A Resounding Pardon For James Harden

With the philosophic symbiosis that James Harden and new Houston head coach Mike D’Antoni are continuing to work out in Houston, it seems like we may finally be seeing the mercurial guard reach his final form. And, if you’ve ever watched Dragon Ball Z, that can be a very good thing…and a very bad thing as far as the rest of the league is concerned.

Yes, I have personally lambasted Harden for his refusal to play defense at times and his high turnover rate. I have also questioned his shot selection, but I was struck with a recent epiphany that caused me to look at him in a bit of a different light.

Last season, Harden set the dubious NBA record of having the most turnovers in a season within a tumultuous campaign that saw two head coaches come and go. He also holds the record for most turnovers in an NBA playoff game with 12 during the Houston Rockets’ collective meltdown against the eventual champion Golden State Warriors in the 2015 Western Conference Finals. Yes, that is a sures-hot, sugar-load of slippery palms and calamitous exchanges. But it’s not like people haven’t come close to his tally in recent memory.

LeBron James had 10 turnovers on two separate occasions in the NBA playoffs, while Penny Hardaway and Kevin Johnson each had one such game. So, it’s not like Harden is an unrepentant turnover fiend. While Harden has dominated the ball since his arrival in Houston,  but they never had any other ballhandlers of comparable ability to hand the distributing duties over to.

A Ty Lawson experiment last season was an abject failure, and PG Patrick Beverly just isn’t particularly good at any of the things Harden is very good at. So, what do you give the man who set an NBA records for turnovers in TWO different categories?

Well, if you’re Mike D’Antoni, you give him even more responsibility by naming him your starting point guard. Many enthusiasts are aware of Mike D’Antoni’s love for picking up the pace, and the varying degrees of success that he was able to muster from it in various locations. But in Harden, he has a player who is more athletic than PG Steve Nash and younger than Lakers great Kobe Bryant, who only played six games that season, and SF Carmelo Anthony has never been a primary facilitator. Primary passer on the highway, primary passer of the peas “like they used to say”, and perhaps even primary gas passer (Who knows!), but he has never lead a team in assists.

Seemingly out of nowhere, Harden has not only become a better rebounder, averaging 7.6 rebounds per game, but he has flourished from the point guard spot and is averaging 11.6 assists per game. If you say you knew Harden was going to drop a career highs in rebounds and assists, I’m gonna tell ya Momma then snicker sinisterly as she slaps you for that larcenous non sense.

As early as May, just about all the major NBA basketball publications were predicting that Harden was indeed the ideal person to play in D’Antoni’s system, but no one could have guessed that he would decide to move Harden to the point. 7.5 assists per game is what he dropped last season, which is exceptional for any non-point guard NOT named LeBron James, Scottie Pippen or Larry Bird. But few folks realize that this move was something James Harden has been gearing toward his entire career.

Each season he’s had an increase in assists per game after averaging only 1.8 per his rookie year in OKC. With the proper conditions in place, time does do a number on our preconceived notions, huh?

D’Antoni’s system relies heavily on decision-making from the point guard, as well as pick-and-roll plays conducted early in the shot clock from the top of the key and, toward each sideline out near the three point line. Harden’s ability to score with ease on most nights makes him very difficult to figure out. Is he in a passing mood? Is he in shooting mood? Next thing you know, you’re on the wrong end of a highlight.

Yes, Harden is also on pace to set another NBA record for turnovers at 5.0 per game, and he will get it barring a dramatic change in playing style. But he’s also averaging nearly four assists more than last season. I’ll trade .4 turnovers a game for four more assists any day, twice on the Holy Day.

Right now the Houston Rockets sit at a seemingly miraculous 17-7 with Harden averaging 27.8 points, 11.5 assists and 7.6 rebounds per game. Additional shooting is on the menu, as well as more athleticism on the wings to give legs and energy to the position manned by aging but steady SF Trevor Ariza and the inconsistent second year player Sam Dekker.

For the first time in like, forever, SG Eric Gordon can be penciled in to consistently contribute on a nightly basis, averaging 17 per game off the bench. However, he’s nowhere near enough to carry that unit against very good teams late in a season. Also a power forward who actually likes “being” a power forward would be nice, too. C Clint Capella leads the Houston Rockets in rebounding at 8.1 per game. That’s not bad, but that’s not great either.

The Rockets are a winning squad at this early juncture and the dog days of February are right around the corner. Depending on the tweaks made to the roster by D’Antoni and General Manager Daryl Morey, Harden will either have the roster to make some noise out in the Western Conference, or completely collapse down the stretch.

But, with the way Harden is playing, the Houston Rockets will at least be fun to watch.

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