Hey, James, I think you should become a point guard.
"I thought he was crazy," says Harden, who earned his stardom at shooting guard.
You know, James, you could be the second player ever to lead the league in points and assists.
"Once again, I thought he was crazy," Harden says wryly.
The Rockets' new coach kept nudging his star toward new horizons. Harden kept nodding in that sardonic way that says, Well, OK, if you say so.
Crazy? Yeah, Mike D'Antoni has been called that a few times before.
He was crazy to make Amar'e Stoudemire a center, crazy to think the Phoenix Suns in 2004 could become a powerhouse by playing smaller than everyone else, faster than everyone else, shooting more three-pointers than everyone else.
Today, most of the NBA is playing some form of D'Antoni-ball, including the last two champions.
See, crazy has its benefits. Sometimes you just have to embrace the madness—as Harden will now readily attest.
For the past three months, Harden has been an offensive terror, dicing up defenders and turning scoreboards into fireworks shows. With the season at its midpoint, Harden ranks third in scoring (28.4 points per game through Monday) and, yes, leads the league in assists (11.7 per game), just as D'Antoni promised.
No player has finished a season ranked No. 1 in points and assists since Nate Archibald in 1972-73. Harden has a shot.
"He had a vision," Harden tells B/R Mag, reflecting on D'Antoni's bold prophecy, "and I just rolled with it."
From behind his lumberjack beard, Harden smiles as he considers the joyful delirium that has followed.
The revamped Rockets, with Harden at the helm and a three-point infusion from free agents Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson, are 32-12, third in the West, and looking like a contender.
The Harden-D'Antoni partnership—itself the object of derision when the Rockets first tapped D'Antoni in May—is positively flourishing.
"It's been really easy," D'Antoni told B/R, "because he wants to do what I have to offer."
Coach Mike D'Antoni and the Rockets have tried to build an organization that emphasizes efficiency in their decision-making and their on-court strategy. (Getty Images)
Since his breakthrough in Phoenix more than a decade ago, D'Antoni has preached tempo and spacing, with an abundance of picking, rolling and three-point shooting. Harden—a scorer by reputation, a playmaker at heart—is uniquely skilled to execute that playbook.
Or as D'Antoni put it, "James Harden was the perfect superstar for how I would like to coach."
It goes even deeper than that. What the Rockets now have is an extraordinarily rare, near-perfect philosophical alignment that extends from ownership through the front office and the head coach to the franchise star.
Rockets owner Les Alexander wanted an executive who maximized assets and prized efficiency, so in 2007, he hired analytics whiz Daryl Morey as general manager. Morey, in turn, wanted a roster built to exploit the game's most efficient shots: layups, free throws and three-pointers.
At its essence, that's what D'Antoni's pacing, spacing, pick-and-roll playbook is designed to do: produce open shots at the arc and open lanes to the hoop.
And no modern star is better suited for that mission than Harden.
Since his Houston debut in 2012, Harden has scored a league-leading 8,306 points on threes, free throws and shots at the rim, according to the Rockets. The Warriors' Stephen Curry is a distant second, at 7,116.
This season, Harden has accumulated a league-high 1,067 points in those categories, accounting for 87 percent of his scoring.
As if that weren't enough, Harden is also No. 1 in points created via assist, at 28.6 per game, a reflection of his enhanced role under D'Antoni.
Statistics current through January 16. Courtesy of the Houston Rockets.
Harden is not the NBA's most dazzling star, nor its most aesthetically pleasing, nor its most cuddly. He thrives on strength and guile, not outlandish athleticism. Purists will forever grumble about his foul-seeking and flailing. But there is no denying his brilliance or his killer efficiency.
Give Harden space, and he'll sink a 26-footer. Defend him tightly, and he'll be in the lane within two steps, sending up a soft floater. Send help, and he'll find the open man, every time.
"He has some of the most lethal footwork, especially with the ball in his hands," says Detroit's Reggie Jackson, a former teammate in OKC.
"There's no one like him," says Dallas Mavericks veteran Wes Matthews. "He's unique."
LeBron James is the greatest player of his generation. Curry is the game's greatest shooter. Russell Westbrook is a terror and Kevin Durant an athletic marvel. But Harden, with his abacus-rattling array of deep swishes and point-blank buckets, might just be the scruffy face of the Analytics Era, the star who most embodies the advanced-stats ethos.
"I would say it transcends that," Morey tells B/R. "That's making it too small. I think he's maybe the greatest off-the-dribble driver of all time, in terms of his ability to create offense at a high-efficiency rate for his team."
