When Mike D’Antoni made it known that he was going to use James Harden as the Rockets’ full-time point guard, I thought “what a coincidence!” I too plan on using Harden strictly at point guard when I get my copy of NBA2K17. It's always a no-brainer in the video game realm.
But then it dawned on me that D’Antoni was talking about real life. It seemed like a poor choice at first. But after giving it some thought, I realized it does make the most sense for the actual 2016-17 Houston Rockets. Why? That's the wrong question. The right question is "Why not?"
Sure I have concerns about Harden consistently guarding other team’s point guards and turning the ball over even more than he did last season. But the Rockets aren’t a championship contender. Success in 2016-17 for Houston means a 5 or 6 seed, a competitive showing in the playoffs and fewer appearances on “Shaq’tin a Fool.”
Clearly their best chance at a successful season is finishing as a top-five offense. Their three best players – Harden, Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon – are minus defenders, and at least right away, they’ll miss Dwight Howard on the defensive end. But the team has outside shooting threats now and with Harden putting pressure on the defense with the ball in his hands all the time, Anderson and Gordon will get more open looks than they’ve ever had. Trevor Ariza tends to play well every other year, so he should get back to contributing to the offense after last season’s train wreck. Additionally, I have hope that D’Antoni will use K.J. McDaniels and Sam Dekker in his rotation, meaning much less Corey Brewer. The pieces are in place for this team to be a scoring juggernaut. They doubled down on their offense-first identity in the offseason, so why not go all in with Harden at point guard?
It remains to be seen if the Rockets can muster a middle-of-the-pack defense out of this roster. That will be the key to first-year success for D’Antoni. This team finished 25th in opponent’s points per game and 21st in D Rtg. The points per game stat never really tells the story with D’Antoni teams, since they play with so much pace. But if that defensive net rating is closer to 15th this season combined with a top-five offense, the Rockets will be relevant. Neither Kevin McHale nor J.B. Bickerstaff were able to conjure consistent defensive effort out of Harden or the rest of the team last season. The hope is that Jeff Bzdelik, D’Antoni’s defensive coordinator, can get them to buy in.
With Harden guarding primary ballhandlers, there’s a chance he naturally becomes more engaged - out of necessity. It’s harder to fall asleep defensively when your man has the ball. One wonders if this is the underlying strategy behind Harden’s move to the point. It's a classic move: hide the medicine (forced defensive effort) in the candy (a license to dominate the ball on the other end). Bzdelik, regardless, has plenty of work on his hands, given the roster as well as the style of play his head coach will implement.
The bottom line is that by entrusting Harden with the point guard role, D'Antoni is further instilling in him the leadership identity he has sometimes lacked throughout his career.
It's another step in the right direction for the James Harden Reputation Reclamation project. Harden will put up some eye-popping stat lines at point guard this season. With actual shooters surrounding him, the Rockets are betting that turnovers won't continue to be one of those big stats.