The NBA’s offseason continues to provide blissful, beautiful chaos. Chris Paul is about to join the Houston Rockets. It’s yet another blockbuster deal to take place before the start of free agency on Saturday, one that promises to have wide-ranging repercussions for the league. But it does raise some questions.
Namely: how in the world will CP3 and James Harden fit together?
It’s not an unreasonable question. Both superstars ranked among the NBA’s most ball-dominant players last season, with Harden tying for the league lead in time of possession per game and Paul finishing seventh, according to NBA.com’s SportVU optical tracking data. Harden reached new heights, and a second-place finish in 2017 NBA Most Valuable Player voting, by fully taking the reins of the Rockets’ offense last season, operating as a full-time, unquestioned point guard at the controls of Mike D’Antoni’s spread pick-and-roll attack. Now, he’ll need to make room for one of the most gifted and demanding playmakers the league’s ever seen, an orchestrator without peer who’s at his best, and the league’s best, with the ball in his hands.
Going from a low-usage, defense-first, space-the-floor complement like Patrick Beverley (who’ll be headed to the Los Angeles Clippers in the swap) to a domineering floor general like Paul will represent a massive shift for Harden. Ditto for Paul, who trades in J.J. Redick’s nightly off-ball marathon through and around screens for Harden’s peerless ability to create great looks at all levels of the defense in the pick-and-roll with his size, power and patience.
Harden has flourished in a Rockets organization that has long prioritized pushing the pace. The Rockets have ranked 11th or higher in possessions per 48 minutes every season since 2009, including top-five finishes in five of six seasons since Harden came over from Oklahoma City. “Lob City” rhetoric aside, Paul has long preferred a more deliberate game. Only once in his 12-year career has CP3 piloted an offense that operated at a top-10 pace — 2013-14, when the Clips finished the season seventh in possessions-per-48 — and it’s unclear he’ll be all that interested in putting the pedal to the metal night after night at age 32.
On top of that, the area in which Paul is at his deadliest — the midrange — is the area that the Moreyball Rockets have long eschewed in the interest of pursuing nothing but layups, dunks, 3-pointers and free throws.
CP3 is the master of shooting/assisting mid-range jumpers. The Rockets take/assist fewest MRJ in league. Who changes more, CP3 or D. Morey? pic.twitter.com/zvAtTn7ONy
— Yale Sport Analytics (@YaleSportsGroup) June 28, 2017
Paul made nearly as many midrange jumpers (164) as the Rockets canned as a team (209) last year. But how does his gift for snaking around screens near the 3-point arc, working his way to the foul-line and elbows, and using his evil array of feints and footwork to find room to hoist and drill fit into a Rockets attack that has basically treated that entire region as hot lava for a half-decade? Something’s got to give, right?
Well, not if that’s (at least part of) the motivation to bring CP3 in.
Think about it: by the midway point of the Rockets’ second-round series against the San Antonio Spurs, Harden looked cooked. It manifested in the All-NBA offensive savant playing his worst basketball of the season at its most critical moments, turning in six dismal quarters as Houston sputtered out, exiting in six games to a San Antonio side playing without its own MVP finalist. A Rockets attack that torched the NBA during the regular season to the tune of 111.8 points per 100 possessions withered on the vine in Games 5 and 6, managing just 93.7 points-per-100 against the Spurs.
The Spurs hugged up on Houston’s shooters, protected the front of the rim, and dared a tired Harden and company to win with shots San Antonio knew the Rockets didn’t want to take. This is a fairly common refrain; for as blistering as the Rockets’ offense can be on a night-to-night basis over the course of a regular season, in a seven-game series, if you’ve got the manpower and determination, you can scheme to stifle it.
Now, enter one of the greatest midrange shooters of all time to make those shots. (It’s worth remembering here that the Rockets have chased multiple stars who made their money from midrange in the past — Pau Gasol, pre-stretch Chris Bosh, Carmelo Anthony — because for him, ultimately, it’s about trying to stack stars rather than immediately prioritizing fit.)
And one of the greatest playmakers of all time to ease the playmaking burden on Harden in those moments, and over the course of 82 games. (Ditto for Paul, who comes to Houston having missed significant chunks of time in two of the last four seasons, and who wound up having to do everything for the Clippers in their first-round loss to the Utah Jazz after Blake Griffin went down again.)
