When, news spread that Mike D’Antoni would be hired as the next head coach of the Houston Rockets at the end of last season, people around the NBA thought it was a foolish move. The Rockets are an organization that isn’t known for their defense, so why would they hire a coach who’s clear focus is on the offensive side of the ball? Although, D’Antoni has proven to be a very successful coach at times in the NBA, that sentiment was fair. But, there’s one thing that media members and people around the NBA failed to realize. That’s the effect D’Antoni’s offense could have on a player like James Harden.
Of course, ‘The Beard’ isn’t exactly one of the most beloved players in the league himself, much like D’Antoni isn’t one of the most beloved coaches. At least not in the terms of the way Harden plays the game, or how D’Antoni coaches it. Both receive as much criticism as they do praise. Though I’m a Rockets fan, Harden has received criticism right here on this site. But, this is a different James Harden. Especially, in terms of his leadership. Gone are the days, at least so far, of the defensive lapses and hero ball we’ve seen in the past. This team has chemistry and they’re a lot of fun to watch. Something that couldn’t be said last season. That’s due in most part to ‘The Beard’.
Harden, has been one of the top scorers in the league since leaving Oklahoma City in 2012, and had a career-year in assists last season, yet he was omitted from the All-NBA team last season. D’Antoni, led the Phoenix Suns to back-to-back Western Conference Finals in 2005 and 2006, he’s also been an assistant to Mike Kryzewski on the U.S. Men’s Olympic teams, yet few think he can coach. Well, it’s still early in the season, but the criticism of Harden and D’Antoni has been mostly silenced. The Rockets are off to a 13-7 start, good enough for 4th place in the Western Conference standings. Even more impressive is their road record of 9-5, including that huge victory at Golden State on Thursday night.
The key for the Rockets’ success is of course, Harden. He’s scoring 28 points per game, but his ability and desire to get shots for others is more impressive. Harden, leads the league in assists at nearly 12 per game. He’s playing like a point guard or floor general should. Often times, he’s been a bit too unselfish. But, make no mistake about it, Harden is a lead guard, not a point guard. Perfect, is too weak a word for the way he fits D’Antoni’s style of offense. Harden, is starting to remind many of how well Steve Nash ran this offense. Nash, ran it well enough to win two MVP’s and of course, those two trips to the Western Conference Finals.
D’Antoni teams have always liked to spread the floor and rely on the 3-point shot. That’s really not anything new for the Rockets. The difference between this Rockets team and last year’s is they’ve upgraded the players that shoot all those three’s. Ryan Anderson, and Eric Gordon were pickups through free agency that didn’t get much fanfare outside of Houston. But, both guys are shooting the ball at an impressive clip. Gordon, is also a guy that can put the ball on the floor. That gives the Rockets a guy they can bring off the bench that can make plays while Harden rests.
Another key component so far is the emergence of Clint Capela. He is a perfect example of how Harden is making his teammates better. Capela’s scoring has nearly doubled from 7 points last season to 12 points per game this season. That, in itself has people talking about him as ‘Comeback Player of the Year’. Of course, his role has increased with Dwight Howard gone, but the increased production is still impressive. Capela, is also taking more advantage of playing with Harden than Dwight did. The chemistry between the two has been impressive, and pretty tough to guard. Just ask the Portland Trailblazers.
Whether or not, the Rockets can keep it up is the question? They are still pretty thin in the front court. You also have to wonder if Harden can keep up his almost triple double pace for 62 more games? Harden, is in noticeably much better shape than he was last season, so that should help. Patrick Beverley, is back from injury. He’s still the same menace to opponents he’s always been. But, he’s also still the glue of this team. The argument can easily be made that the Rockets’ record would be even better now if Beverley was healthy from the start. Since Beverley’s return, the Rockets are 8-2. Beverley’s return meant Gordon, who had been starting, could come off the bench. The second unit has turned from being a weakness to being a strength.
Beverley, of course, brings that edge defensively. While, the Rockets still aren’t a great defensive team, they are much improved, thanks to Jeff Bzdelik and Roy Rogers. Two assistant coaches with a good defensive background, that were hired by D’Antoni. We saw proof of that improvement in the overtime victory over the Warriors. Time after time the Warriors were turned away with the game on the line. Capela, is a very good rim protector. Trevor Ariza, is still a guy that can guard some of the NBA’s better wing players on the perimeter and the Rockets are also a pretty good rebounding team. So, despite their overall numbers suggesting that they’re not good defensively overall, they can be in spots. The high rate of points per game has to do with the Rockets’ offense not lack of defense.
It’s really quite remarkable, the fit that D’Antoni has been for Harden and the Rockets. After, the Knicks and Lakers were such bad fits him, he has to be loving Houston. D’Antoni, is proving he’s a much better coach than people give him credit for being. The timing couldn’t be better for the Houston Rockets. Coming into the season, they were a team that most thought could make the playoffs as a 7th or 8th seed. Now, you have to consider them a threat to secure a 4th or 5th seed and maybe make the second round. How about that for a turn of events in Clutch City?
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