The Rockets have featured lineups with James Harden as the point guard, in spurts, but I, and others, have scoffed at the suggestion of making a full-time positional change. In a recent outing, with K.J. McDaniels covering the other team’s point man, and the Rockets surging with Harden at the ‘1’, I began to wonder, inquiring on Twitter, “why not?”
The two most obvious points against are that a) Harden would be completely incapable of guarding the other team’s point guard and b) having to bring the ball up would tire him out. The obvious rebuttal to point ‘a’, as exhibited when Harden has played the spot situationally, is to have Ariza (or his successor) guard the point guard with Harden guarding the lesser of the two wings. The rebuttal to point ‘b’, however, is particularly significant.
Heading into an offseason in which the team most likely will be completely blown up, we’ve learned a lot this year, with relevance as to how this team should be shaped in its next iteration. Based on his comments (i.e. “that he wanted Morey to get him help, to get him a point guard”), and based on the results of last season, the natural conclusion was that the team needed to acquire a primary ball-handler to assume playmaking duties, reducing the load on Harden in moving him off the ball. He’d become more efficient, etc., etc. A Ty Lawson disaster later, it became obvious that Harden cannot co-exist with another ball dominant guard. One might argue that Lawson is flawed data due to his own shortcomings this season, but I’d counter that more than just the results, the observed interpersonal dynamics are significantly instructive. Lawson wasn’t just bad – he’d almost never even get the ball when paired with Harden, essentially serving as a glorified spot-up shooter, the same way Jeremy Lin, another attacking guard (who has done well this season when playing his natural role), did during his time with the team.
Upon Lawson’s departure, the prevailing assumption became, or has become, that the ideal point guard would be someone who could bring the ball up, hit open 3’s, and defend at a high level. The obvious dilemma presented is that not many players of this description exist. Patrick Beverley is knocking down 3’s at a much improved clip, but despite his reputation, he’s just simply not a good defender anymore.
So the question becomes, why does this ideal counterpart need to bring the ball up? You’re essentially limiting an already limited pool, just to have a player dribble the ball up past midcourt and hand the ball off to Harden to initiate the attack. And as I noted the other day (strangely, to the indignation of some followers), unlike Kobe, Jordan, and McGrady, his superstar shooting guard predecessors, Harden seems to want to bring the ball up the court himself a significant amount of the time. That observation isn’t a knock on Harden – it’s a realization in assessing his qualities. If Harden himself wants to bring the ball up, doesn’t that work to dispel the initial assumption that a roster must be constructed to relieve him of such an obligation?
Now of course there is the rebuttal that there is a great distinction between a player bringing the ball up a majority of the time, and having to bring it up all of the time. But I’d argue, if James Harden wants to win big, and wants the team to surround him with the pieces to do it, he’s going to have to make some kind of sacrifice. He either allows the team to get a real point guard, and allows the real point guard to be an actual point guard, in contrast to the Ty Lawson fiasco, or he makes the physical sacrifice required in expending the energy to play the position himself. Otherwise, we are left with the alternative we’ve seen during Harden’s entire tenure here, with misplaced fits or journeymen/over-the-hill role players filling the position, leading to an overall talent deficit.
If you played an actual shooting guard next to Harden, someone who actually shot spot-up 3’s in his natural role, you could unlock the potential of this offense. And while those players don’t grow on trees either, the aforementioned positional change would at least expand the field of potential Harden counterparts, allowing for the possibility. One reader recently suggested pursuing Bradley Beal with a max offer. While its almost unfathomable that Washington would let Beal walk, a Harden-Beal-McDaniels perimeter trio is an intriguing example of the dynamics I’ve sought to describe. Understand, I’m not advocating making Harden a point guard. But with so few plausible options, I’m open to entertaining the discussion.