Think You Know James Harden? He and the Rockets Are About to Change Your Mind

Kevin Ding@@KevinDingNBA Senior WriterOctober 26, 2016

HOUSTON, TX - OCTOBER 04:  James Harden #13 of the Houston Rockets in action during their game against the New York Knicks at the Toyota Center on October 4, 2016 in Houston, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images)
Scott Halleran/Getty Images

Sometimes we pull back a little from the world.

It's not so much closing ourselves off as it is turning away from eye contact and leaning out of conversation, ignoring that thoughtful voice inside to give a guy a pat on the back or a extend a high-five.

So we share less—and take more of a just-get-stuff done mindset. That can be productive at times.

It just leaves a little less love in our lives.

James Harden has been there. It was where he resided last season, when the fragmented Houston Rockets were colossal disappointments and Harden's superstar partnership with Dwight Howard ultimately failed.

This season, however, Harden has opened up again.

Behind that mountain-man mound of facial hair, the smiles will always be difficult to discern, but they will be there, perhaps to the surprise of many.

After all of the points he has scored (11,262 in seven seasons), we know he doesn't necessarily burst into a sunbeam after a basket or a pair of free throws. Perhaps it's because what makes Harden happier is helping his teammates score.

He's about to do more of that than anyone has ever seen.

"You see the joy in my teammates getting shots and making shots," Harden recently told Bleacher Report. "They're comfortable. Everybody's happy. When they're happy, I'm happy. It's a different vibe. We're sacrificing for each other. That's where we are. We've got a long way to go, but for now it feels good."

As far back as high school, Harden demonstrated an ability to be a creative force for his teammates. Even so, it took time for him to realize that new Rockets head coach and renowned offensive guru Mike D'Antoni moving him to point guard is a natural fit.

HOUSTON, TX - SEPTEMBER 24:  Head Coach Mike D'Antoni and James Harden #13 of the Houston Rockets pose for a portrait during the 2016 NBA Media Day at the Toyota Center on September 24, 2016 in Houston, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and
Bill Baptist/Getty Images

"It shocked me at first," Harden said. "And I kind of thought about it, and I was like, 'Yeah! I'm a passer. That's what I do. I create. I create and I give people opportunities to make them happy, to make them score.'"

Harden loved passing this preseason so much that D'Antoni expressed some concern about him not being aggressive enough with his own shooting. Still, D'Antoni foresees a transformation ahead for Harden.

"Hopefully, he'll double his number of assists, and he had seven or eight [7.5] last year," D'Antoni said. "I hope he can average double that. He's one of the best passers I've been around."

When Harden, who couldn't remember how many assists he had last season, was told about his coach's projection, his eyes widened under those thick eyebrows.

"S--t! That's 14 assists, brother!" he said.

Told it's actually 15 assists, Harden began to chuckle.

"Coach trippin'," he said. "Coach trippin'."

No one in NBA history has ever averaged 15 assists over a season.

John Stockton averaged 14.5 in 1989-90. Steve Nash, in his 2005 and '06 NBA MVP seasons running D'Antoni's offense at the height of its powers, averaged 11.5 and 10.5, respectively.

But D'Antoni is determined to go full throttle with his offense this time after he demurred somewhat to NBA convention while coaching the spotlighted New York Knicks and Los Angeles Lakers. Not coincidentally, diehard scorers Carmelo Anthony and Kobe Bryant did not buy in to what D'Antoni wanted back then.

If Harden can physically handle the load after leading the league in total minutes over the past two seasons, he is poised to be the NBA's absolute opportunist.

HOUSTON, TX - APRIL 24:  James Harden #13 of the Houston Rockets shoots the ball against the Golden State Warriors in Game Four of the Western Conference Quarterfinals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs on April 24, 2016 at the Toyota Center in Houston, Texas.
Bill Baptist/Getty Images

He wants this.

"Sometimes I might mess up, but as long as I can get back to it and continue to focus on what I've got to do," he said, "great things will happen."

As if he wasn't already enough of a statistical monster.

