With Chris Paul joining James Harden in the backcourt, the Rockets are dreaming big. “[Mike D’Antoni] talked about us being the best offensive team ever,” Rockets shooting guard Eric Gordon said after a recent practice. “For us to do that, it’s about continuing to be unselfish and to knock down shots.” Unselfishness has been the primary talking point surrounding the Rockets ever since Paul was acquired in late June. Harden and Paul are two of the most notoriously ball-dominant players in the league. Harden possessed the ball last season for a league-high 8.9 minutes per game, per NBA.com. Paul ranked in the top seven in each of the past four seasons.
“Can Harden and Paul coexist?” is fair to ask. But pose the question to anyone in the Rockets organization and the response falls somewhere on the scale between bewildered and exasperated. After their first preseason game, Harden said: “I told you, nothing’s gonna change.” Paul looked perplexed when asked about playing more off the ball. “It’s cool. It’s good. It’s great,” Paul said. “You do what you have to do on the team that you’re on. That’s the way games work. I’m enjoying this.” Rockets general manager Daryl Morey perhaps said it best at media day on September 25: “We’re a hundred percent certain it’s gonna work.”
The success of Houston’s experiment hinges on beating the Warriors in the playoffs. The objective is to win the title. But the season hasn’t even started yet and every team’s roster doesn’t need to be finalized until April. So let’s take a rain check on the playoff conversation and focus specifically on the Harden-Paul duo, and how they fit as the centerpiece of the roster.
“Normally, my offenses have been one kind of Hall of Fame point guard,” Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni said on media day. “Now we’ve got two that’ll be on the court the whole time.” Superstars join forces all the time in today’s NBA, but there isn’t a historical precedent for this type of playmaking point guard partnership. D’Antoni must have had a delightful summer conjuring up new ways to utilize Harden and Paul.
D’Antoni can more evenly distribute their workloads. When they’re both on the floor, they can strategically choose who brings the ball up; if a high-caliber defender like Andre Roberson or Kawhi Leonard is on Harden, Paul can bring the ball up, or vice versa. Without having to run a ball screen every single time up the floor, either Harden or Paul will have opportunities to expend less energy by playing off the ball. Harden’s historic 2016-17 season, in which he logged 2,339 possessions, second only to Russell Westbrook, ended with a whimper because he was exhausted by the Spurs series. CP3 has looked fatigued in the past, too—which could be a reason his minutes have declined in each of the past four Clippers seasons. They can get breaks now that they have a partner fully capable of maintaining their scoring efficiency.
It can be hard to untangle Paul from who he was on the Clippers, just as it’s hard to imagine a Rockets team not orbiting around Harden. But Paul never would’ve forced his way into Houston, of all places, had he not been willing to change. If Harden had any serious reservations about ceding his spotlight, he wouldn’t have allowed the deal to happen. At media day, D’Antoni stated the key to superstars joining forces is whether the players talked about it (which they did), whether they want to make each other better (which they do), and whether the players have synergy together (so far, so good). “Both of them are very willing to do whatever it takes to be the best that we can be. Now we just got to figure out whatever that is and keep improving on it all year,” D’Antoni said. “Anytime you have great players it shouldn’t be a problem if they all want to be great together and play together. So we have that down already.”
Through the three preseason games Harden and Paul have played together, we’ve witnessed the onset of their new dynamic.
The Rockets opened up the second half of their preseason game against Oklahoma City with the play above. Paul gives the ball up to Harden, who pivots around a double high screen set by Paul and Clint Capela. Harden turns the corner and quickly spots a wide-open Trevor Ariza. Boom, three points. Notice how open Paul is on the play. The next time up the floor, they run the play again.
This time around, Harden penetrates deeper into the lane, draws the attention of additional defenders, and kicks it back to Paul for an open triple. Boom, another three points. If the weakside wing defender helps off even a few inches to contain Harden at the nail, then Ryan Anderson will be open for a deep 3. Don’t forget Capela on the lob.
When the Rockets ran the same play in the first half, Harden brought the ball up the floor and dished it to Paul. This instance didn’t result in any points, but you can see how just this single play presents so many options for Houston. It’s easy to envision a scenario where Harden kicks the ball out to Paul for 3 and the defense rotates over, then Paul attacks the closeout for a layup, draws a foul, or the defense is forced to rotate a second time. Any time an offense can get a defense to rotate twice on a single possession, the defense is in trouble.
