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How Will Chris Paul and James Harden Fit Together?

There’s only one ball!

(AP Images/Ringer illustration)
(AP Images/Ringer illustration)

Pairing Chris Paul with James Harden seems awkward at first glance, but maybe those guys know something we don’t. The Clippers are sending Paul to the Rockets for a seven-player package that includes Patrick Beverley, Sam Dekker, Lou Williams, and a 2018 first-round pick. "Chris Paul and James Harden were determined to play together," Adrian Wojnarowski reported Wednesday, "and found a way with [the] Rockets-Clippers trade agreed upon today."

Paul and Harden are two of the most ball-dominant guards in the game. Harden possessed the ball for 8.9 minutes per game last season, which led the NBA, per SportVU. Paul ranked seventh, at 7.2 minutes. Is there enough ball to go around for the Beard and the Point God?

Yes, though you wouldn’t know it if you’ve watched CP3 over his career. He has been the sole orchestrator since high school, through college at Wake Forest, and at both his NBA stops in New Orleans and Los Angeles. Even while playing alongside one of the most talented playmaking bigs of this century, Blake Griffin, there were often chemistry issues stemming from how much Paul wanted the ball.

But that wasn’t exactly Paul’s fault. The blame should largely fall on Clippers coach Doc Rivers, who, year after year, failed to stagger Paul’s and Griffin’s minutes, which meant they almost always shared the floor. Houston coach Mike D’Antoni always staggers minutes. With Harden and Paul, he can have at least one of the NBA’s elite playmakers on the floor for the entire game. Last season, Beverley and Eric Gordon played only two-thirds of their minutes with Harden. Beverley went from averaging 2.7 assists per 36 minutes while sharing the floor with Harden, to 8.8 assists per 36 when Harden was off the floor, while Gordon went from 15.6 points per 36 to 24.9 points per 36, respectively.

D’Antoni turned Gordon and Beverley into feature players when they played without Harden. The same idea applies to Paul. He and Harden don’t need to share the floor. Paul can be as dominant as he’s always been when he plays without Harden, and the Beard can play like he has the past few years with the Rockets. D’Antoni’s offense could unleash Paul 2.0, in the same way Harden reached a higher level this past season.

There will be growing pains, especially early in the 2017–18 season. But Harden willingly and successfully took on a supporting role with the Thunder when he was the third wheel behind Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. It’s not out of the question for him to relinquish some control to Paul. That both players wanted to join forces is a sign that they’re committed to doing what’s best for the team. Paul is in a new situation, one that will still feature him for some portion of the game. It’s reasonable to assume that he’ll view playing off the ball alongside Harden as an opportunity to get easier scoring chances than he’s ever dreamed of having. This was one of the draws of Golden State for Kevin Durant.

And don’t expect the Rockets to stop playing Moreyball. Harden and Paul are both knockdown spot-up 3-point shooters. Regardless of who’s handling the ball, the other can be a floor spacer who will significantly strain the defense. Over the past four years, Harden shot 39.5 percent on 886 catch-and-shoot 3-pointers, while Paul shot 43.9 percent on 330 attempts, per SportVU. Those guys are capable of draining 3s off the catch and off of screens, or they can attack a closeout and make a play off the bounce. Houston’s offense was intoxicating last year; just imagine the possibilities now. D’Antoni must feel like he’s dreaming.

Losing Beverley will hurt Houston’s defense, but Paul is no slouch — he was also just named first-team All-Defense. Even at the age of 32, he’s still an elite defender who grinds, night in and night out. Maybe by relinquishing some of his offensive workload, he’ll be able to be even more impactful on the defensive end. The same goes for Harden, who people seem to forget was a reliable defender early in his career in Oklahoma City, and in college at Arizona State.

So what’s next? Because with Morey, there’s always a "next." Stephen A. Smith reported that if Carmelo Anthony is bought out he will be pursued by the Rockets. But to do that, Houston will need to move Ryan Anderson’s $19.6 million contract. Trading away Anderson, or even dealing him as part of a package for Melo, could be a realistic next step for the team to add another star presence in its quest to take down the Warriors. Brian Windhorst also reports that the Rockets are chasing Paul George, though finding a practical trade package for the Pacers star would be difficult.

Houston also acquired DeAndre Liggins and Darrun Hilliard to package with the aforementioned names, plus Montrezl Harrell and Kyle Wiltjer, in the Paul trade. The deal’s structure means that the Rockets will not go under the cap to absorb Paul’s contract and will retain the use of their full $8.4 million midlevel exception. The benefit of going over the cap in the deal would be having the flexibility to chase other free agents with their exception.

By being traded, Paul retains his eligibility to sign a designated-player veteran extension worth five years and roughly $205 million. Once he inks that deal, the Rockets are locked in. Morey said he had something up his sleeve. That is quite a sleeve he’s got. There’s a superteam arms race happening in the NBA, and it’s not even July yet.

This piece was updated with additional details after publication.