How James Harden Can Grow Under Mike D'Antoni

By Salman Ali on May 29, 2016

As Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical reported Thursday, the Rockets have hired former Suns, Knicks, and Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni. Reality has set in, as the mastermind of the infamous "Seven Seconds or Less" has arrived in Houston and by the length of his contract, it looks like he's here to stay.

Our own Paul (@RocketIntellect) did a thorough breakdown on Mike D'Antoni's revolutionary Suns offense and how he could bring elements of that offense to Houston. D'Antoni is one of the more polarizing figures in NBA history, however his impact on the game is something that cannot be denied.

No player has felt D'Antoni's impact upon his career than soon-to-be Hall of Fame point guard Steve Nash. Admittedly, Nash showed promise of becoming the elite offensive force he eventually became in his years in Dallas. However, he was able to put it all together and flourish under the graces of the offensive guru that is Mike D'Antoni. Nash never truly carved out his legacy in the league until he signed in Phoenix and laced them up under D'Antoni.

Simply put, Nash is one of the greatest offensive forces this league's ever seen. His vision is paralleled only by the likes of great passers like Magic Johnson and John Stockton. His quickness is an aspect of his game that really goes underappreciated as Nash charged Phoenix to lead the league in pace nearly every season he was there. He had some of the greatest ball-handling of his era. To top it off, Steve Nash is one of the greatest jump shooters of all time and you never hear about it because of how unselfish he was. This resulted in Steve Nash leading the Suns to the greatest offense in the league from 2004 all the way to 2009 and grabbing back-to-back MVPs along the way.

Best of all, Steve Nash could run a pick and roll better than any point guard in recent history.

However his game never really apexed until he arrived in Phoenix under the tutelage of Mike D'Antoni.

James Harden, is similarly a very gifted offensive player. Harden led the Rockets to 7th in offensive rating amidst a year of disfunction and no clear system. He has a great first step that often is enough to beat defenders off the dribble and to the rim alone. He has some of the best handles in the NBA today. His footwork is fantastic and doesn't get enough attention. He's a great mid-range shooter and a good three point shooter. He also has good court vision and is an impressive passer. He's excellent at finishing at the rim and he can get to the free throw line whenever he wants. While Harden isn't Nash, he's certainly special in his own right.

James Harden is also elite at executing the PnR and while he goes about it differently, the skillset to be successful in D'Antoni's offense is still there if Harden buys in.

For the purposes of this column, we'll assume he buys in.

There's quite a lot James Harden can learn from Steve Nash in terms of running D'Antoni's system.

James Harden has a lot of trouble navigating through trap/hedge schemes. It's one of his few weaknesses. Once teams start to trap and hedge him off of PnR, he often abandons the PnR and resorts to a one-on-one isolation so the help defender can't come over (or he turns the ball over). The Clippers first started exploiting this in 2014-15 and the league quickly caught on the following year. While Harden's a gifted isolation scorer, it would be more efficient if he stuck with the PnR despite the trap.

Here's an example of this:

Instead of using his quickness and continuing to dribble and draw the double and not of shy away from it, Harden allows Green enough time to come over, help trap, and force the turnover.

Nash was an expert at using his quickness weave through this which was especially impressive considering his 6'3 frame.

Here's an example of this:

Notice how Nash continues to move and advance the ball despite the the double-team. This continued movement gives a lot of breathing room to Marion who in turn knocks down the wide-open jumper.

 James Harden also has the tendency to make a lazy or forced pocket pass/drop off pass out of the pick and roll as evidenced by him breaking the NBA record for turnovers in a season this year. Harden will often look for the roll man first or the perimeter for drive and kicks instead of being patient and taking a full look of his surroundings. He's not as judicious with the ball as he needs to be and it ends up costing the team a lot of transition points for the opposition.

Nash was much more careful with the basketball operating out of the pick and roll as his nearly 3/1 career assist to turnover ratio would indicate.

Notice how Nash doesn't force or look immediately for the roll-man out of this pick and roll instead finds one of his guys open for the easy mid-range jumper:

Nash skipped Amare (his roll-man) as he was closed off and didn't seek out the perimeter as most guards do after missing the roll-man. That takes an incredible amount of patience and foresight for his guy to pop out for the shot. Harden has the same incredible vision, but the patience and trust in his teammates will be something he needs to work on.

Possibly the biggest thing Harden needs to learn how to do to work in Mike D'Antoni's system is to play off of the basketball. This is easily Harden's greatest offensive weakness. After he passes the ball off, he'll often find a corner and camp until the ball gets back to him or the possession ends.

The problem with this approach is it allows the defense to rest and stay on you. In D'Antoni's offense, Nash was constantly moving. Whether it was curling around a baseline screen for an open corner three, setting screens to get other teammates open, moving to make space for others to create, or simply moving for the sake of moving/disruption, Nash never sat still. This allowed him to be just as good of an off-ball threat as he was an on-ball threat.

Here's a clip of him setting an off-ball screen to free up Boris Diaw for the mid-range jay:

You could totally see Harden doing something like this for someone like Michael Beasley, but Harden rarely sets these off-ball screens.

Harden can also get some of the more open shots he's ever seen if he moves off the ball, cut, and curl like Nash does in the following play:

This set isn't really anything complicated. Nash gives the ball to what appears to be Grant Hill on the elbow who then faces up with it. Nash cuts and weaves his way around a couple of confused defenders who are focused on protecting the rim and the basketball. Shawn Marion then makes the backdoor cut and Nash gets the ball back from Hill on an open look for three. All Nash did was take advantage of a confused defender in Jason Terry with some minor mis-direction and movement. Those few seconds it took Terry to realize "What the hell is going on?" bought Nash a lot of breathing room for the easy look.

Also, James Harden's dangerously heavy minute load should go down under Mike D'Antoni:

Steve Nash MPG under D'Antoni: 34.8
James Harden MPG in Houston: 37.8

This will do wonders to prevent future injury, keep Harden fresh for the playoffs, and possibly improve his shooting efficiency (he won't be as gassed and his legs will be fresh). Of course, nothing's a guarantee, but it's nice to think about the possibility.

It's not rocket science. James Harden can easily add a lot of these subtle, yet effective things to his game if he chooses to buy into D'Antoni, trust his teammates, and is patient. He also has to come into camp in the greatest shape of his life if he stands a chance at running all of the other action that will be required of him under D'Antoni.

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