Now with a singular focus on basketball, James Harden is recording an MVP-caliber season, leading the Houston Rockets to the third-best record in the NBA (Keith Allison/Flickr).

Subscribe on iTunes | Google Play | Stitcher | RSS

The Rockets embody one of the best storylines of the 2016-17 season. After badly underwhelming a year ago, the front office adeptly moved around pieces, Mike D’Antoni was brought in to lead the team and James Harden has taken his game to unparalleled heights. As a result, Houston enjoys the league’s third-best record. Salman Ali, Managing Editor for Red Nation Hoops and host of the podcast with the same name, visits to discuss all those topics and more including how various role players are thriving and what Houston’s chances are against the rest of the Western Conference’s elite teams. Before the episode blasts off and we journey through the cosmos, you may prepare by scanning some of the highlights below:

0:50-1:26: From Salman’s perspective, just in time for the postseason, Harden is looking more like himself as he recovers from his wrist injury:

“I think the Rockets did a good job at sandwiching that rest day to where he’d get a full five days of rest. And let’s be real, that was a rest day. It was listed as a flu, but we kind of know it was because he didn’t want to sit and the Rockets had to say it was a flu day, so I think they did a good job of finding ways to sit him. His shooting stroke looks good. He’s getting to the rim, and he’s not tentative when he gets there, which is a problem that he had last week. And he’s not grimacing after shots, which was a big issue. Through the TV, you could just see that that wrist was bothering him, and now it looks a lot better.”

7:08-8:17: Even before the season, our guest began to notice that Harden was training his focus on the Houston Rockets to an extent he never had before. The adjustment has benefitted the team immensely:

“He seems really invested. Obviously, the bigger, high profile thing that Harden did this year is he signed that big extension to stay with the Rockets. To me, that showed a huge commitment to the franchise that may not have been there last season. Let’s be frank. He did not try as hard as he could have last year, and I think that reflected in how poor the Rockets played…he’s treating basketball as his job as opposed to something he’s doing on the side. That’s a really, really important distinction to make. Calvin Watkins of ESPN sat down with Travis Scott. He’s actually a local Houston rapper. He was talking about his opinion of James Harden, and he basically says, ‘James Harden doesn’t even want to go out with me anymore. All he does is he wants to stay inside and play basketball.'”

11:30-13:14: James Harden, Mike D’Antoni and much of the organization have worked together to translate an innovative vision into success, according to Salman:

“The hire in Houston of Mike D’Antoni was actually approached with a lot of skepticism at first, which I thought was warranted, right? You have a coach coming off of two miserable stints with the Knicks and the Lakers, and one common cause there is you have a superstar that isn’t willing to adapt to your system whether it be Carmelo Anthony or Kobe Bryant. And I think that’s been the greatest success here in Houston. James Harden is willing to buy into the system. If you remember at the beginning of the system, that shift to point guard was so widely discussed, and it’s worked out really well for the Rockets…I wouldn’t say he has a perfect comparison to Steve Nash, but I think he’s kind of that right blend of a modern-day superstar in terms of scoring and the facilitating of a Steve Nash. And he’s been able to generate like 58 points per game for the Rockets, which is pretty insane…That’s pretty much been the biggest difference. You have a superstar that’s willing to buy in to your system, the role players are willing to buy in, and you have an organization that supports Mike D’Antoni.”

21:12- 21:38Salman reveals what he terms the “insane strategy” the Rockets plan to utilize against the Warriors in the playoffs:

“Daryl Morey came out in an interview after they acquired Lou Williams and said, ‘If we’re gonna beat the Warriors, we’re gonna beat them with a barrage of 3-pointers.’ That’s a direct quote…That’s the strategy the Rockets plan on employing to have that 10 or 20 percent chance of beating the Warriors. Whether or not it’ll work, who knows? But it’s been working well so far, and that’s all you can ask for.”

37:50 – 38:42Finally, our Rockets expert pinpoints when exactly general manager Daryl Morey earned his trust:

“I’m all in on Daryl Morey…Seven or eight years ago, you were right to have some skepticism as to whether he would be a good general manager in the league. That summer, when they made the James Harden trade, Daryl Morey absolutely lost his mind…If you look at his transaction history from that summer, it wasn’t just the James Harden trade. They made so many transactions that summer. They were clearly in the hunt for a superstar, and his plan came into full view: flip assets and keep on flipping them until you get the right amount of assets to trade for a superstar. That’s when you can take a retrospective look at it. Before then, nobody knew what the hell he was doing.”

Music: “Who Likes to Party” by Kevin MacLeod