James Harden is Everywhere

Fear the beard? Sure. Fear the uptempo, knock-it-down, can't-stop-him point guard? Now that's an idea so crazy it just might work. For the Houston Rockets and their mad experiment in efficiency, it already has. Be very afraid

By Howard Beck

Illustration by Vinnie Neuberg

January 18, 2017

James Harden was eager to embrace his new coach, to immerse himself in that famed, free-flowing offense, to form a bond, a pact, a partnership.

That was Harden's intent last summer, after the Houston Rockets chose the chatty iconoclast with the West Virginia twang to revive their fortunes.

Then they started talking, and Harden began to wonder: Is this man nuts? With every conversation came another outlandish idea.

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.

Crazy, right?

"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."

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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!'"


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?"

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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."

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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.

Harden says he communicates with D'Antoni more and about more things than any previous coach he has had in the NBA. (Getty Images)

If D'Antoni couldn't corral Anthony, or connect with the hard-headed Kobe Bryant, how would he fare with the steel-willed, bristle-chinned Harden? It was a fair question.

The answer came early in training camp.

"We communicate all the time—the most with a head coach since I've been in the NBA," Harden told Houston reporters in October. "Not just about basketball, but about life."

There is no success in the NBA without a bond between head coach and franchise star, a syncing of priorities and style.

It was clear D'Antoni never stood a chance in New York once the Knicks tied their fortunes to the isolation-happy Anthony. And no one could have brokered harmony between Bryant and Howard.

For the first time since he left an in-his-prime Steve Nash in Phoenix, D'Antoni has a star who fits him.

Strike that.

He has the best possible star for his system and a front office fully committed to his philosophy.

"The biggest thing was, I knew that they already played this way," D'Antoni says. "And that [Harden] was the best playing that way. And he wanted to play that way. You can also expand that to ownership wanted to play that way, management wanted to play that way."

"So now it's like"—and here D'Antoni actually growls with enthusiasm—"yeaahhh."

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Harden averaged 11.9 shots per game over his two seasons at Arizona State. In his five-plus seasons in Houston, he has averaged nearly 19 shots per game. (Getty Images)

Morey and D'Antoni already viewed the game through the same prism, though their backgrounds are vastly different.

Morey came to the NBA via MIT, with a business degree and an affection for numbers. He was the first GM to define the game in terms of "efficiency"—and the first to promote the three-pointer as a staple, rather than a gimmick.

Eschewing low-percentage mid-range shots (especially deep two-pointers) in favor of threes is now accepted dogma. But it wasn't when Morey took the reins nine years ago.

D'Antoni was never schooled in advanced stats, but his offense—influenced by his playing experiences in Europe–already catered to the most efficient shots. It intuitively made sense to him, even before he had the numbers to back it up.

Lo and behold, the Rockets this season have scored a league-high 89 percent of their points on three-pointers, free throws and shots at the rim—up from 84 percent last season.

Nor did D'Antoni need a spreadsheet to see that Harden could brilliantly exploit his system the way Nash once did.

The idea to make Harden a point guard did not require a massive leap. He often ran the offense under McHale. But if Harden had the ball 85 percent of the time before (Morey's estimate), it's now closer to 100 percent.

Those gaudy assist numbers? They shouldn't be much of a surprise, at least to those who have watched Harden closely over the years. Rival coaches say Harden was the Thunder's best playmaker—better than Durant or Westbrook.

And despite a reputation for dominating the ball, Harden has always had a passion for the pass, going all the way back to his high school days.

"He was a guy who was always pass-first, always concerned about his teammates, to the point of me literally begging him to shoot the ball more," says Scott Pera, who coached Harden at Artesia High School in Los Angeles and again at Arizona State. "He averaged 18 points a game as a junior and senior in high school. He could have averaged 35."

In Pera's view, Harden has always simply done what his team required and what his coaches asked. His scorer's mentality evolved out of necessity, not selfish impulses.

"He's at ease now. Him not having to worry about sacrificing his game for Dwight, it's huge."


Now along comes D'Antoni, asking Harden to keep scoring like Kobe but pass like Nash. It's going pretty well.

"It's always been there," Harden says of his ability to play dual roles. "Just somebody needed to push me more and be more aggressive."

The Rockets don't push the tempo the way the Suns once did—Houston currently ranks fourth in pace, per NBA.com—and Harden doesn't race up the court with the same zeal as Nash. But it's early yet, and D'Antoni believes they will get closer.

Meanwhile, the Rockets' three-point shooting makes D'Antoni's old Suns look positively stodgy.

