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It’s time for the Rockets to try James Harden at point guard

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Daryl Morey and Mike D'Antoni have no better options.

Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

The Rockets had three main goals going into the offseason: signing a star, adding shooting and giving James Harden a playmaker to ease his burden.

Daryl Morey struck out on objective No. 1 this offseason. Mission accomplished — injury caveat here — on objective No. 2. Eric Gordon could theoretically fill in the role of alternate playmaker; he's a better off-the-bounce creator than Patrick Beverley already.

But Gordon can't guard starting point guards. And the list of free agents still available who can is among the saddest things I've ever seen. The best remaining available point guard, according to Tom Ziller’s rankings, is Greivis Vasquez, who’s probably worse at guarding point guards than a healthy Eric Gordon.

After that, it goes: Mario Chalmers, still recovering from a ruptured Achilles' tendon, Jarrett Jack, Mo Williams, Norris Cole then a few guys over whom I’d rather try undrafted rookie Gary Payton II.

Those free agents are just bad options. Thirty-eight-year-old Jason Terry was a bad option for the Rockets last year, and I’m not sure he was worse than any of the above players last year.

So what’s left for Daryl Morey to do? The obvious answer is a trade. One of Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight has to be available for a price, you would think: they just drafted Tyler Ulis, Devin Booker is a budding star at the 2-guard, T.J. Warren is also there at the 2-guard. There’s just not enough minutes to go around. But then you have to ask: who do the Rockets have that Phoenix would want? Trevor Ariza is an upgrade over P.J. Tucker, but do Trevor Ariza and a future first-round pick get Brandon Knight to Houston? I doubt it.

The other option has been floated many a time at this point, but I’d like to take a more serious look at it: playing James Harden as the point guard for long stretches.

You’d think during the malaise last year that J.B. Bickerstaff would have tried sticking the NBA’s sixth-leading assist man at point guard more than a few times. But the two most-used lineup with James Harden on the floor without one of Jason Terry, Patrick Beverley or Ty Lawson out there with him played 14 minutes total in five games, according to NBA.com/stats.

Fourteen minutes.

Playing James Harden at point guard in no way means James Harden is guarding point guards.

Those two lineups — one with Ariza, K.J. McDaniels, Michael Beasley and Dwight Howard, the other with Ariza, McDaniels, Corey Brewer and Clint Capela — combined for a +11 in that time.

Small sample size aside, the reason not to trot out Harden at the 1 with a bunch of wings and bigs around him is relatively obvious: there’s no one to guard a point guard. Last year, Harden was sluggish when tasked with easy perimeter assignments. Having 2016 Harden chase speedy ball-handlers through screens might have ended in disaster.

On the other hand, Bickerstaff had no problem sticking Brewer on point guards and having him bother them with his length and overall spazziness. McDaniels is even quicker and more athletic. Ariza guarded point guards for stretches last year. Playing James Harden at point guard in no way means James Harden is guarding point guards.

What are the benefits? For one, there’s no need to play Beverley, who, despite being an improved shooter, is too undersized for the switching defense that helped propel the Cavaliers, Thunder and Warriors to NBA greatness last year.

Let’s talk about Beverley’s improved shooting for a minute. Yes, he hit just about 40 percent of his deep looks last year, and three-pointers accounted for 52.2 percent of his attempts from the floor. But he’s not as dangerous as the numbers imply.

In five playoff games last year, not a single one of Beverley’s three-point shots were attempted with a defender within four feet of him. He still hit just 3/14 shots from deep in the Warriors series. Of his 310 three-point attempts during the regular season, just 43 came when a defender was within four feet of him, and he shot a decent 37 percent on those attempts. He shot 38 percent when defenders were between 4-6 feet, which the NBA calls "open," on 146 attempts. He was a better shooter, but he was by no means lights out. Any time a defender had a decent closeout on Beverley, his numbers dipped significantly.

Now, it’s not as if Eric Gordon was any better; he was actually far worse on contested three-pointers. But Gordon has the size to switch onto bigger players on defense, and Gordon can create far more offense than Beverley: after 3-6 dribbles, Gordon shot over 50 percent from the field last year. On pull-up three-pointers, he shot 48 percent. Compare those numbers to Beverley’s 41.4 and 35.6 percent, respectively, and it’s clear that Gordon would reduce Harden’s role on offense if Harden slid to the point guard and Gordon played the 2, rather than increase his burden.

I don’t think the Rockets should start games like this. After all, the Warriors didn’t start their "Death Lineup" all season, saving it for moments they really needed it or matchups they could exploit. That should be the same way the Rockets use Harden at point guard.

With Mike D’Antoni’s offense and shotmakers like Gordon and Ryan Anderson around Harden, with Clint Capela setting screens and Trevor Ariza standing in the corner (where he should stay if he’s taking as many threes next year), that’s not only a deadly offensive lineup, but one that could make sense defensively. Anderson and Harden have bad defensive reputations, but a well-drilled switching defense can make up for individual deficiencies by remaining flexible and not letting one player in a bad matchup go off time and time again.

I didn’t go into the offseason thinking Harden at point guard was the Rockets’ best chance for success next year. I thought that would be signing Mike Conley. That didn’t happen, and now D’Antoni has to make his roster work.

If the Rockets don’t make a trade for an upgrade over Patrick Beverley — or at the very least a bench point guard who’s not as much of a downgrade as Vasquez, Jack or Payton II would be — I think the only way to get the most out of this team is to make Harden the point guard with the most possible offensive talent, and most flexible defensive players, around him.

Point Beard’s time is now.