Seven NBA players we'd love to see in James Harden's situation
Following an underwhelming season, the Rockets had an opportunity to start anew by focusing their attention on building a team entirely around James Harden. Rather than trying to keep Dwight Howard or sign another star player in free agency, that meant making smaller deals to surround him with the type of players who could help him return to MVP form in a system that would maximize his all-around brilliance. It’s how the Rockets have gone from being a No. 8 seed to a No. 3 seed without making any blockbuster moves.
It’s also how Harden has put up numbers this season we’ve only ever seen from Oscar Robertson. By making him a point guard in a pick-and-roll-heavy offense which focuses on pushing the tempo and shooting more 3-pointers than we’ve ever seen before, Mike D’Antoni has simplified the game for Harden to the point where he’s become a walking triple-double. He’s scoring as well as he always has, only now he’s leading the league in assists while pulling down seven rebounds per game.
It takes a unique player to be able to do what Harden has done this season — someone who can score 30 points per game efficiently while also having the vision to get double-digit assists — but there are a number of players who would thrive in their own way if they were in the same situation. From LeBron James to Klay Thompson, let’s look at seven in particular who could have similar individual success if they took over Harden’s role in Houston this season.
1 LeBron James, Cavs
Question: How easily would James average a triple-double?
We’ve obviously seen James play a similar role to Harden throughout his career as the initiator on offense, but he’s never had his hands on as many possessions as Harden this season. He has, however, come close on four occasions: James has posted a usage rating of at least 33.5 percent four times in his career, including a career-high 33.8 percent in 2008-09.
As you can see in the table below, his averages over those four seasons come out to 29.9 points, 7.5 rebounds and 7.5 assists per game, which isn’t far off of Harden’s average of 29.1 points, 11.2 assists and 7.9 rebounds per game this season.
The big difference between James and Harden is obviously the assist numbers, but James wasn’t surrounded with as many sharpshooters in his prime as Harden is right now. Put it this way: Eric Gordon, Trevor Ariza, Ryan Anderson and Lou Williams alone combine for around 30 3-point attempts per game this season. As a team, the Cavaliers attempted no less than 15.7 3-pointers per game and no more than 19.3 3-pointers per game in those four seasons. The most reliable shooters around James during that time were Damon Jones, Mo Williams, Daniel Gibson and Delonte West.
This season has given us some insight into what kind of weapon James becomes in a 3-point happy system. The Cavaliers are second to only the Rockets in 3-point attempts per game, and James is averaging a career-high 8.7 assists per game. But James is also close to setting career-lows in both usage rating and field goal attempts per game. Even though he’s picking teams apart like we’ve never seen before, a 30-10-10 season would probably be in the cards for him had he played in this sort of system earlier in his career.
2 Russell Westbrook, Thunder
Question: How much more efficient would Westbrook be?
One of the problems the Thunder have had this season is they didn’t have the luxury of constructing a team specifically around Westbrook. Their biggest move in the offseason — trading Serge Ibaka to the Magic for Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis — came before Kevin Durant decided to join the Warriors. As a result, they’ve had to make a team built around Durant and Westbrook work for just Westbrook.
The Thunder’s role players are much better than they’re made out to be, but it’s still not an ideal situation for Westbrook. As someone who is at his best when he’s able to break teams down by getting to the basket, the Thunder ranking 24th in 3-pointers made per game and 28th in 3-point percentage isn’t exactly a great combination.
Not only have opponents been comfortable with letting the Thunder beat them from the perimeter this season, it has made the decision to crowd Westbrook when he gets into the paint much easier. With less space to work with, Westbrook has had to do things he’s less comfortable with, like shoot 6.8 3-pointers per game.
That’s what makes Westbrook averaging a triple-double this season all the more impressive. It’s hard to believe his numbers would improve considerably if he was in Harden’s situation, but his shooting numbers and assists per game would almost certainly climb if he was surrounded with players who could space the floor more consistently. Throw a better team record in the mix, and it would be nearly impossible for people to pick his game apart like they’ve done this season.
3 Kevin Durant, Warriors
Question: Would Durant have a Jordan-like season?
Unlike Westbrook and James, Durant has never been the primary ball handler on a team. It may sound weird considering Durant averages 27.2 points, 7.1 rebounds and 3.8 assists per game for his career, but he’s always shared the court with another high usage player.
Consider: Westbrook had a higher usage rating every season he was with Durant in Oklahoma City except for when Westbrook was a rookie and Durant a sophomore. While that much is to be expected considering Westbrook is a point guard and Durant is a small forward, Harden’s situation is unique because he is the primary ball handler for the Rockets despite the fact he is a "shooting guard." Even now, Durant (27.7 percent) is between Stephen Curry (29.8 percent) and Klay Thompson (25.9 percent) in usage rating on the Warriors. Imagine if he initiated the offense every trip down the floor like Harden does.
The closest we’ve come to seeing Durant in that role was during his MVP season when he went through a 26-game stretch without Westbrook. His numbers in those games: 35.0 points, 7.5 rebounds and 6.3 assists per game on 52.7 percent shooting from the field and 39.9 percent from the 3-point line. To put it into perspective how ridiculous that is, the only player in NBA history who has averaged 30.0 points, 7.0 rebounds and 6.0 assists while shooting 50 percent from the field over the course of a season is Michael Jordan.
