When the Houston Rockets hired Mike D'Antoni in 2016, it left many questioning how the move would impact James Harden. Harden and the Rockets were coming off consecutive postseason defeats at the hands of the Golden State Warriors, once in the Western Conference Finals in 2015 and another in the opening round of the playoffs in 2016.
The pairing was successful by all accounts, as D'Antoni went 217-101 during his four seasons in Houston, good for a 68.2 winning percentage, which was the best in the history of the Rockets' franchise. D'Antoni also took home Coach of the Year in 2017, guided the Rockets to the best record in the league in 2017-18, and took the super team Golden State Warriors to the battleshed, before getting eliminated in Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals in the 2018 postseason (I won't elaborate more on that, for the sake of the sanity of Rockets' fans).
On the surface it would seem like D'Antoni elevated Harden's game, as he won the MVP award in D'Antoni's second season in the Space City, and was an MVP finalist in each of D'Antoni's four seasons with the Rockets. But did D'Antoni's system really help Harden or cripple him?
Sure, Harden won several scoring titles and took home the aforementioned MVP, but D'Antoni's heavy-isolation system put a heavy burden on Harden, which almost always reared it's ugly head in the postseason. Not to dismiss Harden's playoff performances (29.6 points and 7.4 assists through D'Antoni's four years in Houston), but there was a stark drop-off from the regular season to the postseason, and especially in terms of efficiency, as Harden posted true shooting splits of 61 percent in each of the four years during the regular season but only posted the same feat once in the postseason.
And this isn't necessarily on Harden either, as Basketball Hall of Famer and former MVP Steve Nash previously discussed the complications of D'Antoni's offensive system.
"It’s not that easy, like people think ‘well in that system.’ But....having to make all the decisions over the course of the season and being super efficient, it relies alot on that player to be efficient and consistent over and over.
The system really allowed me to be at my best, but it was also exhausting.”
So why is this even a talking point, at this point in time? Good question. It's because D'Antoni was recently on the Thinking Basketball Podcast and doubled down on the playing style that he crafted for Harden.
“People don’t like it, aesthetically it’s not good. I don’t love it, I’d rather pass the ball around. And if I didn’t have a team that had James Harden, guess what! We’d pass the ball around… You got James Harden, I'm gonna make him the best player he could possibly be.”
Mike D'Antoni admits to making life difficult for James Harden with Houston Rockets
Where do we start here? How about with the fact that Harden was actually capable of being a facilitator averaging double-digit assists at-will.
Harden and the Rockets could have very well ran an approach that "passed the ball around", as D'Antoni coined it. And especially when the Rockets had Chris Paul.
The same could be said about the Russell Westbrook version of the Rockets. however the Rockets ran the small ball system that was designed to have Westbrook matched up against opposing big men offensively, allowing him to exploit less athletic defenders in the paint.
It's quite perplexing to essentially hear D'Antoni say that he'd do it all over again, because he had James Harden on the roster, while also saying he wanted Harden to be the "best player he could possibly be" because that approach actually wore him down and made him a lesser version of himself during the postseason.
One could also argue that D'Antoni's stubbornness played a large part into the postseason shortcomings of the Rockets during his time at the helm. But kudos to him for doubling down, there's something to be said about that as well.