Could A Chris Paul-James Harden Partnership Actually Work?

“I do know that Chris Paul is legitimately interested in playing [in Houston],” ESPN’s Brian Windhorst said on a recent episode of The Lowe Post.

The Houston Rockets have a “serious chance of luring Chris Paul away,” Chris Haynes mentioned on Sports Center, per Ben DuBose of the Locked on Rockets podcast.

Marc Stein has reported that Ryan Anderson, Lou Williams and Patrick Beverley have all been made available in an attempt to create enough cap space for a major free agent signing, including a “hard” push for Paul.

Basically, the rumored Rockets pursuit of CP3 isn’t letting up. Out of him staying with the Los Angeles Clippers for a five-year contract and $205 million ($53 million more than anywhere else), or joining the amazing culture of the San Antonio Spurs to team up with Kawhi Leonard for a great Western Conference Finals shot, Paul turning all that down for Houston makes the least sense.

Nevertheless, the rumor is persistent. There appears to be something to it, with so many reporting that’s the case, and even mentioning Paul’s interest in the Rockets, so let’s consider how this would work. Specifically, let’s look at the biggest question: How would Paul and James Harden work together?

The Good

How two ball-dominant point guards, who thrive by dictating the flow and rhythm of their offense, can mesh together is the really head-scratching part of this story. However, there are some positives to what the Rockets would be doing. After all, it’s Chris Paul. He’s still a top-10 player, and he didn’t let up at the age of 32 last season, averaging 18.1 points, 9.2 assists, 5 rebounds and 1.9 steals per game, with ease. Hew added a career-high 41.1 percent 3-point shot, a 26.2 PER, and a ranking of first among all point guards in Real Plus/Minus (an absurd 7.92).

Beverley does everything he needs to next to Harden. He spots up to hit 38.2 percent of his 3s, initiates a little offense and serves as an All-Defensive-level player at the other end of the floor. But he’s no Chris Paul. The theoretical ceiling of his added playmaking and scoring is higher than anything Beverley has to offer offensively.

One of the other few benefits of Harden and Paul teaming up is that they can both play off the ball, albeit sparingly. Harden shoots tougher 3s than anyone in the league, frequently pulling up and stepping back into contested bombs. Catch-and-shoot 3s only accounted for 2.3 of his 9.3 total attempts per game (he shot 38.3 percent on those 2.3 attempts), but he’d be more efficient with more of said 3s, even though creating fewer pull-ups would be an adjustment.

Having Paul to play off of would send Harden’s overall 3-point percentage of 34.7 last season climbing, not to mention trim down his league-leading 464 turnovers. Paul was fantastic spotting up this season, hitting 49.3 percent of his catch-and-shoot 3s. Similarly to Harden, most of Paul’s attempts were pull-ups (which he still made at a 39.1 percent rate), but both players know where to be off the ball when necessary.

It helps a lot that both players are so smart. You can’t see the floor any better than Paul, and we all saw how impressive Harden’s vision and passing was when fully unleashed last season. Their collective IQ, with Mike D’Antoni as coach, would be the brightest bunch of offensive minds you could assemble to organize a team’s backcourt. If Paul and Harden really want to, they may be able to make a partnership work with a selfless enough mindset, plenty of reps, and fully utilizing what they are both capable of when moving off the ball as effective catch-and-shoot players.

The very interest of the Rockets in Paul could have been furthered by Harden understanding that he needs help, and him not carrying such an overwhelming load could help the team’s chances of winning. After all, we saw the Rockets’ offense struggle more in the playoffs, when so much rested on Harden’s shoulders and teams such as the San Antonio Spurs game-planned so effectively to contain the 3-point line and protect the rim, because that’s all the Rockets’ offense lives on. With another elite shot creator and one of the best mid-range shooters ever in CP3, who can get wherever he wants on the floor, that problem is certainly reduced.

If seeking more creative help is the approach of Harden and Co., that could help the partnership. However, there are obvious problems that can’t be overlooked.

The bad

Along with LeBron James, Harden and Paul were arguably the best floor generals in the NBA this season. Relenting a lot of that control to play together is a tough ask. They’re both best with the ball in their hands, and that’s what this mainly comes down to.

Harden ranked fourth in usage percentage last season (34.2) and second in assist percentage (50.7), a little ahead of Paul’s 46.8 (fourth in the league). Both accounted for so much of their team’s offense because they were set up as the staple of the entire offense. Harden scored a ton himself, set up his plethora of shooters, and destroyed opponents with his pick-and-roll/pop wizardry. Despite Paul having Blake Griffin to work with, he’s still the conductor of the offense, the dictator of the heavy pick-and-roll style and was responsible for the team scoring 11.5 more points per 100 possessions when on the floor.

It’s important to consider pace in this scenario as well. Harden tore up defenses last season by pushing the tempo and dishing to shooters in transition, orchestrating a Rockets offense that ranked third in pace. Obviously, Paul is capable and smart enough to adjust.

He can play as fast or as slow as he wants. But he’s always been more methodical in his approach, taking his time and picking apart defenses meticulously, leading the Clippers to rank just 17th in pace last season. On top of both players learning to have the ball less and avoiding a tiresome, almost “my turn, your turn” approach to running the offense, a clash of their respective favored tempos and styles makes the fit feel even weirder.

Then, there’s the matter of what the Rockets have to lose to create space. If they have to part with their floor-spacing power forward in Anderson, their shooting takes a hit. If Beverley has to go, they lose his fiery character and defense that’s already bringing so much to the team for the ridiculous bargain of only $10.5 million for the next two seasons combined. Why mess with a fantastic offensive system and a terrific complimentary guard that’s playing way above his contract for another point guard?

Maybe Harden wants offensive help to make the team less predictable and to conserve more of his energy. That’s fine. Bringing in another scorer and supporting ball-handler makes sense. Paul isn’t the perfect answer, though.

It’s impossible to look past the issues with two players as ball dominant as Paul and Harden, no matter how often and how effectively they facilitate. Even if they do figure things out, both players would not be at their best, causing problems for Houston’s chemistry, new signature style and Paul’s interest to sign in the first place.

Meanwhile, Paul has an additional $53 million, the longevity of an extra year on his contract and more ball control in L.A., or the impeccable culture and chance to compete that San Antonio has to offer.

He’ll probably stay put. And if he does leave, I’d be stunned if it’s for the Rockets over the Spurs.

All statistics courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com.




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