“I don’t think I’ve ever played with a player with the caliber of James,” Paul said at media day. “Everybody says what I’ll do for him, but what is he gonna do for me?” We never got to see Paul with another superb guard. In New Orleans and Los Angeles, his best backcourt partners were Darren Collison, young Eric Bledsoe, or old Chauncey Billups. Harden is probably better than all three of them combined.
Paul has controlled the ball so much in his career, we’ve never really gotten the chance to see how he can perform without it. Statistics suggest he can excel. Through the past four seasons, including the playoffs, Paul shot 45 percent on 371 catch-and-shoot 3-pointers, while Harden shot 39.6 percent on 960 attempts, per SportVU. Paul will get more opportunities scoring off the catch than he ever has before. “Both of us are gonna have opportunities to play off the ball a little bit more, which we probably haven’t had,” Harden told NBA TV. “I'm not sure last time he had it in his career and since I've been in Houston. So I think offensively, that's gonna be a key.”
Harden and Paul are both excellent at playmaking, spot-up shooting, cutting, slashing, and picking apart a rotating defense. The challenge will be finding a distribution that works best, which could largely depend on the situation. D’Antoni, Harden, and Paul, as well as the rest of the team, will need to figure out what works best to create the greatest advantage.
“We're going to experiment some,” D’Antoni said at media day. “Then most of the time, if you give them freedom and you have certain philosophies that you want them to do, then they'll figure out what's comfortable for them. And by watching them, and putting them in spots that they can succeed, both of them, and adjusting a little bit, to me that’s the process.” In other words, D’Antoni’s challenge is making the backcourt duo work as seamlessly as it can, and avoiding a situation where they just take turns commanding the offense. It’s a great “problem” to have. “It happens so naturally. We don't even plan it. Coach puts us in our spots and we just play. We figure it out,” Harden said. “Coach puts us in our spots. We just play and figure it out.”
Those spots might be new terrain for both players. “I was telling James, Coach drew up a play for me to, like, come off a screen and shoot tonight,” Paul said after the Rockets beat Shanghai. “I don’t recall that happening for awhile.” The play Paul referenced was ripped straight out of the Warriors playbook.
In the second quarter against the Sharks, D’Antoni sent Paul through the elevator doors, a play the Warriors popularized during the 2013-14 season with Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson. These are the type of on-court bonding exercises D’Antoni can put his team through as they develop synergy through the season. The freedom of choice will allow D’Antoni to dream up and try out his wildest basketball fantasies. “When you have willing participants on the whole side, surely you know we can figure it out to the best of our ability,” D’Antoni said at media day.
With Paul handling the ball, Harden can take on an increased role as a cutter and slasher, just like he did as the third wheel behind Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant. Harden will probably need some time to readjust, but those off-ball instincts don’t ever go away completely. Reading the defense while stalking the baseline should be like riding a bike. Pretend Paul is in place of Westbrook in the play below.
Harden scored in the 95th percentile or higher in cuts, off-screen, and hand-off plays during his final season in Oklahoma City, per Synergy. Now he’s on a better roster with more floor spacing, which should provide easy opportunities for him to make plays for himself or others.
This is a good example of how baskets will be generated this season. Here, Gordon runs a pick-and-roll and forces a rotation, as Harden slices down the middle of the floor. Once Harden gets a touch, that forces the big man to rotate over, which opens the window for a lob dunk to Capela. “We have a lot of other players who make reads and backdoor cuts,” Anderson said at a recent practice. “Our pace of play isn’t just fast. It’s making really precise passes, precise cuts, making smart plays. We have guys who can do that.”
Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the new-look Rockets is how the rest of the team complements Harden and Paul. Morey brought back Anderson and Gordon, two of the NBA’s most devastating spot-up shooters. Capela is a lob machine. Ariza, the team’s best perimeter stopper, will be joined by P.J. Tucker and Luc Mbah a Moute, two defensive vise grips who shot a combined 37.4 percent on catch-and-shoot 3s last season, per NBA.com. Paul is already developing chemistry with his new teammates, while D’Antoni is getting creative with lineup configurations. Here, Anderson is playing the 5, with Tucker and Mbah a Moute at forward, and Gordon and Paul in the backcourt.
