Over the weekend, Daryl Morey called Eric Gordon “the perfect complement to James Harden.” Then, in an interview released today with Adrian Wojnarowski, Mike D’Antoni said about Harden:
I think he’s at the point where I think we can move him over. Now I don’t know yet, and we’ll experiment, we’ll talk about it, does he bring the ball up every time, does that wear him out? Does he do it a couple quarters? We have to figure out exactly his rhythm of the game…He averaged 7 or 8 assists last year, I’d love to see 12 or 13. I’d love to see where he starts the offense, and the ball gets back to him, but after the ball has moved around two or three times.
As you all know, I’ve been writing since last season about the prospect of making James Harden the full-time point guard of this team. To respond to the inquiries of many of you on Twitter: 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.
I assumed initially that Gordon was signed to come off the bench. But Morey’s statement gave me pause. Labeling someone a “perfect complement” probably means you’d like to maximize the shared playing time of the pair. And D’Antoni’s comments are particularly revealing: it’s pretty clear the thought of, at the very least, experimenting with Harden at point, has crossed his mind.
The example I used in making my case this past season was Bradley Beal, but Eric Gordon is also applicable. Rather than trying to acquire a pure point guard and move Harden off the ball, like they did with Ty Lawson, the better approach might be to just accept Harden for who he is, and keep him on the ball, but amplify his strengths, pairing him with an actual shooting guard.
…after 3-6 dribbles, Gordon shot over 50 percent from the field last year. On pull-up three-pointers, he shot 48 percent. Compare those numbers to Beverley’s 41.4 and 35.6 percent, respectively, and it’s clear that Gordon would reduce Harden’s role on offense if Harden slid to the point guard and Gordon played the 2, rather than increase his burden.
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.
Gordon, of course, is not a good defender, and he’d be counted upon to guard the other team’s point guard, in this scenario. But as I’ve been writing, Beverley, while probably superior to Gordon, has not been a good defender either for some time now, despite his reputation. Ultimately, I think what it will come down to is the aggregate result: if the offensive benefit to playing Eric Gordon and James Harden together exceeds what is lost defensively from the Beverley-Gordon drop-off, D’Antoni will make this change. Evidence would suggest D’Antoni’s not particularly interested in the defensive side of the ball, and in this present scenario, I’d agree in theory. Beverley doesn’t bring enough overall, at either end, to start him over a superior player just because he fits a supposed positional mold. Now, if its a complete disaster defensively–and it very well might be–that’s a different story.
D’Antoni is the guy who shifted Amare Stoudemire to center and Shawn Marion to the power forward because he felt that combination gave his team the best chance to win, positional conventions be damned. One could argue that Gordon and Harden together might be more drastic, but the point is, if there were ever the possibility for novel implementations, the right man is holding the clipboard.
One last point: Harden’s turnover numbers have often been cited as to why he may not make a good fit at point guard. If listening to D’Antoni’s comments on Jeremy Lin from the Wojnarowski interview, one understands this will not be an obstacle. D’Antoni essentially said that he didn’t care if Lin even got seven turnovers, because he knew the team would have fourteen anyways; he just wanted him to have the ball in his hands.