Life On The Edge: How Houston Survives The Moments Without James Harden

Wednesday December 14th, 2016

To build around James Harden in the way the Rockets have is to accept a critical sort of dependence. The point guard convert has the ball in his hands more than any other player in the league by design. Maximizing Harden's play means entrusting him to carry the weight of creation on an extreme scale—one that unlocks Harden as much as it clarifies his purpose. Out of complete freedom comes a charge. By making him responsible for everything, Houston brought out in Harden a powerful, dutiful authority. 

Harden, in turn, has responded with some of the richest production in the league: 28.1 points, 11.6 assists, and 7.6 rebounds per night on average. Any lineup he stumbles into is dominated by his presence. That dynamic—one born, in part, because of the way the Rockets choose to play—led to a stark imbalance at the start of the season. In Harden's minutes, all was well. When Houston had to make do without their superstar, the offense collapsed, the defense worsened, and the Rockets ate negative margins in excess of 20 points per 100 possessions (per NBA.com).

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Amazingly, that trend has reversed completely in the past month—all with the corrective influence of Patrick Beverley. A knee injury cost Houston's dogged guard 11 games to start the season, during which the likes of Tyler Ennis and Bobby Brown became actual rotation players. A delicate balance was upset in the process; Rockets coach Mike D'Antoni searched high and low for a bench lineup that could execute his open, read-heavy system to even passable effect, but wound up instead with groups of stifled, turnover-heavy false-starters. There just wasn't enough creation beyond Harden to tap into what Houston's reserves actually did well.

Then came Beverley. Houston's starting lineup reconfigured to make room for his return and immediately a sensible rotation formula snapped into place. Beverley would make a quick exit midway through the first quarter for Eric Gordon, giving Harden half a quarter or so to ply his trade in a maximized workspace. Then Beverley would spell Harden (often at the break between the first and second quarters), bridging the space that had been so perilous. The rest of the lineup generally fills out as follows: Corey Brewer, still bustling with energy, runs the wing; Sam Dekker, after a lost rookie season, claims a spot as a smallish four; and either Nene or Montrezl Harrell mans the middle, depending on availability and matchups.

And that basic lineup—it just wrecks. Everyone runs, everyone cuts, and finally the Rockets satisfy the critical threshold of ball-handling necessary to make it all work. Beverley will always be known as a defender first, but the man can initiate a professional-grade pick-and-roll. Pairing him with screening monsters like Nene and Harrell is an easy way to get into a downhill situation, even if its purpose is largely just to get things moving. Gordon, too, has defied his recent history by working as a productive, complementary creator. Everything Gordon showed in New Orleans suggested that his dynamism had left him; something as simple as attacking a closeout became arduous, reducing a once-versatile player to a streaky spot shooter. 

Ben Margot/AP Photo

That one-note player exercised his free agency for the first time in his career and apparently jump-started his game in the process. His shooting has only stretched; not only is Gordon shooting 44% from deep on a career-high 8.2 attempts per game, but he's providing real, honest spacing a foot or two beyond the three-point line. That confidence pours over into Gordon's flashy, productive handles, which have empowered him to attract two defenders to the ball on his drives before tapping into some unconventional passing angles. There is no reconciling this Gordon with the one we saw in New Orleans save to say that he is healthier and happier—the most formidable of circumstantial changes.

Between Gordon and Beverley, Houston has been able to cut its turnover rate in non-Harden lineups by about 10 percentage points relative to that opening stretch. When Houston has to make do without their superstar, the offense hums, the defense ramps up, and the Rockets run up positive margins of 15 points per 100 possessions. This isn't a group that needs to stand up to rigorous testing against top-line competition. It just needs to survive second units for around 10 minutes a game—something that seems entirely feasible for a group with a nice balance of shooting and quickness. 

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Beverley is an obvious upgrade over Ennis and Brown, but his transformative effect with Houston's reserves bears a reminder of just how delicate these ecosystems can be. Give this group just a little juice and Dekker becomes a different kind of player entirely. He has great instincts for how to cut against a preoccupied defense and a good enough shooting stroke (currently 38.2% on threes) if given enough time. A quality point guard activates both sides of his game. Brewer's poor perimeter shooting is suddenly more survivable and his furious movement turns into a legitimate boon when there's another proven distributor on the floor. Gordon (who is posting a lights-out 69% effective field goal percentage in Harden-less lineups since Beverley's return) finds more openings. Nene can facilitate more cleanly if he's given something to work with, and Harrell gets rolling to the rim with some real momentum.

This is what a broader sufficiency looks like. The idea of a Harden surrogate, who could carry the team in the same kinds of ways while he sits, is decidedly impractical. All the Rockets needed instead was a touch of capability that would allow them to keep all of their core synergies intact while activating a few new ones. 

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