After a long summer of topless championship parades, free-agency meetings in the Hamptons, Snapchat mishaps, and gold medals, the NBA is finally, truly, really, almost back. The start of training camp marks the beginning of our NBA Preview.
This is How Basketball Works Week. We’ll be looking at the scouts, stats, coaches, and tactical developments that are shaping the game.
Mike D’Antoni made it official during training camp: James Harden is now the point guard of the Houston Rockets. On some level, it’s just semantics. Harden had one of the highest usage rates in the NBA last season, and he’s going to have the ball in his hands for most of the team’s possessions, regardless of the position he plays. The distinction matters, but it matters more for the players alongside him than for Harden himself.
The Rockets have been trying to find a backcourt partner for Harden ever since he arrived in Houston in 2012. He’s Mel Gibson in Lethal Weapon; it’s hard to find a good fit. A guard who plays next to Harden ideally should have the size and athleticism to defend both backcourt positions, so that he can take the tougher assignment on a nightly basis. He should have the shooting ability to be a threat off the ball, knocking down open 3s and opening up the lane. And he should be able to attack a closeout and create a shot for himself and his teammates, so that the Rockets offense won’t be too one-dimensional.
The guards that the team has tried in that role have fallen short in one category or another:
It’s hard to find the right balance. Jeremy Lin and Ty Lawson are used to playing with the ball, and they don’t offer much value off it. Jason Terry is an elite shooter and Patrick Beverley is an elite defender, but neither is dangerous enough with the ball to threaten defenses. There aren’t many 3-and-D point guards in the NBA, and the ones that do exist generally don’t have the size to slide over and handle shooting guards.
In nominally changing Harden’s position on the floor, D’Antoni is cutting out the middleman. It’s been almost impossible to find a point guard to play next to Harden because he was already the Rockets’ de-facto point guard. The most interesting thing about playing him at the point is that it allows the team to pair him with a traditional shooting guard, which would put a whole new twist on the search for his running mate.
The Rockets can add more size to their backcourt, which comes with a few immediate benefits. At 6-foot-5 and 220 pounds with a near 6-foot-11 wingspan, Harden is now one of the biggest point guards in the NBA. The easiest way to play good defense is to have more size and speed than your opponent, and playing Harden next to a wing would give the Rockets one of the biggest backcourts in the league. Beverley is a bulldog defensively, but he is only 6-foot-1. He’s not going to overwhelm anyone with his athleticism, and he can’t take advantage of the way Harden’s presence distorts a defense. If the opposing team shifts its starting shooting guard or small forward onto Harden, it forces its point guard to defend a much bigger Rockets perimeter player on the cross-switch. For as much as Beverley makes his opponent work on offense, his lack of offensive versatility allows that opponent to take the night off on defense.
Beverley is still slated to start next to Harden for the moment, but it’s hard to see him keeping the spot long-term under D’Antoni. The Rockets gave Eric Gordon a four-year, $53 million contract in the offseason, and playing him and Harden together would supercharge the offense. Gordon is an explosive scorer and a pure shooter who has scored 16.6 points per game and shot 38.3 percent from 3 on nearly five attempts per game over the course of his career. He can force defenses to chase him off screens, and he can take advantage of weaker defenders one-on-one. Gordon can knock down open 3s from Harden and create open 3s for Harden. The two should fit together like hand and glove on offense.
Gordon has not been a good defensive player since he began dealing with a series of knee injuries that robbed him of some of his explosiveness, but the potential of pairing him with Harden might be too much for D’Antoni to resist. He’s not a coach who is going to leave a lot of points on the board in terms of roster construction, and he has never been afraid of playing unconventional lineups. The beauty of D’Antoni’s system is the way it streamlines everyone’s responsibilities and allows him to put as much speed and shooting on the floor as possible, regardless of position.
The building blocks of the spread pick-and-roll (which D’Antoni installed in Phoenix in 2004 and which almost every team in the NBA runs these days) are the ball handler, the roll man, and the shooters. It was revolutionary at the time because he moved Shawn Marion from the 3 to the 4 and Amar’e Stoudemire from the 4 to the 5, effectively eliminating the power forward position from his lineup. Either a big man had the shot-blocking and athleticism to be a center, or he had the ballhandling and shooting ability to be a second small forward. There was no place for guys who can’t do either. The math is just not there to support running set plays to create a post-up or an 18-foot jumper when D’Antoni’s streamlined attack was consistently creating open 3s and dunks, the two most efficient plays in basketball. D’Antoni was running Moreyball when Daryl Morey was a senior vice president in Boston and Harden was a high schooler in Southern California.
The league has caught up to D’Antoni and Morey, and now they need to find a new trick to survive. Can D’Antoni do to the traditional point guard what he did to the traditional power forward? The Rockets aren’t the only team trying to go without one. The Bucks are trying something similar with Giannis Antetokounmpo as the primary ball handler. Is Markelle Fultz, the early front-runner to be the no. 1 overall pick in 2017, a point guard with the size of a wing or a wing with the game of a point guard? D’Angelo Russell and Emmanuel Mudiay, the first two point guards taken in the 2015 draft, are 6-foot-5. Kris Dunn, the first point guard taken in 2016, is 6-foot-4. All three might be most effective on the court flanked by 3-and-D wings, which doesn’t leave much room for the traditional 6-foot-1 floor general.
If the Rockets have learned anything from the past four seasons, it’s that a player like that has little value next to Harden. It was the same story for Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade, both of whom thrived playing with more complementary guards like Derek Fisher and Mario Chalmers. The roles in the backcourt were inverted. Fisher and Chalmers, two players who fit the physical profile of a typical point guard, spotted up off the ball like shooting guards. A longer and more athletic player could have taken their spot in the lineup without changing the dynamic on offense. Back then, size dictated position, not skill set. Things are changing fast. If Kobe and Wade were 18-year-olds today, talent evaluators would probably consider them point guards. The modern NBA is a point guard’s league, but the definition of the position is changing. And James Harden might just be its new face.