The big news of the weekend was the James Harden to Houston trade. The former Thunder sixth man/star was sent to the Rockets along with Cole Aldrich, Lazar Hayward and Daequan Cook for Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb, two 2013 first round picks (from Dallas and Toronto) and a 2013 second round pick (from Charlotte). Needless to say, this deal shakes things up quite a bit for both teams.
In Oklahoma City, the Thunder are losing one of the best offensive players in the league and the centerpiece of their second unit, also one of the league’s best. The side pick-and-rolls Harden ran with Nick Collison, as well as the middle isolations he used to create shots for himself and the rest of the Thunder bench were a big key to maintaining their elite offensive efficiency when Kevin Durant and/or Russell Westbrook left the floor. With Harden now in Houston, they’ll have to change the entire complexion of their second unit offense.
Harden’s role won’t be able to be filled by just one player. Eric Maynor, Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb, and maybe even DeAndre Liggins will all chip in to fill the void left by the star guard’s departure.
Eric Maynor/Nick Collison pick-and-roll
Maynor was probably going to be a casualty of any long-term Harden deal, but he now becomes an indispensable piece of the Thunder’s core. He’ll likely be the primary shot creator on the second unit, and running the pick-and-roll with Collison will be one of the main ways he’ll fill a role previously occupied by Harden.
Though Harden and Collison would often initiate the pick-and-roll action from the wing so Harden could threaten the middle of the lane with his excellent driving ability, I tend to think the Thunder would be wiser to run their pick-and-rolls with Maynor from the top of they key to take advantage of his passing skills and decision making. He’s not quite as quick as Harden off the bounce, but he does have great court vision, so giving him the whole floor to see would give him a greater advantage.
Maynor isn’t as much of a scoring threat when driving to the basket as Harden is, but he can still draw defenders and make a dump-off pass, hit a floater, or pull up just outside the lane for a jumper. Collison sets extremely solid screens, and knows how and when to time his roll to the basket, when to pop out for a jumper, and when to slip the pick altogether. These two ran this action together plenty of times previously as part of a solid Thunder bench unit in 2010-11 (Maynor missed nearly all of last season due to a torn ACL), but they’ll run it far more often this season now that Harden is gone. Developing Harden-Collison-esque chemistry will take some time (and they may never reach that level), but the intelligence, patience and skill present in both players should allow them to become a potent duo with enough reps.
Kevin Martin and Jeremy Lamb using screens
Kevin Martin was injured and often unhappy in an offense not particularly suited to his skill set last season. Though he adjusted his game to run more pick-and-rolls under Kevin McHale in Houston last year, Martin had almost always used off-ball screens far more often to get his shots previously in his career. During the 2010-11 season (his last not coached by McHale) Martin averaged 0.94 points per possession (PPP) using off-ball screens – good for 46th in the league – with those plays accounting for 11.9% of his possessions ending in a FGA, TO or FTA, per mySynergySports.
A common play looked an awful lot like one the Lakers ran for Kobe Bryant last season, though the Lakers didn’t have it start in the same manner.
The Rockets would have Martin bring the ball up the court (this is where it differed from the Laker version), initiating the action near the top of the key. He would then swing the ball around to the point guard on the wing, setting things up for a side pick-and-roll with one of the two bigs on the court.
After passing it off, Martin would cut right through the middle of the lane while the point guard and pick started the pick-and-roll action (sometimes the big would even screen for Martin on his way through the lane before screening for the ball-handler). He’d then receive a double pin-down screen from the other wing and the big man not involved in the strong side pick-and-roll action, freeing him up for a jumper on the opposite side of the court. Martin’s release, though funky-looking, is still very quick, and he excels in catch-and-shoot situations.
It’s likely that Lamb can be asked to run the same kind of plays. When he was a freshman at Connecticut and playing off of Kemba Walker, Lamb would often come off pin-down screens for open jumpers. Though he didn’t do as much of that last season as the primary scoring option, the skill and shooting ability is still there for him.
Martin, Lamb and DeAndre Liggins: Spot-ups
Harden was one of the very best spot-up players in the league last season, posting 1.16 PPP and shooting 40.3% from the field and 39.9% from 3-point range. Luckily for the Thunder, Martin can capably fill the same role. He averaged 1.05 PPP on spot-ups and shot 37.6% from the field, 39.3% from 3. Though Liggins didn’t get much playing time last season, he did shoot 4-10 on spot-ups with the Orlando Magic. Additionally, he raised his 3-point percentage every season he spent at the University of Kentucky, going from 23.5% as a freshman all the way to 39.1% as a junior. Lamb too will be called on to be a spot-up shooter. He shot 36.8% from 3 as a freshman, and though that percentage dropped when he was called on to be the number one scoring option, he won’t have that responsibility in Oklahoma City, and should see more open shots.
However, one of the key ways Harden differentiates himself from other spot-up shooters is his ability to attack off the dribble when a defender closes out hard. None of these guys puts the ball on the deck as well as Harden does, and that is something the Thunder will sorely miss next season.
Though Oklahoma City will be dealing with major changes to their second unit offense, the ripple effects of this deal with obviously be much greater in Houston. Harden comes in and is immediately installed as the number one scoring option.
