By now, NBA season previews are rolling out. Countless basketball sites, podcasts and television shows are breaking down all 30 teams, projecting how each will fare based on additions and subtractions. I would like to do something different and focus on teams through the fish-eyed lens of their respective most intriguing player or players. I continue with the Houston Rockets.
In the summer before the 2005-06 season, the Atlanta Hawks signed Joe Johnson to a five-year, $70 million contract as part of a sign-and-trade deal with the Phoenix Suns. Johnson’s size, skill and playmaking ability made him a valuable asset to Atlanta. He also agreed to be the team’s point guard, not just the primary scorer of the offense. This gave the Hawks, who had the No. 2 overall pick in that draft, the luxury to pass on Chris Paul, Deron Williams and even Raymond Felton. Of course, after one season, Johnson frowned at the idea of playing point guard, and Atlanta struggled to find a suitable backcourt mate.
This is relevant today because the Houston Rockets are going to do something similar with James Harden this year. New head coach Mike D’Antoni is going to flex his offensive creativity and have Harden as the starting point guard with Patrick Beverley coming off the bench. While this isn’t as weird as it seems — during LeBron’s years in Miami, the Heat used a lineup sans point guard with LeBron handling those duties — to do this for an entire season is certainly unorthodox. Traditional basketball is somewhat Napoleonic. It suggests that the smallest guy on the floor is the one who makes the decisions. Magic Johnson and Jason Kidd, among others, have proved through gifted court vision that the point guard is also the team’s best passer, even as bigger guards. Today’s NBA is latching on to the phrase “position-less basketball.” So moving Harden to lead guard is another wrinkle in the fabric.
There are drawbacks to this position change. Being the point guard requires an element of mental fortitude few players possess. So while there isn’t a major requirement to list Harden as the point guard, he tacks on added responsibilities he only temporarily carried as the “off” guard. It’s more than bringing the ball up. Harden will now be the unquestioned outlet on the fast break. He will have to know the duties of every other player on the floor in each offensive set. Then, he has to decipher when to break these sets and be the devastating scorer he is in isolation. And of course, there is the matter of defense. Harden’s struggles are forever immortalized on the Internet. Even if D’Antoni decides to hide Harden on weaker offensive players, that still leaves the Rockets at an overall speed disadvantage on most nights. Should the miraculous ideal of James Harden as a good on-ball defender become reality, that puts further strain on him mentally and physically.
Harden is amazing. He’s the best pick-and-roll player outside of Chris Paul and a magnet for drawing fouls. He averaged a career high in assists last year, on a team that did not have another player with an above-average NBA offensive skill. The challenge will lie in the length of the season. Initiating the offense in pockets in the game is fine. Most elite wing players do that. But to be the primary decider, for 82 games, without a second All-Star to relieve scoring duties, is a very daunting task to ask anyone to do. LeBron James has never been lead guard for an entire season, and he’s LeBron James. Godspeed, Beard. Godspeed.
Poemer. 8-time Hug Champion. Pick&Roll Enthusiast. Guardian of Logic and Tact. Apocalypse’s good Brother. Collector of muted souls for Mt. Filtermanjaro.