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The issues surrounding Chris Paul‘s fit with James Harden and the Houston Rockets are so obvious, so potentially fraught with friction, they’re powerful enough to cut through the blinding shock of the offseason’s latest blockbuster trade.
Milliseconds after absorbing the stunning report Wednesday from The Vertical’s Adrian Wojnarowski, the only reasonable reaction involves questions.
CP3 to the Rockets? With Harden? And Mike D’Antoni? Holy…Wait, how’s that gonna work?
On the surface, this is a coup for the Rockets, who add perhaps the greatest point guard of all time (certainly the greatest since Magic Johnson) for Sam Dekker, Patrick Beverley, Lou Williams and a protected 2018 first-rounder, according to USA Today‘s Sam Amick. They’ll also send Montrezl Harrell to the Los Angeles Clippers, according to Brad Turner of the Los Angeles Times. Paul is a two-way superstar toward the tail end of his prime, a player responsible for the Clippers’ six winningest seasons.
If you can get Paul, you do it. If you can get him for role players, even if he can re-enter free agency after the 2017-18 season, you do it before taking another breath. The era we’re in requires epic talent consolidation like this; it’s the only way to compete with the Golden State Warriors, Cleveland Cavaliers, a likely super team in Boston and whatever the San Antonio Spurs cobble together to win 60 games again.
Still, everyone’s thinking what ESPN’s Mina Kimes is, right?
Mina Kimes @minakimes
chris paul and james harden stepping on the court together for the first time https://t.co/2iISfHLK45
It’s true we just watched Kevin Durant integrate seamlessly with the Warriors. And we know two ball-dominant guards can work together in a great offense because we’ve seen Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum run pick-and-rolls on either side of the floor to great effect with the Portland Trail Blazers.
Harden and Paul are better passers and more unselfish—seemingly preprogrammed to make the right pass-dribble-shoot read every time, regardless of the situation—than any other current combo in the NBA.
But it’s fair to wonder how two players with overwhelming pick-and-roll volume and so much touch time can be their best when they have no choice but to share:
Tom Haberstroh @tomhaberstroh
This is gonna be fun: Harden ranked 1st in time of possession last season and Chris Paul ranked 7th, per SportVU https://t.co/kgfduPhquV
Synergy Sports Tech @SynergySST
44% of Houston’s half court offense was created out of the pick & roll last season. The Rockets now have 2 of the NBA’s top-3 PnR passers https://t.co/GvOcx6xTjW
This is perhaps the ultimate example of the “there’s only one ball” caveat that arises whenever big names come together.
Believing it’ll work requires faith, among other things.
Faith that talent this great can sort out the details. Faith that if you give the principals what they want, they’ll feel the pressure to deliver. To make it work. And this is what Harden, Paul and D’Antoni want, according to Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle:
Jonathan Feigen @Jonathan_Feigen
Paul and Harden played together with USA Basketball, with Mike D’Antoni an assistant coach. All three obviously convinced the mix will work.
Fortunately, the Rockets aren’t just proceeding on blind trust. There’s logic at work here, too—logic that goes beyond “more talent is better.”
In addition to living in the era of the modern superteam, we’re also living in the era of rest.
Harden was overtaxed last year and clearly wore down in the postseason. He was lethargic against the Spurs, as he struggled to get to the foul line and settled for contested jumpers in isolation far too often. Some credit belongs to San Antonio, but Harden’s malaise was undeniable. Even if you attribute his diminished effectiveness to a sore ankle or illness, that’s still proof he needed (but never got) enough rest and recovery time during the year.
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Paul is 32 and has finished virtually all of his past five seasons either officially injured or so banged up that he may as well have been sitting out. So when you worry about how this duo will function together in the same ball-dominant roles they’ve occupied for years, remember those roles are overdue to change. And consider, too, that the players themselves want them to change, according to Marc J. Spears of The Undefeated:
Marc J. Spears @MarcJSpearsESPN
Chris Paul was seriously interested in Spurs, source says, but chance to play off ball & share PG duties w/James Harden was more attractive.
Houston will still start Harden with Paul, and it’ll play them big minutes together. But D’Antoni can now stagger his two stars and manage the game so the Rockets never play a second (barring injury) without a guy who, by his mere presence on the floor, assures an elite offense.
With Harden on the court last year, the Rockets scored 113.6 points per 100 possessions. Without him, that figure fell to 106.5. CP3 made an even bigger impact in L.A., raising the Clippers’ offensive rating from 104.7 when he sat to 116.2 when he played.
Paul kept the Clippers among the offensive elite for years, but he’s never seen spacing like he will in Houston.
Clint Capela will roll to the rim much like DeAndre Jordan did, but Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon will space the floor to an extreme degree. Both spot up several feet beyond the arc, and Blake Griffin won’t be hanging around the elbows anymore.
Plus, Harden will be available on the weak side, so any action involving Paul that draws help defenders to the strong side of the floor will leave massive vulnerabilities that Paul can exploit with a quick swing pass to a waiting Harden, who’ll go to work against a scrambling defense with help out of position.
Flip it by putting Paul on the weak side, and you’ll get the same unfair scenario.
This is a recipe for pure offensive dominance, one in which the only concern is pace. CP3 isn’t exactly used to playing D’Antoni’s up-and-down style, as Micah Adams of ESPN Stats & Info noted:
Micah Adams @MicahAdams13
Chris Paul’s teams have played at a pace slower than league average in 10 of his 12 seasons and never inside top 5. Great fit, though.
But if we assume he’ll share the load with Harden, cut minutes and not have to be the offense’s alpha and omega at all times, perhaps this role at a faster pace (with far more free-throw breaks) will be less taxing.
Defense is always a secondary concern for the Rockets and D’Antoni, but it’d be irresponsible not to mention Paul is a better defender than the celebrated Beverley. ESPN’s Real-Plus Minus shows the stats favoring Paul last season. And the one before that. And before that. And, yes, before that.
Houston also has the full mid-level exception and the bi-annual exception to use, along with a suddenly more attractive roster that should draw interest from ring-chasing vets. The Rockets could add more shooting and a defensive wing—perhaps all in one with yet another blockbuster move:
Alykhan Bijani @Rockets_Insider
.@WindhorstESPN is reporting that the #Rockets aren’t done dealing and are trying very hard to land Paul George to pair with CP3 and Harden.
Is there risk here? Sure.
Aside from the sharing stuff, there’s Paul’s possible age-related decline and the general thinning of Houston’s depth.
But in this new reality defined by the Warriors’ looming dynasty, pulling talent like this together is the only option, even if it’s risky.
Paul, Harden and D’Antoni aren’t rebuilding franchises. They aren’t a faceless organization that can wait out the Dubs and try to contend in three or four years. They’re individuals with finite career lengths and humongous ambitions.
They can’t “wait it out.” They don’t have that luxury, and their competitiveness ideologically forbids it.
The Rockets, like those of us observing, can accept the downside and acknowledge the fit may be tricky. But they’ve embraced the truth that if you’re going to take a crack at the Warriors, if you’re going to pursue a title in an era where so many are fearfully punting on contention, this is the only way to do it.