Houston Goes as Far as Harden Takes Them

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The Houston Rockets had a relatively disappointing 2015-16 season. Coming off of a trip to the Western Conference Finals, the team entered the year with very high expectations. But Houston got off to a slow start right away, dropping seven of their first 11 games. This resulted in head coach Kevin McHale being fired, which was just the beginning of a somewhat tumultuous campaign.

Fair or not, a lot of criticism and negative attention was directed at James Harden since he’s the team’s go-to player. However, there was plenty of blame to go around for the Rockets’ struggles. Injuries and egos played a big part in last season’s underwhelming results. Dwight Howard later admitted he was unhappy, Ty Lawson struggled to return to form so he was waived 53 games into the season and key contributors like Patrick Beverley, Terrence Jones and Donatas Motiejunas missed a combined 88 games due to injuries.

All things considered, it’s pretty impressive that Houston was even able to make the playoffs in the Western Conference. After losing 4-1 in the first round against the Golden State Warriors, Houston decided to make some big changes. These moves included hiring head coach Mike D’Antoni, signing Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson and giving Harden a four-year maximum contract extension. It’s clear that Rockets general manager Daryl Morey is shaping their team around Harden and D’Antoni moving forward.

On paper, the Rockets look good and Morey has done a wonderful job retooling the roster to create a nice blend of offensive talent. But it remains to be seen whether a D’Antoni-coached team can combine their potent offense with enough defense to compete at a high level.

One thing is clear: Houston will only go as far as Harden takes them.

When asked what he expects from Harden in the upcoming season, Beverley told Basketball Insiders: “MVP and leading us to the Finals. Simple.”

Harden may be one of the most criticized players in the league because of his inconsistent defense, but there’s no question that he’s an All-NBA talent and one of the best offensive players in game today. While people like to point to his mistakes, there’s less focus on the fact that he averaged 29 points, 7.5 assists, 6.1 rebounds and 1.7 steals last season.

He led all NBA players in total points and minutes, while finishing sixth in total assists (and first among non-point-guards). His 10.7 offensive win shares ranked third in the NBA behind only Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant. His 6.9 value over replacement player ranked fourth, trailing only Curry, Russell Westbrook and LeBron James.

“He’s only a polarizing figure to people who don’t watch,” Morey told Basketball Insiders. “Players voted him MVP [in 2014-15] for a reason. He’s had a winning team every season of his career, with multiple Conference Finals appearances.”

Harden’s offense should benefit from D’Antoni, but whether he steps up on the defensive end and continues to grow as a leader will likely determine how well Houston does this season. Judging by his most recent comments and offseason work, it certainly seems like he understands this.

Appearing in the Drew League this offseason, Harden has impressed founder Dino Smiley.

“He’s much more assertive with his leadership and he’s getting his team more involved,” Smiley told Basketball Insiders.

Smiley has seen Harden play in the Drew League almost every offseason since he came into the league.

“I must say, he’s changed for the better,” Smiley said. “He’s much more approachable and smiling more than ever. He’s taking every possession seriously, and I mean on the defensive end as well. You can tell he’s really working hard to improve the defensive parts of his game.”

Beverley also said that Harden’s mentality and approach seems to have changed since last season.

“Yes it has,” Beverley said. “James is like a brother to me, so I’ve seen him improve each year in [regards to] him being a leader.”

Since his incredible 2014-15 campaign, when Harden had career-highs in win shares (16.4), PER (26.7), steal percentage (2.6%) and defensive plus-minus (+1), Harden dropped off a bit last season – going from a positive to negative defensive plus-minus and seeing his win shares decrease by more than three. Most frustrating for Harden and Co. was the fact that the Rockets lost 15 more games than the previous season.

Taking some plays off, becoming frustrated and flopping at times has led to Harden getting a bad rap, but he’s hoping to silence his doubters this season. He is also embracing the underdog mentality since Houston is being viewed as a longshot to compete in the West due to last season’s struggles.

“People are definitely overlooking us and we kind of have the underdog mindset, which is fine for us because we’re going to work that much harder, come together even tighter and we’re all going to be on the same page,” Harden said. “We’ll let the chips fall where they may, but starting with this summer and into training camp, we’re going to be all-in. We’re going to have the same goal, and that’s to win. We’ll do whatever it takes.”

Regardless of what outsiders think of the team, Morey has high expectations.

“The goal is to get home court advantage in the first round, advancing deep in the playoffs from there,” Morey said.

In order to make that happen, Harden will need to continue his offensive dominance, get his teammates involved and, most importantly, step up defensively. A lot rests on his shoulders (aside from the beard), and the Rockets need their star to lead them.

Morey believes that Harden will do that, while benefiting from the D’Antoni hire.

“I think the fit is excellent,” Morey said of D’Antoni and Harden working together. “They had a strong relationship from USA Basketball and their basketball philosophies mesh very well.”

In Harden’s press conference after agreeing to his extension, he mentioned that he has been watching Steve Nash and wants to emulate the point guard’s game. That’s certainly something to keep an eye on this season, as it would make Harden even more of a facilitator. Nash obviously thrived under D’Antoni in Phoenix and Harden hopes to duplicate that success.

“He had his own pace of the game,” Harden said of Nash. “You could never speed him up, you could never slow him down. That’s what I took away from Nash.”

In addition to his excellent play on the court, Nash was responsible for building a very strong, winning culture in Phoenix. If Harden can do the same thing in Houston, erasing the turmoil from last year, that would be great for the Rockets moving forward.

Typically, star players take time to mature and reach their full potential. It’s worth noting that Harden is still just 26 years old, so he’s right in his prime and his best basketball could still be ahead of him – especially if the Harden-D’Antoni marriage is as perfect as Morey predicts.