Mike D’Antoni’s Rockets Go Full-Throttle

At the heart of it all was an idea. What if the great fault of the 2015–16 Houston Rockets, peevish and middling, was a reliance on half measures? Houston had run the break, but so inconsistently as to rank seventh in pace—only slightly faster than the league average. The ball was put in James Harden’s hands, yet Dwight Howard still insisted on diverting the offense into token post-ups. Harden, to be fair, also took months working his way into primary ball-handler shape. No team in the NBA attempted more three-pointers last season proportional to their total offense, but Houston ultimately created those high-value shots for an underwhelming collection of shooters.

The Rockets took stock of that performance—which resulted in a .500 record and obvious discontent—and saw a design worth amplifying. The problem wasn’t the speed or the star or the shot selection. It was the lukewarm commitment to each as an idea. Houston’s solution was to take a flawed team full bore, and in that saw fit to hire Mike D’Antoni.

“What happens, I think, in any system: If you go halfway, you get your brains beat out,” D’Antoni said. “You either fully embrace what you do, believe in it and go full-throttle, or you’re gonna lose.”

​The very hiring of D’Antoni took that idea to heart. While it was never made fully explicit, the arrival of a coach whom Howard had never found common ground with all but sealed his exit in free agency. Houston was ready to move on. Clint Capela could replicate much of what Howard brought to the Rockets with energy and force. The Rockets, then, could shape their off-season around finding the right complementary pieces for Harden within the scope of D’Antoni’s preferred playing style. “The NBA today is ball movement and speed,” Rockets owner Leslie Alexander said at D’Antoni’s introductory press conference. “Mike is one of the real experts at that.”

From that expertise came the notion that James Harden, a three-time All-NBA player, had yet to assume his optimal position. “That,” D’Antoni admits, “was done with some reservations.” For years Harden had worked as Houston’s de facto point guard, but never its literal one. Harden focused his game accordingly. Uncommon vision and undeniable gravity made him a playmaker all the same, though the internal priorities of Harden’s game always tilted toward scoring. When an unstoppable driver is also a proficient shooter and a genius in creating contact to draw fouls, there is an understandable temptation in letting that player create first for himself.

The output hasn’t changed (Harden’s scoring and usage rate are effectively identical to last season), though the disposition has. James Harden, point guard, is currently leading the league in assists at 11.9 a game. Nearly half go toward three-pointers, meaning that in the final accounting, Harden is responsible for around 60 points per game as a scorer and passer. The genesis of the move, D’Antoni said, was a matter of playing time economy.

​Houston had created an ecosystem so reliant on Harden last season that he wound up leading the NBA in minutes played. D’Antoni saw a superstar on film wearing down at the end of games and an untenable career trajectory. “How can we cut out the fat?” D’Antoni asked. “Because there’s a lot of times where he’s just standing…