Whatever Harden is, or may become, he is certainly in the perfect place to be it.
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Here's the thing about building an NBA contender: It's an imperfect science, at best. And it requires more luck than most team execs care to admit.
It took a lot of trial, error and happenstance for the Rockets to land Harden, along with ample doses of guesswork, hunches and hoping.
Morey has chased nearly every free-agent stud to hit the market and every discontented star seeking a trade. He spent years flipping players and collecting assets while waiting for the one big trade that could change the Rockets' trajectory.
"People always ask, 'You traded for him; did you know he was this good?' I'm like, 'F--k no!'"
—ROCKETS GM DARYL MOREY
The moment came in 2012, when Oklahoma City—fearing the NBA's punitive new luxury tax—decided to trade the 23-year-old Harden rather than pay him the maximum salary.
It just so happened that the first available star was tailor-made for Morey.
At the time, Harden was the Thunder's sixth man, an understudy to Durant and Westbrook. Talented, yes. But no one foresaw a future MVP candidate. If they had, the bidding would have been much more intense—and the price much steeper than the package of role players and draft picks the Rockets surrendered.
"People always ask, 'You traded for him; did you know he was this good?'" Morey says. "I'm like, 'F--k no!' I mean, we thought he was extremely good and better than other teams probably did."
But not top-five good or, say, top-three, which Morey would make the case for today.
"Everyone thought that he was on the coattails of Kevin and Russ," Morey says.
What the Rockets saw, and what the spreadsheets illuminated, was that Harden was already elite in his ability to attack the basket and create high-efficiency shots, whether for himself or an open teammate.
"He was always flashing off the charts on that," Morey says. "The question was more: Can he do that when he's playing all front-line defenders?"
Morey traded guards Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb and three draft picks to the Thunder late in the 2012 preseason for the then-reigning Sixth Man of the Year. (Getty Images)
In his final season with the Thunder, Harden scored 92 percent of his points on threes, free throws and shots at the rim.
"Even we thought it would come back to Earth," Morey says. "It hasn't. He continues to be one of the all-time greats at driving to the hoop, getting a layup, getting fouled or creating an open shot for someone. It's very basic, but that's pretty much the thing that separates him."
In fact, by at least one measure, Harden ranks as the NBA's toughest player to guard on the move: foul shots.
Since 2012, when Harden became a full-time starter, he has accumulated 3,568 free-throw attempts—969 more than his closest rival, the 7-foot bruiser DeMarcus Cousins, per basketball-reference.com. Westbrook ranks third, with 2,543, followed by DeMar DeRozan, Durant and James.
The greatest foul-inducers in recent NBA history have generally been giants (Shaquille O'Neal), speedsters (Allen Iverson) or athletic super freaks (Michael Jordan). Harden can beat any defender off the dribble, but he's not particularly explosive—just gifted in the art of creating contact, and in keeping defenders off-balance.
"It used to piss Kevin and Russ off sometimes in practice, because at crucial times he would get to the line while we were playing," recalls Jackson, who played alongside Harden with the Thunder in 2011-12.
"He's really unique," says Detroit Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy. "He's got that one move where he really extends the ball out and tries to draw the foul. It's very, very hard not to foul him, even when you're making a concerted effort. … But what I think makes him unique is if you don't foul him on that, he's actually able to convert the shot."
LeBron James handles the ball against James Harden at Quicken Loans Arena on November 1, 2016 at Quicken Loans Arena. (Getty Images)
These are the skills that would make Harden special no matter where he plays. But the Rockets have provided the ideal incubator, and now have the ideal coach to match.
"I can't recall a player who can beat any defender off the dribble," Morey says, "and then when that happens, make every pass, is unstoppable to the rim, can finish at the rim at a high rate if you don't foul him, and then you're almost forced to foul him. And you have the shot to set up the drive."
All of which became evident during Harden's years under former Rockets coach Kevin McHale. But tensions between Harden and co-star Dwight Howard sank the Rockets last season and cost McHale his job.
By last spring, the Rockets had resolved to cut ties with Howard. Their identity would be defined by Harden more than ever, requiring a coach with the pedigree and the playbook to fully exploit his skill set.
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Let's just say it hasn't been a glorious ride for Mike D'Antoni since he left Phoenix eight-and-a-half years ago.
A stint in New York briefly looked promising, until D'Antoni lost a battle with Carmelo Anthony over whose offense the Knicks should run.
An even shorter stint in Los Angeles—complicated by an unwieldy assortment of superstar egos—ended with everyone hating everyone.
So it was hardly surprising when critics pounced on Houston's decision last spring.