In Houston, under Coach Mike D’Antoni, the Rockets emphasized isolation as the rest of the league was moving away from it, often giving Harden the ball and having his teammates stand around waiting for him to create shots. Last season, 45 percent of Harden’s possessions were isolations, nearly twice that of Westbrook’s, the second most in the league.
It worked: Not only did Harden put up some of the best offensive numbers of any player ever, but the Rockets, during D’Antoni’s tenure from 2016-17 to 2019-20, were also a top offensive team. Now Harden will reunite with D’Antoni, who is an assistant under Nets Coach Steve Nash.
But instead of being the offensive engine, as he was for the Rockets offense, Harden will be one of three elite options. Even this season, without D’Antoni as the head coach, the Rockets have led the league in isolations, in part because of Harden. The Nets were ninth in that category going into Thursday’s play, though it’s reasonable to assume they would rank higher if Irving hadn’t been out for personal reasons (he hasn’t played since Jan. 5) and if Durant hadn’t missed three games because of coronavirus protocols.
Durant was in the N.B.A.’s top 20 in isolations, at 15.6 percent, in his last full season, still well behind Harden. This season, Durant is isolating less frequently than he was with Golden State (13.7 percent).
This is where the adjustment will be the biggest for all the players. Harden is used to not only receiving the ball — but also to holding it and being in full control.
Star Trek: First Contact
Where Harden differentiates himself the most from Irving and Durant is in how much more likely he is to hunt for fouls and get to the line. Harden has averaged at least 10 free throws a game in seven out of the last eight seasons. He often frustrates opponents, sometimes by purposely locking their arms while making halfhearted shot attempts.
Irving is the opposite. He shies away from contact, opting to fade away rather than get hit. His career high in free throws per game came last season (5.1) when he played only 20 games. Durant has reached 10 per game just once in his career, but he has been better than Irving at getting to the line, averaging 7.7 foul shots a game in his career.