Rockets Know Harden Hero Ball Isn't the Answer, but Can They Play Any Other Way?March 3, 2019
One moment in particular signaled when James Harden's 30-point scoring streak became a burden.
The unnecessary 11 points he scored with 2:32 left in the fourth quarter of the Houston Rockets' 120-104 victory over the visiting Dallas Mavericks on Feb. 11 before the NBA All-Star break.
Then, in the waning moments of Monday night's 119-111 victory over the Atlanta Hawks, Harden reached his breaking point. Stuck at 28 points, he decided to let the second-longest 30-point streak in NBA history end at 32 while dribbling out the clock against the Hawks' quadruple-team.
With the Rockets up by eight points, Harden resisted the temptation to fire away once more.
"Nah, for what?" Harden said when asked if he considered putting up one more shot. "That streak, it was great, but I was just doing it because that's what we had to do in order to keep our heads above water."
The reigning MVP would have needed 33 more games of 30-plus points just to tie Wilt Chamberlain's record. From the looks of it, he wasn't willing to sacrifice his basketball joy to pursue Chamberlain's ghost.
That might be why he opened up during All-Star Weekend to an unlikely ally, Golden State Warriors dynamo Stephen Curry, about how he'd like to play a different, more attractive brand of basketball.
"It's interesting, because I was talking to James in the back, obviously complimented him on what he's done," Curry said to Milwaukee Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer during All-Star practice while mic'd up for NBA TV (via ESPN's High Noon). "The first thing he said was like, 'Yeah, this is fun, but I wanna play different [than] like playing by myself, whatever, hero ball.' But like the people want him to play like that, versus a system where they can actually play beautiful basketball with guys that know how to play."
Harden didn't just want to be the NBA's iso king. He wanted to play beautiful basketball.
Houston went 21-11 during Harden's streak, but he had to hoist up 27.2 field-goal attempts per game to average his 41.1 points. He has the NBA's highest usage rate by far at 39.3 percent and is tied with Washington's Bradley Beal for the league's lead in minutes played (37.3 per game).
The seven-time All Star also scores the highest percentage of his team's points (41.6 percent) of any player in the league, and he's shooting (37 percent) and connecting (36.1 percent) on the highest percentage of the Rockets' field goals per outing.
Those numbers are problematic on their own, but the situation is compounded by the fact that a whopping 87 percent of Harden's made field goals are unassisted. That means he has to dribble, dance, juke, stutter-step and step-back his way to almost every shot he makes.
That isn't winning basketball.
"I don't think that style is ever going to win championships," Kobe Bryant, Harden's childhood idol, told ESPN's Rachel Nichols and Tracy McGrady.
Harden agreed with Bryant, noting he was only pouring in points because he had to. With Chris Paul and Clint Capela now back in the lineup, he's ready to switch things up.
"Now we got our full roster back," Harden said after Monday's win. "You look at the stat line, we had multiple guys in double figures, which is great to see. So, hopefully we can keep that up and catch a rhythm."
Eric Gordon agreed.
"Now that the streak is over, I'm sure [James'] mentality is, Let's do what we can do to win a championship." Gordon said. "I know the streak drew a lot of attention, but I think now it's about doing what it takes to win the championship."
The Rockets have rounded out their roster with veterans Iman Shumpert and Kenneth Faried, which should help to make things easier for their franchise player.
"We just got to keep the load off of him," head coach Mike D'Antoni said. "It's not the minutes; it's what he has to do in those minutes."
But even with a full roster, can the Rockets play like the defending champion Warriors, who have the highest offensive rating (115.6) and assist percentage (66.2) in the league?
Can they focus on player movement and swinging the ball around more? Can they pass five or more times before taking a shot, forcing defenses to make multiple efforts on each possession? Can they raise their ball movement to the levels of the 2014 San Antonio Spurs or the Warriors of the past few years?
"It's a copycat league, so the teams that are doing really well like Golden State, you definitely try to take little things that they're doing well and try to use it on your team," Atlanta Hawks rookie Trae Young said when asked if he liked the way the Warriors play basketball. "So I definitely try to mimic a few things that they do."
Despite finishing with a league-best 65-17 record last season, the Rockets ranked No. 22 in percentage of field goals assisted (55.7 percent) and were tied for the fewest passes (253.4) per game.
It's hard for the Rockets to be like the Warriors or the Tim Duncan-era Spurs because they're built for lay-ups and three-pointers off the pick-and-roll and isolation plays.
D'Antoni's system is spearheaded by a ball-dominant point guard, and the Rockets have two of them. While both Harden and Paul are averaging at least seven assists, they each use an inordinate number of dribbles to get free, penetrate or find the open man.
Houston's offensive identity is predicated on spreading the floor with shooters, but those shooters aren't in constant motion. They stand around waiting for the ball or for Harden or Paul to orchestrate the offense.
That was painfully obvious in the Rockets' 121-118 win over the Miami Heat on Thursday. Harden erupted for 58 points, but it was at the expense of team parity. Austin Rivers, Gary Clark and Paul scored 17, 14 and 14 points, respectively, but no other player reached double figures, including the usually reliable double-double machine, Clint Capela.
To his credit, Harden was mostly efficient, hitting 18-of-18 from the free-throw line and 8-of-18 from beyond the arc, but it was just another instance of hero ball.
"I think James is a very smart player, and I think he understands what he needs to do for his team," Dwyane Wade said in response to Bryant's comments about Harden's ball-dominant play. "It's not for me to say; he knows what he needs to do, and that team knows what they need for him to do, so they'll figure it out when the time comes.
"This is a team that was one game away from the Finals last year, but right now, the regular season, sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do to make sure that you're getting there. He's in a groove; it's an amazing groove, so don't stop it now. And when the playoffs come, teams will guard him different, prepare different. He's a smart player. He'll make the adjustment."
On the plus side, D'Antoni's schematics allow for cutting and screens that create open shots.
Can Harden crack the code and find ways to use that to improve his shot selection like Kevin Durant, who has become a master of the mid-range?
The numbers suggest it would be tough.
Harden doesn't utilize his mid-range game, nor does he take advantage of catch-and-shoot opportunities like Klay Thompson. Only 3.4 percent of his shot attempts are of the catch-and-shoot variety this year.
Ball movement is an issue, too, as Harden employs seven or more dribbles before 53.7 percent of his shot attempts.
Houston's big men aren't great passers, but CP3 is one of the best ball-handlers in NBA history. The Rockets might benefit from occasionally running Harden off screens to free him up for catch-and-shoot threes when Paul is on the floor.
The Rockets already lead the league in three-pointers made with 15.6 per game. If they took a cue from the Warriors and found ways to get Harden more off-the-catch shots, they could sink even more triples.
Even at its height, D'Antoni's system doesn't allow for the kind of ball movement that Harden and others around the league yearn for. But if D'Antoni tweaked some of his offensive schemes, the Rockets may be able to beat the Warriors at their own game.
"We match up with [the Warriors] pretty well," Gordon said. "I know we're a little undersized, but we match up with them very well. I think we're the closest team to having a chance of beating them, and we still got a lot hurdles to get through. We got to take these last 22 games seriously so we can get ourselves to that point where we need to be.
"We're a talented team. When somebody's out, we're still capable of winning. If we play a good game, it's really hard for anybody to beat us. We just got to continue to play with that mindset every game and just make it a trend."
Unless otherwise indicated, all stats courtesy of Basketball Reference or NBA.com.
Maurice Bobb covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow Maurice on Twitter, @ReeseReport.