And a knockdown marksman off the ball — a blistering 69.1 percent Effective Field Goal percentage on catch-and-shoot looks last year, second-best in the NBA among rotation players — to make good when he’s spotting up on the other side of the floor when Harden’s on the ball.
Chris Paul’s elite mid-range game complementing Houston’s 3s & layups/space & pace offense >>>>>>>
— sreekar (@sreekyshooter) June 28, 2017
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 pic.twitter.com/GvOcx6xTjW
— Synergy Sports Tech (@SynergySST) June 28, 2017
Adding another elite offensive creator provides a first-rate auxiliary option whenever any possession bogs down, helps create additional space for the incumbent superstar to do his work, and allows the coach to more effectively stagger minutes, ensuring that the team can keep one All-NBA-caliber point producer on the floor at all times and preventing either one of them from getting too burnt out along the way.
Harden & Paul could be on the floor together for ~20 MPG. Then you have 28 min. w/ 1 on the floor vs. opponent bench units.
— John Schuhmann (@johnschuhmann) June 28, 2017
If that sounds familiar to you, it should.
Last summer, Stephen Curry was coming off the best individual season of his career, but dealing with the bitter disappointment of a postseason loss in which, for one reason or another, he didn’t perform up to his own standards and found his team unable to generate the kind of offensive excellence needed to topple an elite opponent when it mattered most. When the opportunity presented itself, he ceded some spotlight and some touches to make room for the Golden State Warriors to pull off the free-agent coup of the summer, signing former MVP Kevin Durant — precisely the kind of offensive answer the Warriors didn’t have in the 2016 Finals against the Cleveland Cavaliers — to join up.
Curry’s reward? A second NBA championship and the chance to be on the cusp of a dynasty. Durant’s reward? A steady diet of the easiest shots he’d ever taken playing off the ball across from Steph, his first NBA championship and NBA Finals MVP honors. It worked out for both of them.
The fit of CP3 in Houston isn’t nearly as clean as it was for KD in Golden State. (Six-foot shot creators aren’t quite as reliable a postseason commodity as 7-foot ones, and Durant’s ability to slot in at the three, four and five spots for the Warriors in any lineup Steve Kerr could concoct likely outstrips the value that even a point guard as great as Paul can provide to D’Antoni.) And we don’t know for sure if Harden’s taking a page out of Steph’s book. But the early indications suggest that, contrary to concerns about fit and function, he was adamant that this was the move Houston needed to make:
League sources say James Harden is among those in Houston advocating for the signing of Chris Paul and has made that known to CP3 directly.
— Marc Stein (@ESPNSteinLine) June 28, 2017
Chris Paul and James Harden were determined to play together, and found a way with Rockets-Clippers trade agreed upon today.
— Adrian Wojnarowski (@WojVerticalNBA) June 28, 2017
Chris Paul was seriously interested in Spurs, source says, but chance to play off ball & share PG duties w/James Harden was more attractive.
— Marc J. Spears (@MarcJSpearsESPN) June 28, 2017
In 2015, Harden pushed to sign Ty Lawson at PG. Told me he wanted to slash/cut a la OKC days + play off ball more. CP3 revives that concept
— Pablo S. Torre (@PabloTorre) June 28, 2017
Despite the evident mutual appreciation society that the former U.S. Olympic teammates have going on, there are still plenty of questions to answer. D’Antoni will have to diversify his approach to generate more possessions in which both of his playmakers are activated. As handsy and opportunistic a defender as Paul remains, even at age 32, losing Beverley might hurt, and the Rockets still seem at least one defender short (though a very good one might be on the way.)
But to make noise in a conference dominated by an ascendant super-team, you’ve got to make bold moves. The Rockets did that on Wednesday, doubling down on an area of strength while potentially making themselves tougher to guard and giving themselves a viable contender for the best backcourt in the NBA.
“They see the floor extremely well and orchestrate all kinds of things,” D’Antoni said back in December when asked to compare Harden and Paul. “They probably have in their head better plays than we can diagram so you give them a long rope to play the game and you trust them totally. He is one of the rare, few guys that by himself influences every game. Like James does, Chris Paul does.”
And now, the Rockets have them both. Sounds like one of them good problems.
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