How James Harden and the Rockets Offense Continue to Thrive
With the increased reliance on the three-point shot in the league, the NBA's record book is bound to change, and it already has.
But even with that, the Houston Rockets are on pace to obliterate a couple of all-time single-season three-point records.
The Rockets are currently averaging 40.5 three-point attempts per game, connecting on 14.7 per contest at a 36.3% clip, putting Houston on pace to make a whopping 1,205 threes over 82 games.
The previous single-season team highs you ask? The 2015-16 Golden State Warriors made 1,077 long-range shots during their historic 73-win campaign, connecting on 13.5 per game.
Saying Houston is embracing the pace-and-space trend that has engulfed the NBA is an understatement; they are taking the trend to unseen heights, and it is due to a perfect pairing of head coach Mike D'Antoni and superstar James Harden.
Match Made In Heaven
Why couldn't the basketball gods have paired these two together sooner?
Of course, there is no way to tell, but Harden makes this offense -- better yet, D'Antoni's system -- work like never before.
It should be no surprise that, after being handed the keys to D'Antoni's offense, Harden is enjoying an MVP-type season. He's averaging 28.8 points, 11.3 assists, and 8.0 rebounds per game this season with a career-high usage rate at 34%.
Harden is the driver of a Formula 1 car on a straightaway. D'Antoni's system accentuates Harden's strengths to the highest degree by utilizing his elite isolation abilities and his underrated, but unreal, passing abilities.
It's funny. For being a potentially historic offense, it's surprisingly simple given all of the specific talents strategically placed around Harden.
For starters, check out all of the space Harden has to work with without even spending any energy. In one corner stands Patrick Beverley (38.5% from three-point range on 4.3 attempts per game), and in the other stands Trevor Ariza (34.8% on 7.1 attempts).
The Rockets run a double screen (kind of) for Ryan Anderson (40.7% from three on 7.0 attempts per game), after which Anderson catches and launches from about a full step behind the three-point line.
It is simple but supremely effective when you have knockdown shooters scattered around the court.
Another aspect of Houston's offense is the use of Clint Capela, who has been fantastic for the Rockets whether he's used as a screener for Harden -- a rim-runner after screens and in transition -- or a shot-blocker on the other end (1.6 blocks per game this season).
His 12.6 points per game average this season to go along with his 7.6 rebounds are career-highs in both categories.
On the play below, again, look at the initial spacing.
Capela starts on the block, leaving to set a screen on Harden's defender. Once the screen is set (more on this in a second), Ariza and Anderson being on the same side of the court prevents the defenders from stepping over to clog the wide open space to the basket in front of Capela.
This mere threat of shooting leads to an uncontested lob, resulting in an assist for Harden and an easy, easy bucket for Capela.
The "screen" Capela set is of note for a few reasons. A screen-and-roll is already one of basketball's simplest plays. D'Antoni makes it even simpler by encouraging his centers to slip them. In the play above, Capela never made contact with the defender's body. This "slip" as it is called not only makes the actual play develop faster, but it also forces the defense to react quicker, often leading to a defense that is out of position and scrambling.
Capela made the read to slip the screen when he saw the defender was not all the way in front of Harden's body, rather hedging to a side. Once the defender saw Capela making his move, he jumped higher to Harden's right. Because Capela knew Harden already had that step, there was no need to make contact with the defender's body, rather just make a quick move to the basket.
This play showcases Harden's vision.
Once again, it started with a pick-and-roll, as D'Antoni likes to do. Because defenders must worry about Harden's ability to get to the rim and the center's ability and willingness to roll hard to the rim for layups, the entire weak side of the defense flinched to the middle of the paint.
The subtle movement gave Eric Gordon (38% from three on 9.2 attempts) a wide open three. But look at the pass! Harden is moving away from Gordon and makes an off-the-bounce, one-handed pass over the defender right into Gordon's shooting pocket. Simply beautiful.
The Perfect Fit
When you plug Harden's isolation ability, vision, and playmaking into D'Antoni's pace-and-space offense, you get a 43-19 record.
Having the shooters around Harden makes this simple offense potentially revolutionary and uncomplicated to run -- yet nearly impossible to defend. We should not be surprised if D'Antoni has another MVP point guard under his wing, given the success of this system.