The novelty of the new NBA season has mostly worn off. The Cavs are more or less a mess. The Thunder are going to need time to figure out how to incorporate Carmelo Anthony and Paul George. The Warriors are great when they’re not bored. And the Rockets...the Rockets are absolutely blitzing opponents despite their biggest offseason acquisition still on the sidelines.
Houston is currently second in the league in offensive efficiency, trailing only Golden State. Houston’s explosive attack reached new heights Sunday night, when James Harden went off for a career-high 56 points in 35 minutes against the Jazz, shooting 19 of 25 from the field and 7 of 8 from deep. Harden can’t go off like that every night, but his performance against Utah encapsulated what makes him such a devastating force.
At this point, Harden has completely mastered the pick-and-roll. Twenty years from now, young stars should be going to Harden for pick-and-roll advice the same way the current generation asks Hakeem Olajuwon for help on their post games. For starters, Harden can make any pass to any player from any angle from any spot on the court. Lobs, over-the-head darts, and cross-court strikes are all part of Harden’s arsenal. The fact that he’s a willing passer in addition to his immense scoring ability makes him an absolute nightmare to defend. Harden had 13 assists to go with his 56 points against Utah, accounting for 91 total points.
He was also unstoppable as a scorer, as evidenced by Sunday's barrage. Harden embarrassed bigs on switches, abusing slower defenders until he found easy baskets. He hit step-back threes with the casual flair of a warmup layup line. He knifed into the paint, either blowing by the defense for layups or creating space for open jumpers near the free-throw line. It was a complete performance, and any time Harden had a hint of breathing room, he used it to his advantage. The Jazz threw everyone at Harden, and it didn’t matter who stood between him and the basket.
All of this has come with Houston's new superstar point guard, Chris Paul, on the sidelines as he deals with with a knee problem. One consequence of Paul's injury has been the Rockets foregoing a traditional starting point guard. The lineup of Harden, Eric Gordon, Trevor Ariza, Ryan Anderson and Clint Capela is deadly from the perimeter for Houston, with Capela providing an expert roll partner for any ball-handler. Of course, Harden has the ball in his hands to initiate every possession, and there’s nowhere for the defense to hide. The Jazz tried to guard Harden with Ricky Rubio for parts of Sunday’s game, and Rubio was ill-equipped to slow down one of the game’s best scorers.
That starting unit has been Houston’s most effective lineup so far this season. The defense is middle of the road, but the offense has been otherworldly. The Rockets have also found some success (albeit in a very small sample size) with Anderson at center and Gordon and Harden flanked by 3-and-D specialists P.J. Tucker and Luc Mbah a Moute. That lineup has a long way to go to prove its potential, but its mere existence shows how many ways Mike D’Antoni can attack opponents.
The Rockets’ infatuation with the three is also starting to reach absurd levels. Houston is averaging 44.5 three-point attempts a game, 11 more than the second-place Warriors. Anderson is hitting at a 37% clip, while Ariza and Gordon are shooting below their career averages but making up for the difference through sheer volume of shots.
Harden and the Rockets’ success could make it slightly difficult to reintegrate Paul when he returns from his injury. Paul actually looked a little lost at times during Houston’s opening night win against the Warriors, and he didn’t play down the stretch when the Rockets eked out a close victory.
It was always going to be tricky to move Harden off the ball with Paul’s arrival, and now that Harden seems to be picking up where he left off from his near-MVP campaign, it makes even less sense for him to cede control of the offense. Can Paul come back and work himself into the offense as a little bit more of a spot-up shooter? (It’s interesting to think of Harden screening for Paul by the way, but defenses would likely happily switch in that scenario.)
Paul‘s return is still a good problem for the Rockets to have, and he can also offer them help on the defensive end. Staggering Paul’s and Harden’s minutes will help alleviate some of the ball-handling concerns, but Houston could need some time to figure out how best utilize both players when games are tight in the fourth.
For now, even without Paul, the Rockets are playing and looking like the second-best team in the NBA behind the Warriors.. How well the Rockets work Paul into a team that’s already thriving will ultimately determine how much of the gap they can close.