As Tucker hands the ball off to Paul, Anderson simultaneously sets a down screen for Gordon, which Gordon sprints through for the 3-point attempt. The timing isn’t perfect, but imagine an NFL quarterback releasing a pass before a receiver even makes their cut—that kind of precision takes time, and Houston is laying the groundwork. The Rockets aren’t at that stage yet. Here’s another example that came a few minutes later in the game.
Anderson shooting up from so deep can put significant strain on a defense. But as we saw last season in the playoffs, he can be exploited on the other end of the floor. Though he said at media day that he got into better shape, the odds are Houston won’t be leaning on him in end-of-game situations. The fortunate part is that D’Antoni has a deep and versatile roster that he can mold depending on what a game demands.
Ariza, Tucker, and Mbah a Moute are a forward trio that can be plugged into switch-friendly small-ball lineups. With Capela patrolling the paint and Paul at guard, there will be lineups where Harden is the only negative defender on the floor. Houston’s flaw last season was their inability to get stops, as it has been for most D’Antoni teams in the past. Last season, they ranked 12th in half-court defense, per Synergy—not too shabby. The problem is their opponents got the 12th-most frequent transition chances, per Synergy. This has always been an issue for D’Antoni’s teams. As much as I loved watching the Seven Seconds or Less Suns, I often wondered why D’Antoni didn’t replace the D in his last name for an O. Times could be changing, though.
For Houston it could be like a virtuous cycle: Better offense will enable them to reset their defense and play in the half court more frequently. The better defenders will help create more turnovers, leading to more fast breaks. At least, in theory. The hurdle will be sustaining this high level of play through the entire game. With Harden and Paul, they might be able to.
At media day, Morey boasted that the Rockets will have 48 minutes of Hall of Fame–level point guard play.
The Rockets were terrific last season, but, naturally, their offensive rating fell off without Harden, like it does for any team that takes their best player off the floor. With the Rockets, though, their two best players have traits that both overlap and complement each other. When only one of them is in, they can almost exclusively handle the point guard reps in the same fashion that Harden did last season.
The two-point-guard setup is a dream for D'Antoni because it eliminates a weakness that is a common thread in his most successful teams: Offensive production routinely fell off a cliff when his starting point guard went to the bench. Here are the numbers, courtesy of Basketball-Reference, of the team’s offensive ratings when Harden or Nash were on and off the floor.
Harden and Nash Offensive Ratings
|Player, Season||On-Court ORTG||Off-Court ORTG|
|Player, Season||On-Court ORTG||Off-Court ORTG|
In the preseason games in which both Harden and Paul played, each has played more than half of their minutes with the other on the court. D’Antoni tends to sub Paul out halfway through the first and third quarters. Harden becomes Mr. Solo Dolo, then Paul takes over at the start of the second and fourth quarters until, about halfway through, Harden gets subbed back in. Expect to see a fairly similar distribution during the regular season.
The Rockets’ offensive rating was 114.7, which ranked 10th-best all-time, per Basketball-Reference. If the team is better when they’re both on the floor, and production stays at 2016-17 levels when just one of them is in, the Rockets could possibly make a run at the best offensive rating ever. Both the 1986-87 Lakers and 2016-17 Warriors posted a 115.6 offensive rating. Here are the top 10 scoring teams ever:
Top 10 Scoring Teams
The Rockets have the orchestrators. They have the weapons. They have the system. In all likelihood, Houston will shatter its own 3-point shooting record this season. In their four preseason games, the Rockets have taken 55, 52, 46, and 46 shots from downtown. The amounts to 61.6 percent of their total shot attempts. They only cracked 60 percent in an individual game twice all of last season (the NBA’s all-time record was set by Houston in December 2016 against the Pelicans when they attempted 64.9 percent of their shots from 3—61 of 94 attempts). Find a friend and bet on the Rockets cracking that number more than twice this season. You’ll win.
Houston could too. There will be bumps in the road, like there are for any team that needs time to develop chemistry. Paul will send a death glare Harden’s way at some point, because he has with every teammate he’s ever played with. But what they have could be special. “You put two high-IQ guys that are willing to pass, willing to sacrifice to do whatever it takes,” Harden said at media day. “[We’ve] got the same, you know, goal in mind and that’s winning a championship, you know it's definitely gonna work.”