Seizing Fate By The Throat

Suffering from a deafness which plagued him over the final three decades of his life, Ludwig van Beethoven explored new and innovative areas of musical theory which sometimes left him in controversial straits with critics. Having already composed countless quartets and sonatas as well as several symphonies, Beethoven continued to push the bounds of sound through his late period, often incorporating the influences of Bach, Handel and his immediate predecessor as foremost composer in the world, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Until his death in 1827, Beethoven strove to perfect the sounds and styles of the time which produced him.

On Sunday, two NBA title contenders, each by an MVP candidate, met in Houston for the second and final time in the regular season. The team that prevailed, the Houston Rockets, did so in much the same fashion as they have done all year: by adhering to their particular brand of the NBA’s prevailing style, launching as many threes as possible and, when that wasn’t available, getting to the rim for high percentage shots and foul opportunities. At the eye of the Rockets’ storm is James Harden, high-volume wing-turned-obscenely efficient point guard, a scoring machine in either case.

“Addition by subtraction” is a troubling idiom that, at least in sport, generally implies a maximization of the tools at a team’s disposal immediately following the departure of a prominent coach or star player. At best, it seems to point to a misallocation of something with regard to the departed, whether it be salary, time or faith; at worst, it is a leap of the latter, a hope that circumstances will be better than they were before, even if they were already pretty good.

In the wake of Kevin Durant’s departure from Oklahoma City, Russell Westbrook has personally benefitted. In the grand scheme of the league, however, the Thunder are no closer to a championship than they were during last year’s Western Conference Finals and, instead, are likely much farther.

Bringing up the fact that James Harden was the third source of scoring for the Thunder team that reached the Finals in 2012 is only likely to spark conversations concerning what might’ve been; since he arrived in Houston via trade the following offseason, Harden has been a man unleashed, an All-Star in each season since 2012-’13 and a perennial MVP candidate.

Though his efficiency is the stuff of Daryl Morey simulators, until this season Harden had been the exemplar of a highly unattractive, albeit effective, method of scoring, dancing his way into fouls and saving energy on the defensive end by very obviously taking entire possessions as mental health days. His Q-Rating took some hits, largely courtesy of Vines portraying his defensive efforts as, in a word, minimal. Take your James Haren (no “D”) jokes to the back of the line.

At least part of the problem with Harden, both on and off the court, was his relationship with the NBA’s biggest ass clown and the Rockets’ center for the three seasons prior to this one, Dwight Howard. Their on-court chemistry was tenuous at best, with Howard spurning the high pick-and-rolls off which Harden feasts. A disappointing start led to the dismissal of Kevin McHale as head coach just eleven games into the season, which ended with the 8-seed and a first round exit in last year’s playoffs.

Frustrated and underappreciated, Howard left Houston last season to return home to Atlanta. This was bound to open up some of what Harden had already exposed, but what good is a grand symphony without a maestro conductor? Daryl Morey called upon none other than Mike D’Antoni, architect of the Seven Seconds or Less, Steve Nash MVP-era Phoenix Suns, fresh off an assistant coaching gig with the Philadelphia Processes.

The partnership has worked out beyond many of their wildest expectations. By moving Harden to the point, D’Antoni has been able to tap into the Beard’s immense passing ability – as FiveThirtyEight’s Chris Herring pointed out last week, Harden and LeBron James are the NBA’s two best distributors of passes longer than 30 feet, which constitute exactly one-quarter of all of the former’s passes.

Sunday’s game not only pitted the two best distance passers in the NBA against one another; it also matched the two teams with the highest propensity for three-point attempts in league history. Indeed, the Rockets have already broken their own NBA record from two seasons ago for three-pointers attempted[1] and are, as of March 14, 2017, a mere 94 threes from Golden State’s record, from a year ago, for made threes in a season.

Getty Images/Tuesdays With Horry illustration

The Rockets are on their way to streamlining basketball in a completely unprecedented way; they are averaging 40.6 three-pointers attempted per game and knocking down 14.7 of them, both of which would be league records by comparatively substantial margins[2]. It is simply staggering to see Harden operate within this offense, generating points for both himself and his freewheeling teammates, all of whom have the eternal green light to shoot.

With all of the ball and capable, complementary teammates at his disposal, Harden has been in the MVP conversation all season. Though Westbrook’s triple-doubles garner plenty of attention – and with good reason – Harden’s overall performances, including his own triple-doubles[3], have been equally captivating, and given that MVPs tend to be on teams toward the top of their conferences, history would figure to be on Harden’s side. 

Not that he necessarily needs the boost. Consider that of the 49 games in which a player has amassed 38 or more points as well as 10 or more assists and rebounds, Harden has eight, with seven of them coming this season[4]. Though Westbrook has twelve such games, Harden was the first to reach the 50-10-10 plateau, and he is the only player in league history thus far to do it twice.

With the 117-112 victory over Cleveland on Sunday, a playoff berth nearly in their hands already, the Rockets have now beaten each of the other primary contenders for the title – San Antonio, Cleveland and Golden State. Houston belongs in any serious discussion concerning potential NBA champions. With James Harden penning nightly sonatas for his orchestra, anything seems possible, whether it be winning the West, beating Teflon Bron or, perhaps, bringing hearing back to the deaf.

*     *     *

[1] James Harden-era Rockets teams account for four of the top eight teams in league history by three-pointers attempted

[2] LeBron’s Cavs are second in both categories

[3] As of this writing, Westbrook has 32 triple-doubles to Harden’s 16

[4] And four of them occurring in January alone

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