back on the Michael Beasley era

I have no shame in admitting that Michael Beasley was probably my favorite player on the Houston Rockets last season.  At times, he looked like the team’s second best player.  I tweeted sometime late in the year, when the “tank or playoffs?” debate was raging, that I wanted the Rockets to make the postseason for no other reason than to ensure four more games of watching Beasley.  I was only partially kidding.  Yes, I had given up on the year, but there were times when I’d flip away to a different channel unless Beasley was playing.  I found him that entertaining.

On Thursday, Houston traded Beasley to the Milwaukee Bucks for guard Tyler Ennis in a deal that made perfect sense, despite the fact that I and everyone else I know hated it.  Beasley was the only other player on the team, besides Harden, who could create his own shot.  I noticed, along with many of you, that he seemed to be, strangely, the only player to whom Harden at times, would willingly defer.  With his mid-range shooting, ball handling, and ability to punish smaller defenders on the block, the Beasley-Harden pick and roll was a glimpse of hope the team seemed to stumble upon accidentally, and didn’t utilize nearly enough (because, of course…).  Before the Ryan Anderson signing, many of us hoped that combination might be a weapon heading into next season that a better tactician might have been able to utilize.

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