The Houston Rockets are in a unique position this season.
Mike D’Antoni is widely regarded is one of the finest offensive minds in basketball.
During his time in Phoenix he created some of the most high powered and entertaining offensive teams in history of the NBA. Back then his teams were centred around the generational talent of Steve Nash. Now in Houston, D’Antoni has found another muse around which to construct a temple of high paced basketball.
That muse is James Harden.
When it was announced that D’Antoni would take over coaching duties from J.B Bickerstaff at the start of the current season, there was uncertainty as to whether he was suited to the role. Surely what Houston needed was a defensive guru to shore up their defence, not the offensive genius that is D’Antoni. The Rockets season has proven that they were wise to double down on the talents of their roster.
Central to Houston’s surge towards the upper echelons of the Western Conference has been the outstanding play of James Harden. Like Nash before him Harden has thrived in D’Antoni’s pace and space system taking his talents to another level.
In converting Harden from a shooting guard to a point guard, D’Antoni has put the ball in Harden’s hands even more and made him the faucet through which all Houston’s offence flows. Harden has lead the league in assists for the first time in his career and been the centre piece of the league’s second highest scoring offence.
It is clear from how D’Antoni speaks about Harden that he has found a player in his image.
“James Harden was the perfect superstar for how I would like to coach.” – Mike D’Antoni on his All-star guard.
And it would appear the feeling is mutual as Harden has loved D’Antoni’s relaxed offensive philosophy.
“He doesn’t try to control anything. If he has a play, he’ll throw it at me, and if I have something better, I’ll just tell him I have something better, and he’s cool with it.” – Harden on his new coach Mike D’Antoni.
This kind of relationship has been extremely beneficial for both Harden and D’Antoni and recalls the close relationship the coach had with Steve Nash.
The Rockets have been built differently to D’Antoni’s teams in Phoenix. Houston do not have a big man with the quality of Amar’e Stoudemire to run the devastating pick and rolls that were the bread and butter of the Nash era suns. Instead Harden is surrounded by a cavalcade of deadly three point shooters including Eric Gordon, Trevor Ariza and Ryan Anderson.
Gordon has hit a career high 246 three pointers this season, almost doubling his previous mark while Ryan Anderson has made 204 and Ariza has drained 191 triples. Harden uses his ability to penetrate the defence and attract helping defenders to give his shooters wide open looks which they are gratefully knocking down.
That is not to say that the pick and roll has completely gone from D’Antoni’s offence. Harden still uses screens to bisect defences with clinical accuracy often finding Clint Capella for uncontested alley-oops. In addition to this Harden constantly threads passes through impossible windows to find teammates cutting aggressively to the basket.
This is the beauty of D’Antoni’s offensive system – not only does it get the best out of the star player but also nurtures the talents of the team’s role players.
It was the same in Phoenix where D’Antoni allowed unspectacular players – such as Quentin Richardson – to lead the league in three pointers. Shawn Marion was never more productive than during his time under D’Antoni in Phoenix and Leandro Barbosa enjoyed his highest scoring seasons with the Suns.
D’Antoni is working his magic again in Houston. What remains to be seen is if they can mount a serious assault on the Golden State Warriors and achieve the one thing that always eluded D’Antoni in Phoenix – a trip to the NBA Finals.