Return of Struggling Nets Big Man Could Finally Spark Harden’s Game

Nic Claxton (left) and James Harden, Nets

Getty Nic Claxton (left) and James Harden, Nets

If there is one thing that Nets guard James Harden likes, it’s tossing a good lob. He is among the best in the business at it and working with a dunk-happy NBA big guy off of a pick-and-roll is his idea of hoops nirvana. In an ESPN article from last April, it was pointed out that, over the previous five seasons, no player threw more lob assists—alley-oops, essentially—than Harden.

In fact, Harden had thrown 475 alley-oop lobs, more than double the next player on the list, Trae Young (235).

Of the many problems Harden has had this season, one important issue could be that he utterly lacks an alley-oop partner these days. The Nets have attempted to go with two aging options at center, first oft-injured Blake Griffin (who, at 32, has seen his above-the-rim days pass him by) and then LaMarcus Aldridge (who is 36 and never had above-the-rim days).

Combined, those two have a total of seven alley-oop finishes in 888 minutes this season.

Nicolas Claxton, meanwhile, in only five games played (79 minutes), has had five alley-oops finished, including the first points of the entire NBA season.

That’s one reason that Mark Sanchez of the New York Post wrote that Harden could soon be getting a boost, if Claxton can get back into playing condition after a long layoff that began with an illness in October.

“The best fit to play alongside Harden’s game, who can take and finish alley-oops, may be working his way back into shape,” Sanchez wrote.

Claxton Has Struggled to Get Back on the Floor

Of course, getting Claxton back on the court consistently goes beyond just conditioning. He also needs to regain the trust of head coach Steve Nash, which he clearly does not have. Nash inserted Claxton into the Nets’ game against the Timberwolves on Friday and Claxton managed to pick up three fouls and commit a turnover in three minutes of action. Nash yanked him and did not put him back into the game after that.

Claxton also sat out the following night, a loss to the Bulls.

“It would be great to get Nic going again, getting him fully functioning again,” Steve Nash said on Monday, per the Post. “We saw him Friday night and obviously it looked like he hadn’t played in a while, was fouling and just a little out of rhythm. And that’s normal for a guy who has had that much of a layoff, lost a bunch of weight, is trying to get himself back in shape. By the end of the year, we would love Nic to be a great add to what we do on both ends of the floor.”

The Alley-Oops Are Missing for Harden

But his return could do well for Harden, whose pick-and-roll game is obviously off. He is using the play 7.1 times per game this year, according to NBA stats, and creating just 0.78 points per possession on it, which ranks in the 39th percentile of the NBA. Last year, he ran it 8.2 times per game and created 0.92 points per possession, in the 64th percentile.

Having a dunk option would do well for Harden. Last year, in limited minutes, Claxton had 25 alley-oop finishes and the since-departed DeAndre Jordan had 73. That, of course, is a long way from the seven that centers Aldridge and Griffin have provided this season.

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