Thorpe Theory: The Pacers are Harden’s Rockets 2.0
An epic offense built around one insane guard
BY DAVID THORPE
Five years ago, the Rockets broke the mold, scoring like water with one of the best offenses in NBA history, with an offense built around a single star, James Harden, a super-ball-dominant scoring guard. It was a revelation of NBA offense—incorporating many of the lessons of the first decade of basketball’s advanced analytics. And while the Rockets ran into the Warriors and never won a title, they demonstrated new ways to run an offense.
If you want to punch a guy in the face, keep punching him in the gut—he’ll drop his hands. Mike D’Antoni’s philosophy was shoot more 3s, get more paint shots. If you want more layups, force defenses to guard the 3.
The Pacers appear to have learned the lesson. They’re an awful defensive team, but the offense is genius. With Tyrese Haliburton in the Harden role, the ball is finding people in advantageous positions. They’re so good on offense that many nights they can beat good teams anyway.
How can an offense this potent have just one superstar? A lot of front offices believe great offense comes from two or more stars, but look at this chart from Statmuse. The second-best player on the Pacers is arguably Bruce Brown Jr., who was sixth man for the champion Nuggets last year. That’s why these Pacers are the closest thing to Harden’s Rockets.
One of my earliest lessons in this game was: When one team has the game's best player, even on an inferior team, anything can happen. It might not be tonight, but have no doubt, the Pacers are not done pulling off surprising wins. They are the new Eastern “team to watch.”
Haliburton is walking the path, and he’s bringing this team along with him, just as Harden did. He’s on his way to mega-stardom. When you get to that level, you’re untouchable. He admitted after Monday night’s win over the Celtics that a stirring text from his personal coach, Drew Hanlen, and an inhaler, helped him have a huge second half. Most players would never admit to even looking at their phones at halftime. But Haliburton is at the elite level now—if he ordered a pizza at halftime, soon everyone would be saying he was a genius for solving a bad first half in an innovative way.
Our friend Caitlin Cooper’s Basketball, She Wrote is a must-read blog for anyone who loves grainy game analysis, but especially Pacers fans. I asked Caitlin to give me some examples of nuclear Haliburton—or moments that smack of prime James Harden. Here is her list:
In the league’s highest-scoring game yet this season, Haliburton dropped 26 third-quarter points and 37 points overall to lead the Pacers past the Hawks, 157-152.
Haliburton had a 43-point game—and the game-winning 3—in Miami last year after Knicks commentator Wally Szczerbiak called him a “wannabe All-Star.” Szczerbiak later walked his comments back.
Two weeks later, Haliburton scored 14 points in the final four minutes to knock off the Clippers. Here, bullying Reggie Jackson at the rim, he showed he is more than no-look passes and 3s
He hit this game-winning 3 with 2.7 seconds left to pull out a win in Chicago last March.
And then, of course, what Haliburton accomplished in the second half against the Celtics to push his team into the In-Season Tournament (IST) semifinals game today: a no-turnover triple-double that inspired and excited his fans to help create a dream environment for the NBA.
Haliburton already has something else in common with Harden: They are the only players in NBA history with 35-plus points, 15-plus assists and nine-plus 3s in a game. That’s as exclusive as it gets.
There are ways that the Pacers are not like the Rockets; in some ways, they’re better.