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.
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 unrivaled 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.
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.) [/restrict]