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James Harden could put up historic numbers in Mike D’Antoni’s system

Why this is a match made in heaven for both player and coach.

James Harden should be giddy about playing in Mike D'Antoni's system. Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

James Harden became a divisive figure in the NBA last season. His numbers remained superlative, but his defense was lacking and the Rockets had a disappointing year. That gave his critics all the ammo they needed to attack him following a 2014-15 year that saw him finish second in MVP voting.

That put Harden in a position where he needed to regain his place in the discussion of the league's top stars. Early returns show that he’s well on his way. Blessed with a new coach in Mike D’Antoni and a system that suit him perfectly, Harden has been a preseason delight.

In D’Antoni’s spread offense, Harden could have a monster statistical season while leading a Rockets offense that should rival the Warriors. Ignore him in the MVP race at your own peril.

Harden has more tools to work with in the pick and roll

The pick and roll is the bread and butter of D’Antoni’s offense, and Harden will be featured in that setting even more than he was in the past. That should be a good thing for the Rockets.

"James is one of the best pick-and-roll players we have in the league, without a doubt," D'Antoni told the Houston Chronicle. "He does some things that are incredible. His strength and his ability to see and to finish, he can be one of the best pick-and-roll players ever."

He's not wrong. Harden was close to unstoppable as a scorer last season as the ball handler, ranking in the 91st percentile in the league in points per possession, per Synergy Sports. He also ranked fourth in the league in passes leading to three-pointers, per NBA Miner. Many of those came when he was running the pick and roll.

Yet despite his mastery, the Rockets were a mediocre pick-and-roll team overall. That’s not Harden’s fault. He simply lacked proper spacing to work with and a killer dive man to complement him. Dwight Howard was supposed to be the latter, but he showed little interest in playing the role. That has now changed.

Last season, the Rockets played two big men with limited range at the same time for long stretches. They now use three shooters around Harden and a rim-rolling center, which gives them pristine spacing on a spread pick-and-roll attack.

That means the big man defending the play has to worry about every possible option. If he plays the pass, Harden will score. But if he focuses on Harden, the screener will be open and Harden will find him.

Obviously, Harden can still skip passes to shooters when that's the best option. Whenever help comes from the opposite side, he still has the vision and the touch to find the open man. That's even more valuable now that Houston has added some great ones in Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon.

It also helps that Howard is gone. His replacements, Clint Capela and Nene, seem happy to just set screens and roll or pop open for a jumper. They are cool with Harden doing all the playmaking. That gives Harden more targets to pass to or more baits to use in order to bend defenses to his will and get Houston points in the pick and roll.

Harden and the Rockets should feast in transition

Last season, the Rockets ran a lot, but weren't particularly efficient when they did. They managed to score the most total points in transition, but they only got a bucket on about half of their opportunities, which put them in the bottom half in the league according to Synergy Sports. Harden individually ranked second in total transition points in the NBA, but scored on fewer than half of his opportunities.

The Rockets had the right idea but the execution was poor.

It's early, but that's changing under D’Antoni as well. The Rockets' transition offense now has a lot more purpose. Shooters spread out instead of crowding the ball handler. Everyone knows where they need to be. Instead of dribbling the ball up court, whoever secures the ball passes it forward if there's a teammate ahead of the pack, a staple of D'Antoni's offense. The big men are also sprinting up court to set screens in transition.

As a result, there are plenty of easy scoring opportunities for everyone. Houston should be among the best in the league at scoring early in the shot clock, with Harden being responsible for most of the buckets either directly or via assist. The Rockets offense shouldn’t stagnate anymore.

But Harden can still break away from the system if needed

Lead ball handlers on D'Antoni's teams tend to put up big numbers. Chris Duhon, a below-average player, logged the Knicks' franchise record for assists with 22 while playing for D’Antoni. Linsanity, of course, also happened on D'Antoni's watch. The system makes even average playmakers look better.

Harden is no average player. Imagine the bump his assist numbers will see just by running D’Antoni’s offense.

Yet unlike others who have had the benefit of playing under D'Antoni, Harden can also make things happen on his own. So far, he's been allowed to do so. At times Harden simply isolates, attacks, and either scores or collapses the defense. That's all it takes to generate a good shot, because he's one of the most gifted offensive players of his generation.

"The way he shoots, the way he moves, the way he handles the ball, it's just like, wow," said D'Antoni of Harden, according to's Ian Thomsen. "And then you watch film of his passes, and he's a passer with incredible vision. What he does is special."

Steve Nash elevated the system by perfecting its execution. Harden can match Nash’s playmaking skills, but he can also step outside D’Antoni-ball to create when things break down. That should give Houston an unstoppable offense, even against elite defenses that slow the game down and take away some of their pet plays.

Harden could be on the brink of having one of the best offensive seasons in recent history. His uncanny ability to score, combined with his playmaking skills in D’Antoni’s style, should allow him to put up monster numbers. It’s not out of the question for Harden to average double-digit assists along with his usual scoring exploits.

Whether the Rockets will be good enough on defense to exceed expectations remains to be seen. Their offense, however, should be among the league's best, in no small part thanks to the superstar tasked with running it. Get ready for a huge James Harden season.