Photo by Thomas Shea/USA Today

Rockets Offense Can Thrive With Harden Playing Off-Ball

James Harden should spend more time playing off the ball

July 22, 2019 - 12:32 am

By Adam Spolane (@AdamSpolane)

Listen to your team news NOW.

When the Rockets traded for Chris Paul two summers ago I thought it might unleash an off-ball monster in James Harden we hadn’t seen since he was coming off the bench in Oklahoma City. Daryl Morey had finally given Harden a backcourt mate capable of running an NBA offense at a high level, and the Rockets offense thrived with Harden playing next to Paul, but he potential he had off-ball never materialized. Now, with Russell Westbrook in tow, the Rockets may be forced to take the ball away from their MVP, and in turn, he will be forced to make things happen without the basketball in his hands.

During his three seasons in Oklahoma City, Harden controlled the ball as the leader of the Thunder’s bench unit, but when he shared the floor with Westbrook and Kevin Durant he was forced to make things happen without it, and that proved to workout just fine.

This doesn’t mean I think Harden should just chill in the corner on every possession, but when the two share the floor, the Rockets could be better served by allowing Westbrook to initiate the offense, not because he’s a better player, but because he is less effective without the ball.

Back when Kevin Durant was still there, Oklahoma City’s most devastating offensive set was a Westbrook/Steven Adams pick and roll. Westbrook was and still is great with the ball, Adams was an elite roll man, and with Durant looming above the 3-point line, that duo had tons of space with which to work. A Westbrook/Clint Capela pick and roll with Harden, Eric Gordon, and P.J. Tucker manning the perimeter could feature similar results, but flip Harden and Westbrook and now space is at a little more of a premium and the offense feels kind of clunky.

Harden shot 36.8 percent from long distance last season on over 13 attempts per game. That percentage shot up to 41.4 percent on catch and shoot threes, and the numbers say the Rockets should want him and all of his other teammates to take those shots, except for one.

While neither player is known for their play away from the ball, Harden is more effective in that role because he’s more of a threat when the rock isn’t in his hands. Since they aren’t worried about his three-point accuracy, teams can play off Westbrook, and it’s hard to be an effective cutter when the guy guarding you is playing five feet off you. Let’s be honest, a Rockets possession that ends in a Westbrook three-point heave is fine with whoever is defending. That’s not the case with Harden, which is why he’s shown an ability to be an off-ball weapon.

On possessions where Paul would initiate the offense, Harden often times setup in the right corner, and considering he shot 42 percent on three-pointers from that area of the court, defenders had to stay connected to him, and most guards that tried to get into his body are just going to bounce off, while bigger players get left in his dust. Teams won’t be able to overplay baseline cuts because as effective as those might be, Harden could be even better taking advantage of the middle of the floor.

Again, you have Harden setup on the right side of the floor, but instead of a baseline cut, he comes around a screen, allowing the lefty to get the ball moving downhill to his left. This set can be used for more than just getting Harden to the rim, as Scott Brooks proved back when he coached him in Oklahoma City.

Russell Westbrook and James Harden will have plenty of opportunities to run the Rockets offense without the other ball-dominant star on the floor, but when the two are on the court together they will be a more dangerous unit with Westbrook creating offense with ball in his hands, while Harden does so without it.