James Harden's decision making on full display as the MVP frontrunner slices up Bulls

James Harden's decision making on full display as the MVP frontrunner slices up Bulls

As the Houston Rockets were putting the finishing touches on a rout of the Bulls, James Harden took a baseball pass from Patrick Beverley and had a clear path to the basket. Instead, the MVP frontrunner took one dribble and flipped the ball to a streaking Clint Capela, who flushed it home.

It was a situation Harden found himself in much of Friday night. The man who has the ball in his hands more than any player in the league was tasked with plenty of decision making. And as he's done the entire year - in his first season playing point guard - Harden made all the right calls as the Rockets picked up a 115-94 road victory.

Harden didn't light up the box score against a Bulls defense limited to Jimmy Butler and Jimmy Butler only as potential stoppers. He wasn't able to match the 42 points, 12 rebounds and nine assists he posted in Houston's victory over the Bulls last month. And he was more methodical than flashy, carving his way through the Bulls defense for 19 points, seven rebounds and 13 assists, his 33rd double-double.

But after an ugly start in which he committed five turnovers in his first 13 minutes - and watched the undermanned Bulls take a surprising 13-point lead - Harden was as solid as he could have been. Though just about every Rocket contributed to it, Harden's pacing of the Houston offense allowed for seamless transition buckets, 3-pointers and open layups off pick-and-roll sets. The end result was an unimaginable 72-28 run spanning the end of the first quarter to the end of the third quarter.

In that span Harden 15 points, six rebounds, eight assists and was a +30. He also committed just one turnover in the final 20 minutes of action, and his 13 assists created 32 points for the Rockets.

"James and I have pretty good chemistry. I know when he wants me to come set a screen or when he’s going to isolate or go to the basket on his own," said Ryan Anderson, who led the Rockets with 21 points and six 3-pointers. "We’re pretty much ready and prepared to spread the court around him and give him space to work and distribute. And for us we just want to make the best decisions."

Harden's ability to know when the flow of the game calls for him and his 29.1 points per contest to take over, or when his league-leading 11.2 assists need to help others involved, was on full display.

Late in the second quarter, after Dwyane Wade converted a three-point play to give the Bulls a one-point lead, Harden buried a pair of triples on successive possesions, with the latter becoming a four-point play after he baited Michael Carter-Williams into a foul.

Harden stayed aggressive in the third quarter, but with the Bulls keying in on him he became D'Antoni's distributor. He handed out five assists in various manners. First he found Capela on a pick-and-roll for an alley-oop dunk. Twice Anderson popped out off screens and buried triples. Later Harden drove and kicked to a wide-open Trevor Ariza (19 points), and he finished the quarter with a dart to Nene at the foul line for a 17-foot jumper.

"That’s probably his thing that we talk more about is him staying right in the middle in the sense of how much you score and how much you help the team," D'Antoni said. "You can’t do both, and it’s a fine line of some days it’s too much team and some days it’s too much 1-on-1. So he’s trying to stay right on that road in the middle where that’s how we win."

Friday he was clearly a distributor, as a sub-par Bulls defense struggled to keep up. Harden's 19 points were the second fewest he had scored in a month, and he only made five trips to the free-throw line, far less than the 11.0 attempts he averages per game. He picked and choosed his spots to score, and there weren't too many high-pressure situations for him to make decisions on in the blowout.

But it was yet another opportunity for him to build his skills and grow as a point guard. D'Antoni opted to make Harden the primary ball handler and point guard when he took over this summer. He stressed to Harden the importance of not worrying about turnovers - Harden leads the league with 6.8 turnovers per game - because of how often the Rockets wanted the ball in his hands.

Harden's made good on that. His usage rate is second only to Russell Westbrook. He leads the league in both assists per game and passes per game, showing that while he's finding open shooters he's also keeping the offense moving.

"You don’t really know how difficult it is to be the point guard until you’re really in it," he said. "I don’t really worry about the turnovers. I just go out there and try to make the right play and get everyone involved and play my game."

It's working for the Rockets, who are comfortably sitting in the No. 3 spot in the West. Already touting wins over the two teams ahead of them in the standings in Golden State and San Antonio, there's a belief their NBA-record 3-point shooting could help propel them to the Finals for the first time in two decades.

Harden has become one of the game's best passers, but in reality it's more fair to say he's one of the best decision makers. D'Antonio admitted that Harden's innate talent has made the transition a smooth one, and on Friday night it resulted in their 45th victory of the season as the playoffs near.

"James is also a guy that can (pass) and know when the right time for him to score is, too," Anderson said. "We trust his decision making, and he's just a superior player. What he’s doing, I’ve never played with anybody like that. I don’t know that there’s been many guys like that."