It isn’t crazy to think Durant would’ve joined Jordan as the only players to put up those numbers if he was in the same situation as Harden. It’s not the triple-double Westbrook and James would likely average, but it’s equally as impressive.
4 C.J. McCollum, Trail Blazers
Question: Would McCollum prove himself as an All-Star?
McCollum has played second fiddle to Damian Lillard to this point in his career, and he’s been incredibly successful in that role. He was named the Most Improved Player in the NBA for the 2015-16 season, and he’s averaging 23.1 points per game while shooting 48.5 percent from the field and 42.4 percent from 3-point range this season. He’s proven himself to be one of the purest scorers in the league with the ability to function as a secondary playmaker when needed.
The intrigue with McCollum taking over a role similar to Harden’s is how much better could he be as the primary ball handler on a team. In the five games Lillard missed this season, McCollum put on a show with an average of 31.2 points, 4.6 assists and 4.2 rebounds per game. That includes a 43-point outburst against the Timberwolves on the road followed by a 35-point showing at Oracle Arena three nights later. He shot nearly 50 percent from the field, 40 percent from the 3-point line and 90 percent from the free throw line in those games too.
It’s unlikely he would be able to sustain those numbers with that level of efficiency over an entire season — he would join elite players like Allen Iverson, Michael Jordan and LeBron James if he did — but McCollum would be in a position to prove himself as an All-Star caliber talent. Plus, McCollum is an excellent pick-and-roll scorer. It makes up 35.2 percent of his offense on the season, and he ranks in the 79.2 percentile with 0.93 points per possession.
That would make him a great fit in D’Antoni’s system since Harden went from scoring 25.9 percent of his points in the pick-and-roll last season to 40.7 percent this season.
5 Klay Thompson, Warriors
Question: Would Thompson destroy every 3-point record known to man?
Consider Thompson the wild card on this list. He only scores 0.8 points per game out of the pick-and-roll, and it makes up for 4.4 percent of his offense on the season, but it would be fun to see how he’d take to being the focal point on offense. We know he’d get his shots one way or another — he wasn’t lying when he said he wasn’t “sacrificing s—” when Durant joined the Warriors — and he’s capable of putting up video game-like numbers when he’s rolling. With the sort of spacing the Rockets provide, it wouldn’t be as difficult for him to adjust to being the No. 1 option in comparison to other places.
Besides, being the offensive guru he is, D’Antoni would figure out ways to put Thompson in the right positions. And who knows, with the Rockets shooting nearly 40 3-pointers per game as a team, Thompson might be able to challenge Stephen Curry for the most 3-pointers in a season. If Corey Brewer was getting the green light off the bench before he was traded to the Lakers, Thompson would probably shoot 15 3-pointers per game.
6 John Wall, Wizards
Question: Would Wall set an NBA record for assists?
Under D’Antoni, Harden has gone from averaging 7.5 assists per game to 11.2 assists per game. That’s a 49.3 percent increase over his previous career-high. Assuming D’Antoni could do the same for Wall, he’d go from averaging 10.7 assists per game to 15.9 assists per game.
That number is obviously insane. John Stockton holds the NBA record for the most assists per game in the regular season with 14.5. He then averaged 14.2 assists per game in the following season and 13.7 the season after that. Furthermore, the only other players in NBA history who have averaged at least 13.0 assists per game in a season are Magic Johnson, Kevin Porter and Isiah Thomas. And here we are talking about Wall blowing all of them out of the water by averaging 15.9 assists per game.
In reality, Wall probably wouldn’t average over 15 assists per game, but he might be able to give Stockton’s record a run for its money if he was in Harden’s position. Remember, people scoffed at the idea of Harden averaging 12 assists per game entering the season, and he is on pace to lead the NBA in assists. Wall is more of a pass-first player than Harden, so the extra shooting around him would likely result in his assists jumping to astronomical levels.
7 Kyrie Irving, Cavs
Question: Would Irving become a superstar?
For the Rockets to be as successful as they have been this season, it’s required Harden to strike the perfect balance between being a scorer and facilitator. He showed signs of being an elite passer in the past, but he’s taken a huge step forward under D’Antoni. With the amount he handles the ball, it would be easy for teams to slow the Rockets down if he wasn’t a good passer by forcing him to be a facilitator. It works the other way around as well. If Harden wasn’t a good scorer, they’d take away his passing opportunities to force him into being the main source of offense.
Irving would have to prove that he could do the same. It’s not that he can’t pass or lead an offense. He just hasn’t had as much success as Harden had before this season. We all know he can score with the best of them, so this isn’t about whether or not he could average 30 points per game or lead the league in scoring in D’Antoni’s system. It has more to do with whether or not he could turn a team into a contender if he was in the perfect situation.
There are reasons to question Irving’s ability to be the go-to point of a team. The Cavaliers struggled mightily before James returned to Cleveland, and they still struggle when he’s not on the court. With James and Irving in the lineup this season, Irving’s net rating stands at +10.2 points per 100 possessions. When James is off the court, however, Irving goes into the negative at -7.9 points per 100 possessions. It was a similar but far less extreme case last season: +7.7 net rating with James and Irving on the court compared to +1.1 without James and just Irving.
There’s some noise in those numbers — the Cavaliers are built more around James than Irving and they didn’t have much talent around Irving before James returned — but there’s enough there to wonder how Irving would fare in Harden’s situation. It’s basically the difference between him being an All-Star and a superstar.