How Well Are James Harden and Dwight Howard Meshing Together so Far?

Kenny DeJohn@@kennydejohnAnalyst IIINovember 22, 2013

The Houston Rockets are off to a strong 8-5 start, and much of their early successes can be attributed to the chemistry that James Harden and Dwight Howard have already established.

Having played just 13 regular season games together (and a handful of preseason contests), it's nice for the fans to see just how well they're playing together. It also gives fans hope that they might build even more chemistry in the future, and that's something that would be scary for the rest of the Western Conference.

The differences in Houston's style of play from last season to this season are already pretty striking. Harden iso-ball is certainly less prevalent, as the presence of Howard in the middle gives him an easy check down under the basket. When they play off each other, they make each other better.

Harden and Howard will combine for more than a few highlights this season, but here are a few that show just how well they're meshing so far.


Early-Season Alley-Oop

Harden and Howard hooked up for a great alley-oop play in the first quarter of a preseason game against the Indiana Pacers, and their timing was put on display as a result.

Notice how, in the video, Harden pumps to Howard thinking he'll be ready to go up. He had every intention of delivering the pass then, but because the play was well-defended, he held back. Harden trusted Howard to make it happen again.

So, Harden dished out to the perimeter, got the ball back and set the play up again. This time, Howard was able to shake his defender near the baseline and go up for the alley-oop.

This is a timing play that takes a lot of time together to perfect, as it isn't a play that is necessarily drawn up or communicated verbally. This play is made with eye contact and knowing what your teammate wants to do with the ball.

We've seen a few of these from the Harden-Howard duo already and expect to see several more. As their chemistry gets even better, we'll begin to see more highlight-reel plays.


Taking Over the San Antonio Spurs

Again in the preseason, Harden and Howard teamed up to dominate the San Antonio Spurs in the third quarter. Both stars struggled in the first half, but they combined to hit 10-of-11 shots after halftime.

The chemistry that Harden and Howard showed together was fantastic. If nothing else, the above video shows how Howard is going to make Harden an all-around better player.

When in trouble last season, Harden used to jack up shots from wherever he was standing. He didn't have a ton of trust in his teammates, and that's why he always waited until the waning seconds of the shot clock to dish the ball around.

Now, with Howard down low, Harden will continually pass down to him early on in the shot clock. Notice some of these plays in the video. There have been several times where Harden will drive, draw the defenders up and then deliver a perfect bounce pass to Howard moving towards the basket.

This play can be attributed to both chemistry and Harden's awareness, but the fact remains that Howard's presence on the Rockets will undoubtedly make Harden better. That alone is a big positive for Houston.


Harden's Efficiency from Inside the Arc

Harden has always had the tendency to rack up a decent number of shots per game, but he's capitalized on more of those shots this season with Howard taking some of the pressure away.

On the year, Harden is shooting a very respectable 54.4 percent from inside the arc. Compare that to the 47.7-percent clip he posted last season, and it's obvious that the impact of Howard is the difference here.

Howard creates more opportunities for the Rockets offense. He takes pressure off perimeter shooters by commanding attention inside, but he also has the awareness to dish out to his shooters when the double-team comes. This is where Harden has benefited.

When Howard gets in trouble in the paint, all he has to do is find Harden trailing somewhere inside the arc. That strategy has worked to perfection at this point, and the offense has run much smoother than it did last season.

Now, Harden still has problems from deep. He's only converting on 30.9 percent of his shots from three, and that mark will need to improve as the season progresses. There are going to be plenty of open looks for Harden from deep, and the Rockets won't be able to win close games if he isn't converting near 36 or 37 percent.


Howard's Offensive Rating

Howard has really benefited from Harden and the Rockets, as his offensive rating (ORtg) has improved three points from last season.

With the Los Angeles Lakers in 2012-13, Howard played second-fiddle to Kobe Bryant and posted an ORtg of 105 as a result. After the previous season's 106, it was the lowest mark for him since 2006-07. His ORtg is back on the rise this season, though, as he has a 108 through his first 13 games with the Rockets.

A Kobe-led offense didn't work to the strengths of Howard. Bryant likes to command the ball at all times and only dish it out when he's in trouble. Actually, Bryant tends to force a ton of tough shots that others wouldn't take. This is similar to Harden last season.

Harden has learned to play with Howard—not just alongside him—and that means that Howard will reap the benefits. Harden has already shown that he is always looking for Howard near the rim to make plays.

Whether it be on pick-and-roll alley-oops or drives to the basket, Harden and Howard are almost always working in tandem. The pick-and-roll plays have become a useful part of the offense for head coach Kevin McHale, and those plays are a huge reason why Howard's ORtg has gone up.

I wouldn't even be surprised if it increases by even more come season's end. As they learn more and more about each other's style of play, it will only make the end result better.


Off-Court Chemistry

Instagram is a great indicator of just how well Harden and Howard get along. It appears as if their relationship goes beyond just being teammates, and that's important for a Rockets team with future title aspirations.

First off, there's this gem from when Howard signed. Harden and Howard are seen posing together on Howard's Instagram account with the caption "Houston we have liftoff."

Then, on Harden's account, we see a little more of the comedic side of their relationship. Harden snaps a candid shot of Howard while sleeping on the team bus with the caption "GotEm!!!!!!." 

I'm sure this won't be the last of what we see from their Instagram accounts, though I would expect a slight drop-off in photos given the fact that they're a little busier now than they were a few months ago.

Regardless, their willingness to have fun with each other is indicative of how well they get along. Being on good terms with arguably your most important teammate is key, because it helps bust slumps and keep your team moving in the right direction.

All things considered, I'd say the Harden-Howard combination is doing quite well thus far.


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