Options if the Bulls trade down: Gonzaga forward Rui Hachimura

Options if the Bulls trade down: Gonzaga forward Rui Hachimura

On draft night, there is a decent possibility that the Bulls front office looks at their draft board and collectively decide that they can get a player with No. 7 pick value later in the first round. They could be inclined to feel this way more than in most years due to the 2019 draft class being such a toss up after the top three picks. If the Bulls traded down in the draft, I am assuming they would be netting a valuable future first-round pick, likely with some minimal protections. In this series, we will be looking at prospects the Bulls could take should they trade down in the 2019 NBA Draft.

Rui Hachimura per The Stepien:

71 percent at the rim

44.2 percent on short midrange

47.6 percent on long midrange

52.1 percent on NBA 3s (12/23)

Boylen talked a ton this season about “toughness” being a key tenet of the new Bulls culture moving forward. The idea of that “toughness” didn’t translate on the court heavily, though the Bulls did improve slightly in rebound rate under Boylen.

From the time for Boylen took over, the Bulls ranked 14th in defensive rebound rate and 25th in total rebound rate, up from 16th and 28th respectively under Hoiberg. Those numbers are a bit of smoke-and-mirrors with all the factors at play this past (weird) Bulls season.

But Boylen did have a much heavier focus on generating points inside first, with the team ranking third in the league in points in the paint per game during his tenure. Rui Hachimura fits in extremely well with the idea of the Bulls punishing teams inside with low-post scoring depth, resulting in open looks on the perimeter.

Hachimura stands 6-feet-8-inches tall, 230 lbs., with a 7-foot-2-inch wingspan. He is a very physical player and utilizes his wingspan incredibly well in traffic. Hachimura posted a 17.4 percent defensive rebound rate over his three-years at Gonzaga. I mentioned above how Hachimura embraces contact and his career average of 7.5 free throw attempts per 40 minutes helps showcase his ability to be a wrecking ball in the paint.

He has the potential to excel as a small-ball center with the right personnel surrounding him. The fact that he can grab a defensive board and initiate the fastbreak makes him an even more valuable prospect. But when you consider that lineups with he and Markkanen as the two bigs on the floor would have five capable ball-handlers, the idea of Rui in Chicago becomes even more enticing.

Overall, Hachimura is a great prospect with a solid skill set that should allow him to be a decent scorer from day one, it all just depends on how much of an opportunity he gets.

The Bulls--as John Paxson has reiterated many, many times now--feel comfortable with the starters they have at the two, three, four and five positions, with point guard being their main area of weakness. While the Bulls don’t necessarily need another big, they do need to add productive players who are young. With Boylen’s emphasis on having multiple ball-handlers, driving the ball and points in the paint, Hachimura would be a logical selection, though No. 7 overall could be a bit of a reach for the 21-year old big.

His defense definitely has a long way to go--as with most NBA draft prospects--but Hachimura’s situation is unique since he literally had a language barrier to overcome when he first got to Gonzaga in 2017. The belief right now is that Hachimura is in a comfortable spot right now in terms of both speaking and understanding English, as reporting from Sam Vecine of the The Athletic (LINK is behind a paywall) and others has backed up.

With that being said, the Japanese forward still makes too many mistakes on the defensive end of the floor to be a surefire top 10 pick.

He is at his core an offensive-minded player, and as a result has not exactly developed much in the way of defensive intensity over the years. Hachimura averaged 0.6 steals per game and 0.5 blocks per game for his NCAA career.

For comparison’s sake, his steal and block rates are almost identical to Marvin Bagley III during his time at Duke. Bagley had a highly productive rookie season with the Kings--landing a spot on the NBA All-Rookie First-Team--but the Kings defense was still four points worse when he was on the floor per cleaningtheglass.com ($).

Despite having similar measurements to Bagley, I don’t believe that Hachimura posses quite the level of athleticism that Bagley does, making his path to becoming an above average defender that much harder.

Ultimately, if Hachimura’s awesome shooting numbers from NBA 3-point range (41.7 percent) on a small sample size (36 attempts) aren’t smoke-and-mirrors, he will greatly outplay his draft position. Hachimura shot 52.1 percent on his NBA range 3-pointers and also has a career 74.6 percent free throw percentage. Whether he was diving to the rim on pick-and-rolls with Lauri spacing the floor, or playing in a high/low offense with another big on the bench unit, there is a clear path to Hachimura being effective in Chicago. It would just take a ton of patience from the Bulls new-look coaching staff.

Sports Talk Live Podcast: The Bulls need a point guard. The Bears Top 100 list continues


Sports Talk Live Podcast: The Bulls need a point guard. The Bears Top 100 list continues

0:00- Will Perdue drops by to talk hoops. What will the Bulls do this summer to address their point guard need?

7:00- The Bulls need a point guard. Derrick Rose is a free agent. Should they bring him back home?

11:30- Carman says the Bulls should consider trading for Lonzo Ball. Kap yells at him.

16:30- Will talks about this year's playoffs and if anybody will be the Warriors?

20:00- The Bears Top 100 list continues to dominate discussion. Chris makes the case for Jay Cutler to be higher. He gets yelled at.

Listen to the full podcast here or via the embedded player below: