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Is James Harden playing point guard the right move?

Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

2,342. Those are how many possessions James Harden had as a shooting guard with the Houston Rockets last season. Harden set career highs in minutes played, rebounds, assists, and points per game last year. His 2,342 possessions in the 2015-2016 season was the most of any player in the NBA. The next player with the most possessions was point guard Stephen Curry who had 2,018 possessions.

Despite having 324 more possessions than the player with the second most, the Rockets are planning on having Harden have the ball even more this season. As a result, the Rockets’ star shooting guard has changed positions and has become a point guard. Despite Houston having Harden who finished second in the MVP voting last year, the Rockets barely made the playoffs with a record of 41-41. They are hoping that moving Harden to point guard and having him be the primary ball handler will win them more games. Is Houston making the right move?

The Rockets have only played 13 games this season so the sample size is still quite small, but with a record of 8-5, they having a better winning percentage than they did last year. How has Harden done individually? Somehow, even better than last year. Through 12 games, Harden is shooting 3.4% better, average 2.1 more rebounds, and 5.2 more assists. His points per game has decreased, however, only slightly from 29 to 28.5 points per game. According to Basketball Reference, Harden’s offensive rating has increased from 115 last year to 123. Their offensive rating stat tracks how many points are produced from a player per hundred total individual possessions. So Harden is creating more points for the Rockets than he did last year which was the main reason in changing positions.

“There’s a lot more space, a lot more opportunity for me to get to the basket, and to find guys.” This was a quote from Harden this past week about his transition to being the primary ball handler. Harden is doing better individually, but is it helping the team overall? The main goal for a team is to create a roster to optimize points scored and minimize points allowed.

Offensively, there was no much worry about Harden’s transition to point guard. One of the concerns of Harden playing point guard was if he would play worse defensively due to being matched up against quicker guards. This concern so far not been a problem for Houston. Last season Harden posted a defensive rating of 108, according to Basketball Reference. This season he has the exact same defensive efficiency.

The Rockets are scoring more than they did last year and allowing less points as well. Last season Houston scored 106.5 points per game and allowed 106.4 points per game. This season they are scoring 108.9 points per game and allowing 105.2 points per game. Given these improvements, it’s no surprise that Houston is playing better than they did last season so far.

Typically, point guards are not known as major point scorers. One of the advantages the Rockets have with playing Harden at point guard is being able to have more players with scoring abilities on the court. Instead of having a point guard who can’t score well and whose main job is to get the ball to those who can, the Rockets can play Harden at point guard and have another shooting guard on the court who can put the ball in the basket. This is one of the main reasons why the Golden State Warriors are so good, because they have Curry who can be a point scoring point guard and have shooting guard Klay Thompson on the court at the same time.

So far the Rockets’ decision to move Harden to point guard has paid dividends. On the other hand, it is early in the season and opponents might be able to find ways to adjust and limit Harden, but so far it does not seem like that is happening. 

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