Photo: Kirby Lee/USA Today Sports
The basketball world seems to be divided on how Chris Paul will fit next to James Harden. Half of them believes it will be a seamless transition because both are great players. The other half believes it will not work because both are ball-dominant guards. While there could be an adjustment early on, let’s look at what the facts say about why the potential fit could be seamless.
In terms of both being ball-dominant, that cannot be truer. In touches per game, Harden ranked 2nd in the league last season with 99.2 and Paul was 8th with 86.2. In time of possession, Harden was tied for 2nd with 8.9 seconds per possession and Paul was 7th with 7.2. In average seconds per touch, Harden was 6th with 5.4 and Paul was 27th with 4.98.
(Stats via NBA.com)
However, in terms of usage rate, Harden was 4th with 34.2%, but Paul was 46th with 24.5%. This shows that Chris Paul is used to playing with a star in Blake Griffin. In Harden’s first season with Dwight Howard in 2014 (the only season in Houston where Harden played with another all-star), he was 15th in usage rate at 27.6%, showing he can scale back with another great player. The only season in Los Angeles where Chris Paul even got close to that usage rate was in 2016 when it was 27.1%. That was the infamous year Blake Griffin broke his arm punching the trainer and only played 35 games, so CP3 had to pick up the slack. Other than that season, Paul’s largest usage rate in LA was just 24.4%, which was last season.
(Stats via Basketball-Reference.com)
The point of all these stats is that these guys know how to play with other stars. They are willing to defer or step up depending on the situation. Both are very high IQ players and taking on a lesser role for each will keep them fresh fatigue-wise for a deep playoff run.
Will the Transition Be Seamless?
Although with both players used to dominating the ball, there will probably be an adjustment early on. While I expect them at some point to mesh fluidly, there will be a small struggle for a little while. Most times when a star changes teams, there is a bit of a hurdle that takes place. They happen because it is a new situation, new system, and new teammates. This may cause the Rockets to be third, maybe fourth in the West standings. However, they will probably be the second best team in the conference, possibly even the league, going into the playoffs due to how they play from January through April.
The Great D’Antoni
In terms of Mike D’Antoni, he has always been the master of inflating point guard stats (which is a compliment to his system). Now that he has two of them, it is valid to wonder if they can coexist when both operate in the same space. Well, this is not the first time D’Antoni has had one of the better backcourts in the league. In the 04-05 season, coach of the year D’Antoni’s Suns had MVP Steve Nash and Joe Johnson in one of his most efficient scoring seasons ever. When Johnson went to Atlanta, for the next few seasons the Suns had one of the best sixth men in the league: Leandro Barbosa. While the Brazilian blur was nowhere near the talent or skill level of James Harden, he certainly was one of the better players in the league. Barbosa was a dynamic scorer who commanded the ball, but he and Nash worked extremely well together.
Furthermore, in the D’Antoni offense, spot-up 3s on the weak side from a pick n’ roll (PNR) driver is crucial. Harden was in the 90.6th percentile on spot-up jumpers. While the sample size is not that big, it does show he can play off the ball while Chris Paul runs the show. CP3, while not as great, was still in the 77.3rd percentile on spot ups, which is quite good. The obstacle for both will be used to playing more off the ball, but once they get used to it, they will be very effective.
(Stats via NBA.com)
The Rockets As a Whole
Another factor to consider is the Rockets lose nothing defensively despite losing Patrick Beverley. Chris Paul is one of the best defensive point guards ever, thus alleviating any sort of load the Beard would have to do on that end. Also, both will take on a lesser load offensively so they will be fresher altogether. With Paul, Ariza, and Capela, the Rockets have three extremely good defensive pieces in the starting lineup to be formidable around playoff time.
The biggest question with the fit is Chris Paul’s age. At 32, he does not have many great years left. While I contend he is still at his peak, it is unclear how much longer it will last. The good news is playing with James Harden will take a load off of him and it might extend his career and vice versa. With that being said, the Rockets are still at least a piece away from making a series against the Warriors competitive.
My take is if you are concerned about the fit with the two stars, you can relax. This team will be very dynamic. They are a few pieces away from being a championship-caliber team. With possibly a Steph Curry ankle crack or a Kevin Durant knee tear, they could strike gold and win a championship (even though we should not wish injury on anyone; it is just a possibility). This Warriors team is just incredible and maybe the best team ever. If they have a 90% chance of winning it all next season, the Rockets might have the best chance of that other 10%. If the stars align, we could have a new, interesting champion next year. Title or no title, the Houston Rockets will be very exciting to watch and could make things interesting.