The biggest beneficiary of Harden’s presence will almost definitely be Jeremy Lin, who will no longer be counted on to single-handledly run the offense and be the primary scorer at the same time. Lin will likely take a back seat to Harden in the scoring department, and arguably would be better served being a secondary intiator as well. Time will tell if that is the case, but there are ways the two high-profile guards will be able to work in tandem. Here’s a prime example of how the Rockets can use Lin and Harden in concert.
Pursuing second and third options out of pick-and-roll
Lin (filling the role of Dragic on this play), who excels at running the high pick-and-roll, can take the an initial screen near the top of the key from one of the many Houston big men – whether it be newly-signed Omer Asik, Donatas Motiejunas, Patrick Patterson, Terence Jones or Royce White. From there, Lin will likely look to attack the basket as he turns the corner. Lin scored pretty well out of the pick-and-roll last season, posting 0.8 PPP and shooting 43.5% from the field. His PPP wasn’t higher mostly because of a massive turnover problem. He’ll have to get those under control this season if he is to be successful.
If Lin can’t turn the corner, he can look to hit the roll man. Though he struggled a bit with turnovers, he did still hit roll men for 39 of his 216 assists last season. If neither option is open, he has an excellent outlet in Harden on the weak side. Pursuing second and third options isn’t something Lin did very well last season, but he did do it occasionally.
With Harden as his backcourt mate in Houston, looking for the outlet man on the pick-and-roll is something Lin should be committed to more often this year. Not only would doing this allow Harden spot-up opportunities which, as detailed above, he was very good at, but also get him involved in side pick-and-rolls off the kickout. He could work a two-man game with the big not involved in the initial screening action with Lin, and have even more room to operate than if he ran the initial action. These types of plays where Lin and Harden work together to create space for each other will be essential to getting the offense going.
Harden in the pick-and-roll
Harden has proven adept at all kinds of things out of the pick-and-roll. He can take the ball straight to the rim. He can back the closing defender off and pull up for a jumper. And when the defender sags back into the lane because he’s just taken him to the basket, he can just step back outside the arc and nail a 3-pointer.
He’s not just a scorer out of the pick-and-roll either. Harden proved more than capable of making plays for others, and often served as the de facto point guard of the second unit in OKC last season. There were times when he was in the game with Westbrook and Durant where Harden was the one initiating the offense.
He showed he could hit the outlet man coming in behind the pick-and-roll, draw defenders after coming around the screen and make the dump-off pass, hit the strong side option when coming around the pick, and hit the screener on either the roll or the pop, especially when playing with Collison.
The challenge in Houston will be in finding the proper pick-and-roll partner for Harden. Omer Asik is a good screener, but doesn’t have the greatest hands and isn’t much of a threat to score. The rest of the options – Patrick Patterson, Donatas Motiejunas, Terence Jones and Royce White – have limited to no experience playing in the NBA. Jones probably seems like the most logical option as a true power forward type who can roll to the rim, play a bit of pick-and-pop and pass it well after the catch. But Motiejunas looked good in summer league and the preseason as a pick-and-roll finisher, and White presents the most intriguing skillset of the four of them. It will be a matter finding rhythm and timing, and who develops that sense of where the other will be with Harden (and Lin, for that matter) the quickest.
A big advantage to having Harden and Lin on the same team will be the heaps of fouls they draw. Both players ranked in the top 20 in fouls drawn per-36 minutes last season, with Lin coming in 5th behind only Dwight Howard, Blake Griffin, DeMarcus Cousins and Kevin Love at 6.9, and Harden placing 20th with 5.4. They were each especially effective drawing fouls on pick-and-rolls, with Harden drawing a shooting foul on an especially ridiculous 16.4% of his pick-and-roll possessions. Though Harden might be affected by the league’s new flop rule and both players might suffer from a bit of overexposure and looking for calls, they should each still get to the line a good amount, which is always beneficial to an offense.
Chandler Parsons cutting and spotting up
Parsons could wind up being just as much a beneficiary of Harden’s arrival as Lin, in his own way. Parsons, a second round surprise last season, excelled as both a spot-up shooter and cutter for Kevin McHale as a rookie. Parsons shot 41.3% from the field and 38.2% from 3-point land on spot-up opportunities. Having pick-and-roll and isolation players like Harden and Lin on hand will only increase the amount of spot-up chances he gets in this coming season.
Plays like this one should be a fairly common occurrence next season. With Harden and Lin’s ability to get into the teeth of the defense out of pick-and-rolls, they should draw help defenders from all different angles, leaving Parsons open along the perimeter.
Another way Parsons can take advantage of that extra open space is by cutting to the basket. Parsons recorded 1.08 PPP and shot 55.4% on cuts last season, but those numbers should both go up this year if he can become a better finisher around the basket. He was just about league average for small forwards last season at 62.5%, but with Harden and Lin drawing even more attention in the lane, and White and Jones as excellent passers from the forward position, Parsons should have more open opportunities near the rim.
The ripple effects of the Harden trade run deep, and that’s without even accounting for how it changes things for the Thunder when Durant and Westbrook are on the court. Oklahoma City will look like a much different team this season without their third star around, especially during those stretches where he was often tasked with running the offense. In Houston, they now have two players to choose from who can initiate the offense out of either the pick-and-roll or isolation, and they can each ease the burden on the other. It will be a matter of time and patience before they get things moving in the right direction, but the future is bright.