James Harden feels he's cut from the same cloth as Steve Nash. He said as much himself in a recent interview with ESPN's Calvin Watkins, telling the Rockets beat man:
"I got a little bit of Nash in me. He had his own pace to the game. You could never speed him up, you could never make him do anything that he didn't want to do. That's what separated him from any other point guard at the time, which led to two MVPs."
With former Nash teacher and architect of the famed "Seven Seconds or Less" offense Mike D'Antoni on board and a franchise newly committed to The Beard's superstardom in the long term, Harden will be graced with every opportunity to grow his game to Nash-like levels.
The most important part of that potential transformation is as a facilitator for his teammates. Harden is already a wonderful distributor (contrary to some of the "selfish" claims you'll read from the clueless on social media). He finished last season averaging a career-high 7.5 assists, which was good enough for sixth in the NBA. It was also the most among all shooting guards by a wide margin.
But to put into perspective where Harden needs to be to get to the Steve Nash level, the two-time MVP averaged 8.5 assists for his career, or in other words, more than Harden just racked up in his career-best season. During his four seasons with D'Antoni as his coach, Nash averaged 11.1 assists per game. He led the league in three of those four seasons. What that means is there's a way to go before anyone confuses the Bearded One with the Canadian point man.
But can Harden get to that level? D'antoni thinks he can. He recently told The Vertical's Adrian Wojnarowski that he hopes to get Harden up to the 12 or 13 assist range, which is a ridiculously high number.
The last player to get 12 assists or more per game in a season was all-time assist leader John Stockton in 1994-1995. The highest non-Stockton number since Isiah Thomas and Magic Johnson was Rajon Rondo, with 11.7 in 2011-2012, and he would shamelessly chase assists by passing up fast-break layups. His numbers were also bolstered by notoriously generous Boston statkeepers.
So what number is realistic this year for The Beard?
Harden finished this past season averaging 14.3 potential assists per game and 18 points per game created off assists, both numbers again good for sixth in the NBA. Those are the two central components for successfully assisting: Opportunity and conversion. And both of those components should be going up this year.
Harden will now be in full-time control of the offense. There's no Ty Lawson to attempt to integrate, there's no Dwight Howard whining and crying about his post touches and there's no other top-flight ball handler on the roster. This is officially the James Harden show, more so than it's been at any point in his career. We're likely to see more potential assists based on these factors alone.
Harden's usage percentage has been sky high. He's averaged 30.1 percent since arriving in Houston, finished last season with a career-high 32.5 percent, and it's certainly conceivable, maybe even likely, that number ticks up even further this season. The opportunities for The Beard to rack up assists this coming year should be at an absolute peak compared to any other time in his career.
The chance for conversion will likely look better this year as well. With Howard, who led the league in post touches last year, no longer sucking up possessions with his demand for post work (a usually unassisted play, even if it's successful), the Rockets will be able to concentrate primarily on what Harden does best: get into the lane and create, either for himself or for others. And team management has surrounded him with players capable of converting better than anyone on the Rockets' roster last season.
Newcomer Ryan Anderson hit on 46 percent of his open three-point shots last year (better than anyone on the Rockets) and 58.5 percent of his wide open twos. There will be no shortage of those chances this season with Harden collapsing the paint. In fact, the chance for some open looks was one of, if not the, primary reasons for Anderson signing with Houston. Playing in D'Antoni's system and alongside Harden appealed to the stretch four, who felt he didn't quite get enough of those opportunities while in New Orleans.
Anderson hit on 131 three-pointers last season, and that number is likely to go up with The Beard running the show on the hardwood. If he stays healthy, Anderson could easily be looking at 160 or more threes on the year. Remember, he mostly came off the bench in New Orleans. He'll be starting in Houston.
Eric Gordon brings a similar shooting skill set. And while it's been rumored that Gordon will be coming off the bench as a sixth man, at least to start the season, expect to see him and Harden share the floor together for stretches and Gordon to knock down plenty of the open shots The Beard creates as well. Gordon hit on 45.7 percent of his open threes last year, just a tick behind Anderson, and again, better than anyone on the entire Houston squad last year.
Gordon hit 113 total threes last year, and we should again see those numbers go up, health permitting. Could Gordon be looking at 130 to 140 threes this year? He hit 141 two seasons ago with the Pelicans, and while he probably won't be playing as many minutes as he did that year, his opportunity will be greater. It's not an unachievable number.
Simply by having these two capable sharpshooters in tow, Harden's assist numbers will be going up. And that's not even looking at the shooters the Rockets have returning. Patrick Beverley is coming off a career-high 124 three-pointers on an also career-high 40 percent shooting from deep. Trevor Ariza hit 185 threes on 37.1 percent from beyond the arc. Harden is now completely surrounded by snipers.
He'll also be surrounded by a group of big men willing to run the pick and roll, a much more efficient (and assistable) play than the ugly, awkward and ineffective Howard post ups we were forced to stomach last season. Anderson, Clint Capela and Nene Hilario all finished with more overall attempts as the roll man than Howard last season, an incredible statistic when you consider both Nene and Capela averaged just barely over 19 minutes per game and that Nene played in only 57 games last season.
As a comparison, Howard averaged 32.1 minutes in 71 games. That's how unwilling he was to run a substantially more effective play.
D'Antoni was right: this is undoubtedly a more ripe assist situation for Harden. With such a wide plethora of opportunity offensively and with the creative D'Antoni drawing up plays, Harden has every chance to become more Nash-like this season.
D'Antoni's prediction of 12 to 13 assists per game may be a bit of wishful thinking however. Twelve assists would represent a 60 percent increase for Harden off of last year's career high and is a bigger number than Nash achieved in any season of his career. It's just not realistic.
What is realistic, however, is getting Harden into the 9.5 to 10 assist range. Remember, Russell Westbrook averaged 10.4 this year, and The Beard is every bit the passer Westbrook is. Nine and a half assists would represent just a 26 percent increase for The Beard, while 10 assists would represent a 33 percent increase.
With a system devised solely to accentuate Harden's strengths, a coach with confidence and a proven track record for the player who runs his offense (don't forget Linsanity either, it wasn't just Nash), roster additions that maximize Harden's skills at both the drive and kick and game and running the pick and roll, all the while subtracting one, giant black hole of post-up awfulness, the soon-to-be 27-year-old Harden, who is entering directly into his physical prime as player, might not be as far away from Steve Nash as many might think.