Coming off of the greatest season in his career, the pressure is on James Harden now more than ever to deliver. Not for himself, but for his team.
His 29.1 points, 8.1 rebounds per game and league-leading 11.2 assists per game have already solidified his place in the league’s highest echelon of players, but now is his time to take the reins and lead his Houston Rockets to the promised land. The biggest question mark for Harden this season will involve his leadership skills.
Former coach Kevin McHale questioned whether he has those attributes and opined that the Rockets’ trade for Chris Paul was to counterbalance his lack of leadership skills.
Harden will be a leader on this team. His teammates will look to him for support on and off the court. He is building the chemistry of what he believes can be a championship contender and this is the season where Harden puts up or shuts up. He needs to prove that he is better than what we last saw of him on the court, a 2-for-11 shooting performance with just 10 points and 7 assists, six turnovers and a mind-boggling early exit for fouling out in a 39-point home loss.
He is better than his last game. With a little bit of help from Chris Paul and the new and improved Rockets, he could be in line for a performance that could top last season’s.
Paul and Harden will challenge the league for the unofficial title as the NBA’s greatest backcourt next to Golden State, Portland and Washington. But with two of the league’s best point guards, how will they two coexist? It’s quite possible that the combination of Paul and Harden is unlike anything before seen in NBA history.
The addition of CP3 will not change Harden’s play as much as people think. Harden can play the pick-and-roll game with Clint Capela and it will lead to an abundance of alley-oops and kick-outs to the three-point line. When Paul is with him on the floor, it can make the Rocket offense a little more unpredictable.
Harden and Paul on the floor at the same time might be the most dangerous duo that will take the court this season. They could combine to average close to 20 assists together and be a dual point guard.
CP3 can slow down the offense in crunch time during close games, and that could allow Harden to get better shots on key possessions.
Paul can also be a guy he can kick out to for three if need be. He shot over 40 percent from beyond the arc last season, and is a career 37 percent three-point shooter. He is an upgrade from Patrick Beverley in that department.
Paul taking over on offense will also allow Harden to not play as long and allotting minutes throughout the season. Last year, the Rockets saw Harden get sloppier as games progressed in crunch time. He has a tendency to freeze in the fourth quarter. Adding CP3 decreases the chances of that happening.
Despite losing Beverley, a fantastic defender, the team got perhaps the only guy that is not a defensive downgrade. Paul can be the yin to his yang and create a dynamic duo in the backcourt.
Also, with Paul taking the ball up more often and creating offense for the team, that will take a huge load off of James’s shoulders on the offensive end. He will not be exerting as much energy on offense as he has in the past, and it will allow him to convert that offensive energy into defensive energy. It will build his stamina during tight games and keep him fresher in May.
With Year 2 of the Rockets D’Antoni-era underway, teams will have more film to study on last year’s Rockets. Houston will be hard to stop, but Harden and the team came out of nowhere with their historic offensive campaign. The other 29 teams know what will come their way when they play Houston, and that will be the biggest challenge for the Rockets this season. However, that does not mean Harden is going to play any differently. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
Harden is going to run the point when the team needs to play at a higher tempo, which will be most of the time. However, Paul can jump in and take the ball up when the team needs to slow the ball down and get the best shot possible, likely in the late moments of close games, or when Harden is on the bench.
Harden’s going to be an animal this year. The offense will be centered around him still. This is his team. When the ball is in his hands, one of the following will happen:
A. He’ll take you one-on-one. Your chances of beating him are slim.
B. He’ll pop up at the three-point line, where he shot 34.7 percent from beyond last year on shots that were the highest degree of difficulty.
C. He’ll kick it out to one of the three-point specialists (Paul, Gordon, Ariza, Anderson, etc.)
D. He’ll get fouled. And make his free-throws. He’s a career 85.7 percent shooter from the line.
There has been a change in the rules in terms of what fouls the referees will call and what they won’t. However, as referenced in the preseason, he still got his shots from the line. He made 14 of his 15 free throws in a win against the Memphis Grizzlies last week.
When it comes to Harden, teams will be forced to pick a poison. Any of A, B, C, or D result in Houston Rockets points.
Offensive numbers won’t define Harden’s season; that will be left to the end result of his team. Even with the acquisition of Chris Paul to create a compelling pair, Houston is still the underdog to Golden State. If the Rockets lose at any point before the conference finals, the blame will likely still be placed on Harden’s shoulders, even if he plays out of his mind.
However, if Harden plays out of his mind as expected, Houston will be a challenge for any team in the league, Warriors included.