Through Monday, Houston was averaging a league-high 40.0 attempts per game, which would obliterate the NBA record of 32.7, set by the 2014-15 Rockets. The next closest team? Brooklyn, at 33.2 per game.

Until this season, no team had ever attempted 50 threes in a game. The Rockets have done it five times in 43 games.

It all begins with the point guard who didn't want to be a point guard. Over the summer, D'Antoni and Harden watched old Nash tapes together, and the vision started to take hold.

Harden was a skinny 15-year-old in L.A. when the Nash-D'Antoni Suns were revolutionizing the game. They put a power forward (Stoudemire) at center, a small forward (Shawn Marion) at power forward and shooters everywhere. They played small and fast and flung three-pointers at record-setting rates, ushering in a new era.

Nash made it all come together, with his probing drives, uncanny court vision and deadly jumper. Harden says he never watched the Suns back then. But he has carefully studied them since.

Jason Terry, who spent two seasons in Houston, now sees Harden making Nash-like reads and Nash-like passes. Beyond that, "He's at ease now," says Terry. "Him not having to worry about sacrificing his game for Dwight, it's huge."

Nash was a point guard by trade, a deft and silky playmaker who thrived at a frantic pace. Harden is bigger, stronger and a more fearsome scorer. Though he came up as a shooting guard, his court vision and passing skills are evident and expanding.

Harden broke the Rockets' franchise record for assists in November, then broke it again in December. He already has 15 games with at least 30 points and 10 assists, the most by any player since 1985, per StatMuse. And still has room to improve.

Where Nash seemingly "made the right decision every time," D'Antoni says, Harden is still learning.

"I think James will be that way—even next year he'll be better," he says. "I think it just takes a little while to get used to."

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The truth is, Harden and D'Antoni need each other, and that's no small thing.

Two seasons ago, Harden was a Most Valuable Player runner-up, the driving force of a conference finalist. Last season, he didn't even make the All-NBA third team—the price he paid for showing up out of shape, clashing with Howard and finishing with a .500 record.

"He takes full responsibility," says Pera, who remains a friend and confidant. "He knows he's the one that needs to change that perception."Image title

Dwight Howard and Harden saw their third season together in Houston come to a quick close when they lost to the Warriors in five games in the first round of the playoffs last spring. (Getty Images)

Last season's flameout "was one of the worst feelings of my career," Harden tells B/R. "Just the relationships, the teammates, coaches—it wasn't all on the same page, it wasn't how it needed to be."

So when D'Antoni arrived, "I made a conscious effort to communicate and talk and get to know him a little bit. And he just opened up," Harden says. "And that right there made him more genuine and made it easier for me to just call him and talk to him and talk to him about anything."

At age 27, Harden is firmly in his prime, with no seasons to waste.

At 65, D'Antoni concedes this is likely his last stop.

Morey chose them both, and he needs this all to work, too—perhaps for the sake of his own job security, according to an ESPN.com report earlier this season.

Now that they're all together, it seems like it was always meant to be: three iconoclasts, each distinguished in his own way, raging against NBA convention and searching for ultimate validation.

"When you have that alignment, at least you have a chance," D'Antoni says. "It's not guaranteed that you'll have success—a lot of things going into it, luck and all that—but at least it's fun trying to figure it out."

Yes, fun—an adjective no one associated with the brooding, infighting Rockets last season. It's always a thrill to see greatness unleashed.

To be sure, Harden was on that path before Morey plucked him from Oklahoma City, and before D'Antoni landed in Houston. His talent and drive might have made him great anywhere—"It doesn’t matter where," Harden says pointedly—yet so much of NBA success is about fit and timing and trust. Think Phil Jackson and Michael Jordan. Magic Johnson and Pat Riley. D'Antoni and Nash.

Even the all-time greats need someone to set the framework.

"It works,” Harden says of this new partnership. "I mean, Daryl and Les and the organization knew what they wanted, and it worked perfect.”

The Rockets have the NBA's second-best winning percentage since December 1 (.808), and the third-best offense, despite losing starting center Clint Capela for 15 games during that stretch (he returned Tuesday night). Incredibly, the Rockets have also posted a top-10 defense in that span—despite the reputations of their head coach and star guard as defensively indifferent.

They may lack the star power and the defense to challenge the Warriors, but a deep postseason run seems more than plausible. Harden is a leading MVP contender, and D'Antoni for Coach of the Year.

"We're at the first step of probably 10 steps that we got to do to challenge the champions," D'Antoni says. "But we see the path there."

Scoff if you must. Call the Rockets crazy for believing they have a shot. Crazy sort of suits them.

All statistics updated through Monday.

Howard Beck is a senior writer for B/R Mag and covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @HowardBeck.

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