First, I was pro start Thabo. Then I was pro start Harden. Now, I don’t know where I’m at. Scott Brooks does though. He’s never wavered. And maybe for good reason. Probably because he kind of knows what he’s doing.
Brooks made an interesting decision last night in Dallas. With Thabo out with a sore foot, Brooks decided to start Daequan Cook instead of Harden, something Brooks has never done. Basically, that decision there should really end most of what was left of the debate that Harden should start.
It started because of an awful performance against the Clippers, but it’s really a bit more of a deeper issue than just one game. As a starter over the past two seasons (seven games), Harden is averaging 12.1 points per game on 38.5 percent shooting with 8.1 attempts a game. Off the bench in that time (93 games), Harden is averaging 13.3 ppg on 44.7 shooting with 8.8 attempts a game. And take note of this two: Two of those games last season where Harden started, KD was out. Throw those out and Harden’s starting average dips to 10.0 ppg. Then when you subtract before the Thunder dealt Jeff Green, those numbers go up to better than 16 points a game off the bench. So there’s a clear contrast.
My feeling on why Harden should start was this in a nutshell: The Thunder were often finding themselves playing 4-on-5 on the offensive end as the opponent was able to hide a player on Thabo. Without an offensive threat to take a little pressure off Westbrook and Durant, the Thunder were left with three players on the floor that weren’t capable of really scoring or creating on their own. It was often putting the Thunder in a hole the first seven or eight minutes of a game. I saw it as, if Harden finishes games, why shouldn’t he start them? Well, I think we kind of got our answer to that and it lies within things you can’t quantify. Basketball players are often skiddish creatures, with Harden being a prime example. A lot of players need a certain rhythm, a certain established feel for each game. Harden is clearly one of those players. And when he starts with Westbrook and Durant, he essentially becomes an innocent bystander in the corner (i.e. Thabo Sefolosha) and never has the chance to settle into the flow of the game.
Take this into consideration too: Harden is averaging just 4.1 points per fourth quarter. That’s the time he spends most on the floor with Durant and Westbrook. The rest of the game he averages 11.4. Now, I realize four multiplied by four is 16, which is Harden’s average, but he does the majority of his scoring damage in the late first and early second when he has the floor to himself. Harden has had two scoreless fourth quarters this season, two with one point and three with just two points. Save for a couple blowouts where he got the fourth to himself with Durant and Westbrook sitting, Harden largely disappears scoring the ball late in games. It’s just a product of the system, but that’s obviously something Scott Brooks realizes.
Harden finds a rhythm immediately by becoming the alpha scorer when he’s on the floor with the second unit. A lot that can be pinned on Westbrook. Against the Clippers, it was all Westbrook and Durant as Harden was basically frozen out of the offense. Westbrook is a terrific scorer, but if Harden is going to be on the floor with him the first nine minutes, Westbrook has to sacrifice his own a bit and make sure the other four guys — or really two guys — are finding their rhythm. It’s not hard for KD to find his because he’s unbelievable, but Harden needs a bit more coddling.
Basketball is such a rhythm game. There’s a lot more to a guy playing well than just the fact he’s good. He has to feel his place, understand his role and pick his spots. That’s tough to do when you have two All-Stars on the floor with you that want the ball. In the fourth quarters, Harden switches his role to more of a playmaker and spot up shooter rather than scorer. It’s a rotation that has worked extremely well for Scott Brooks and you can see why he’s keen on it.
Because it really has a lot less to do with Thabo than it does with maximizing James Harden. Three scorers on the floor together is a difficult thing to manage. All three guys like the ball in their hands, all three guys like to score and are good at it. But it’s a challenge to maximize the potential of a guy when his possessions and chances are limited. So you can stick Harden out there because he’s one of the five best, or you can put him in a situation where he can flourish and do what he does best.
It’s not that Harden had some revelation against the Mavs coming off the bench and played out of his mind. He scored 10 points on just 3-11 shooting (but did have nine assists). But you could see he was more aggressive. He felt comfortable in that spot and looked like himself. Against the Clippers, he seemed to struggle understanding how he was supposed to fit. It was like watching a new kid walk up to a group of friends and try and wiggle into the conversation.
Brooks said just because Cook started in place of Harden against the Mavs that it wasn’t case closed. But without an extended training camp and without more preseason games to test it and without Eric Maynor there to stabilize the second unit, I doubt that Harden starts another game this season unless Westbrook or Durant miss a game.
It’s always been about the overall playing time, which Harden is seeing. But it’s also about maxing out his potential in those minutes, which might just be served with him coming off the bench. The Thunder are best when their three-headed monster starts breathing fire. And if that means holding one head back before Brooks releases The Harden, then that’s just what you do.