Despite the Houston Rockets early season struggles, it seemed inevitable they would find a way to return to prominence and make the NBA playoffs as a genuine threat in the Western Conference. Granted that hasn’t been assured yet, but it’s fair to say they’ll be around when the postseason tips off.
After starting the year 1-5, they needed a catalyst to trigger an improvement, and that came in the form of guard James Harden and an historic scoring run.
Harden’s performances of late have been nothing short of phenomenal – reminiscent of Kobe Bryant in the 2000s, Michael Jordan in the 90s and Wilt Chamberlain in the 60s and 70s. Since the 13th of December against the Lakers, the beard has posted 30 or more points in 26 games, including 15 games scoring 40 or more. In that stretch he’s personally averaged 41 points a game, along with 8.8 assists and 7 rebounds. The Rockets have gone 18-8 and sit sixth in the West, only two and a half games back from the third-placed Oklahoma City Thunder.
Most if not all of Harden’s buckets go unassisted, meaning he typically creates his own shots. Whether holding the ball in isolation and pulling up from mid or long range or taking multiple steps inside for attempts closer to the basket, and as this run continues his offensive production – which is becoming artistic – has clearly put him up there with Steph Curry and Kevin Durant as the most prolific point scorers in today’s game.
In turn the Rockets offense as a whole has been cooking. They’re averaging 112.7 points a game this year, which is an improvement of 0.3 points a game from last season where they of course finshed top seed in the entire league with a 65-17 record. Their players have also mirrored the individual performances from a year ago, with five players averaging 10 or more a game.
However that means in that 26 game stretch, Harden has accounted for 35 per cent of his team’s points, an 8 per cent increase from last season as a whole, which in no way meets the level of improvement expected from the Rockets offense this season. Therefore such games of heroics, of basketball-ing brilliance, which for some has given the idea the Rockets are back and resembling what they were a year ago, is wasted and incorrect.
What sits second to points in terms of importance on the offensive side of the ball is assists, and utilising the poetry of NBA 2K in-game commentary, Clark Kellogg use to say that a stat coaches will love to see their team excel in is assists, and if my opinion has any substance my goodness he’s correct. They of course suggest there’s a large amount of ball movement within a team’s offensive scheme, and likely a large amount of high percentage shots being taken.
A recent performance from Klay Thompson of the Golden State Warriors, where he scored 44 points against the Lakers with the majority being assisted, helps portray the harsh reality the Rockets will face around a high usage player. The Warriors success since Steve Kerr took over has focussed on ball movement, far more than just three-point shooting. They aren’t the benchmark of the league because KD, Steph and Klay average 30 a night, it’s because they have a system that relies on finding high-percentage shots for each other, not just one, which is why more often than not the likes of Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston will have big nights off the bench.
This season the Warriors are averaging the most assists per game in the NBA with 29.3, with Draymond Green, Kevin Durant and Steph Curry averaging 7.4, 5.9 and 5.4 respectively. By contrast the Rockets sit 28th in the league, with 20.8 a game, while James Harden himself is averaging a mammoth 8.1 a game overall so far.
Harden therefore accounts for 39 per cent of his team’s assist numbers, 14 per cent more than Green and the same amount as Curry and Durant combined. Thus not only does the scoring come from Harden, but so does the ball movement and creative spark in the offense. Chris Paul averages the second most on the team with 7.9, but the next two players average 3.4 and 2 a game respectively.
This leads to a player’s usage rate, and given Harden’s high contribution in points and assists, his usage rate currently sits at a whopping 40.4 for the season. That sum is on track to be second all-time ahead of Kobe Bryant’s 2005-06 rate of 39.74, and sit just behind Russell Westbrook’s 2016-17 rate of 41.65. Although both Bryant and Westbrook had incredible personal seasons, it wasn’t enough to save them in the playoffs as they were bounced quickly in the first round without sufficient help from others to elevate the team as a whole.
This year’s Rockets are following the same path, and they simply don’t have a second option that can carry the kind of work-load Harden does. Paul is an all-round point guard who certainly has elevated his offensive output since joining coach Mike D’Antoni’s system, but he in no way has the ability to create offense out of nothing the way Harden can, not to mention his unreliability when it comes to staying healthy.
Unfortunately but logically, it is only fair to assume Harden’s intense regular season to carry his side into the postseason will come back to bite him and the team, whether in the form of an injury or fatigue, and it’ll bite hard.