In an act of beautiful basketball alchemy, the pairing of James Harden and Mike D’Antoni has transformed each into the best version of himself.
For Harden, as the front-runner for this year’s MVP Award, his ferocious offensive talent has spread well beyond scoring. For his coach, it’s being atop coach of the year lists, and a resurrection of a career once bathed in the word “genius.”
To date, most believe Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey executed his front-office opus in 2012, with the trade that brought Harden to Houston from Oklahoma City. That move set the Rockets on their present course of contention and led in many ways to the rewriting of the Western Conference power structure, from Houston to Oklahoma City to Golden State.
But bringing in D’Antoni has illuminated Harden, who’s still a scorer — but also leads the league in assists and has a squad with no other All-Stars on pace to win 60 games. Consider it Morey’s polishing of, maybe in perfecting, that original coup.
Everyone has benefited — the Rockets, a league that needs more than two or three true contenders, D’Antoni and certainly Harden. Though Harden’s offensive stats actually were better last season than the one before, it seemed few cared or noticed. In 2016 he dropped to ninth in MVP voting from second the season before. He was a forgotten superstar, largely because the Rockets went 41-41 last season — and he shouldered the blame.
D’Antoni hasn’t exactly had an easy road nor, except within league coaching and executive circles, a ringing reputation. He failed spectacularly in the two biggest markets, New York and Los Angeles, and with two of the game’s biggest stars, Carmelo Anthony and Kobe Bryant.
D’Antoni was — despite it being unfair — viewed as a loser. I live in Los Angeles, and entering this season he remained a cross between a punchline and a dirty word, at least in Lakers circles. The reaction to him was strong and visceral even by the standards of passionate sports fans.
But time and the right situation can rewrite the view of history. Long after D’Antoni’s exit from the Knicks, Melo continues to be plagued by drama and an organization with which — for whatever reason — he still remains at odds. And while Kobe is safely in retirement, the Lakers have yet to recover from his final contract and how it stunted not only winning but developing younger players.
Looking back, it’s hard to justify blaming D’Antoni for his struggles with those teams, and those two guys in particular.
So we know this: If the season ended now, Harden would get most MVP votes and D’Antoni would be a front-runner for coach of the year. Each would certainly get my vote, though Russell Westbrook is close in the MVP hunt.
But here’s a mind bender: Who needs the other more? Is Harden more important to D’Antoni, or the other way around?
While each obviously benefits from the other, D’Antoni needs his star the most. Beyond the fact this is the first bona fide superstar he has been able to properly coach and manage — a required skill if you hope to succeed in the NBA — D’Antoni has reclaimed his place as a genius innovator with, long after his ouster in Phoenix (fired after the 2007-08 season), the team to prove it.
Not that Harden hasn’t reached another level in his coach’s system. Harden’s 11.6 assists per game are markedly higher than last year’s 7.5. His player efficiency rating has risen to 28 from 25 last season. And he has 13 triple-doubles, up from three all of last season. Huge jumps.
In this country, inside or outside sports, failing in one of its two biggest cities can mark you for life. Ask Isiah Thomas. D’Antoni flamed out in both cities going 188-254 in New York and L.A. after posting a .650 winning percentage in five seasons with the Suns. He has never made an NBA Finals, and his high-profile struggles on both coasts underscored a growing idea he simply didn’t have it.
Now come this perfect marriage. Minus a single star other than Harden, D’Antoni has Houston third in the West and increasingly looking like a real, if underdog, contender in the West. It’s a stunning achievement, one he desperately needed after New York and Los Angeles.
That’s also the takeaway from Harden’s great season. He’s not just averaging 29, 8 and 11, nor just carrying a group of non-star players to a 60-win season.
He has resurrected Mike D’Antoni’s career.
That might be the most impressive feat of them all.