Last season, Harden became the fourth player in NBA history to average at least 29 points, seven assists and six rebounds (joining Oscar Robertson, LeBron James and Michael Jordan). And last year he ranked sixth in the NBA in adjusted assists (a measure that combines assists, secondary assists and assists that lead to free throws), with 784, according to B/R InsightsHe figures to be a regular source of triple-doubles this year with the added possessions from D'Antoni's pace-and-space offense.

"He tells me, 'Be aggressive! Be aggressive!'" Harden said. "He has all the trust that I will go out there and make the right play. When that's coming from Coach, that means a lot. It gives me the ability to go out there and just be free and play. Be who I am."

That's the crux of this.

D'Antoni has tapped into Harden's old heart as a basketball giver, a role that dates back to his days at Artesia High School. It was there, wearing an oversized undershirt and shaved head (with no beard), that he found teammates who were so good that they won consecutive California state titles, teammates who made it fun for Harden to slice in and out of defenses to slip them passes.

"That was the reason I was so confident going to Arizona State, because I was able to create," he said. "I was able to pass and get guys open. And that's why I was so successful."

SEATTLE, WA - FEBRUARY 26: James Harden #13 of the Arizona State Sun Devils drives past Justin Holiday #22 of the Washington Huskies at Bank of America Arena on February 26, 2009 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Harden's gaudy numbers last season still didn't get him on any of the three All-NBA teams as the Rockets nearly missed the playoffs. And even though he eventually pushed Houston to the conference finals the season before, he lost out on MVP then, perhaps in part because he and the Rockets' workmanlike approach didn't endear the way Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors' collective joy did.

Indeed, Harden has not resonated as a connector with people in either Houston or Oklahoma City, which is why his role this season is so interesting. His numbers will draw attention again. Yet his assists, in particular, are going to prove he's not necessarily what everyone thought.

James Harden's Passing Fancy
SeasonAssists/game
2009-101.8
2010-112.1
2011-123.7
2012-135.8
2013-146.1
2014-157.0
2015-167.5
B/R Insights

"It's always been that way," Harden said. "That's why I call myself an all-around player, because I've been doing it for so long. I might not get as much credit as I deserve, but that's not for me to decide. I still go out there and just do what I've got to do. Eventually it will happen and people will figure it out."

You can criticize D'Antoni's commitment to defense or his ability to manage various personalities, but his penchant to empower players in his offense is akin to slipping frustrated guys "Get Out of Jail Free" cards.

"This D'Antoni offense," first-year Rockets forward Ryan Anderson said simply, "it's fun."

D'Antoni's connection with Nash was the root of the Phoenix Suns' success, and the Rockets hope a similar trickle-down chemistry is in store for Houston's superstar and coach.

PHOENIX - MAY 24:  Head Coach Mike D'Antoni and Steve Nash #13 of the Phoenix Suns talk in Game two of the Western Conference Finals with the San Antonio Spurs during the 2005 NBA Playoffs on May 24 2005 at America West Arena in Phoenix, Arizona. The Spur
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

"Faith" is the word both used to describe their relationship—faith in Harden to be more amazing than ever by being more inclusive than ever.

"He's a lot better than even what I thought, and I thought that was a lot," D'Antoni said. "He's one of the best pick-and-roll guys I've seen. He's a terrific passer, not just a good one. He's a terrific passer."

Even more important is the desire to pass.

"He has a willingness and a want to," D'Antoni said.

Harden entered last season trying to defer to new point guard Ty Lawson, who just wasn't what the Rockets purported he would be. Harden gave it some time at the start, but the injury-weakened and entitled Rockets stunk, so Harden took over and tried to do everything himself.

The camaraderie this season is vastly different, and the reflex is, too.

In exhibition games, it was Harden leaping for an offensive rebound and kicking it out without even landing. It was Harden passing the ball to the corner and hustling back on defense early. It was Harden rushing off the bench in classic Nash style to have his hands be the first offered to teammates coming off the court.

Those teammates refer to their now-unquestioned leader by a simple nickname: "Beard."

In a way, though, we're about to see James Harden more clearly than ever.

      

Kevin Ding is an NBA senior writer for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @KevinDing.

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