A marriage between Chris Paul and James Harden in the Houston Rockets’ backcourt was questionable from the minute it started.
After having a career year being the initiator of Houston’s offense, how was James Harden suddenly going to adjust having to share the backcourt with arguably the greatest floor general of his generation?
Yes, Harden played with superstar talent in Oklahoma City. But this is different. The Rockets were Harden’s team, and he’d come into his own as a superstar and an alpha dog during his time in Houston so far.
Through just a few games in the preseason though, it’s been evident that some of the questions about Harden and Paul’s fit were overstated.
Neither players’ averages will jump out at you. Harden is averaging 18.8 points and 10.2 assists in five games, while Paul is averaging 10.3 points and 8.3 assists in three games. Those numbers will inflate as the team shifts into regular season play and both guys start to play full-blown starter minutes.
But the game averages aren’t what helps paint the picture of how effective Harden and Paul can be with each other.
Giving Harden — one of the league’s best scorers — another elite playmaker on the court allows him the freedom and opportunity to score easier buckets.
The Rockets were an offensive powerhouse last season under Mike D’Antoni. They ranked second in the league in points per game and offensive rating, and third in the league in pace. Behind D’Antoni’s analytical offensive revolution in Houston, the Rockets were also the league’s top three-point shot takers and makers.
Insert Paul, a floor-spacing wizard.
During the first preseason game for the Rockets, in just over a three-minute span,they displayed how this offense is going to work.
Seven possessions, seven buckets, six three-pointers, twenty points. In three minutes and 18 seconds.
Paul accounted for five of those six three’s, assisting four of them and hitting another himself.
When Harden was on the floor last season for the Rockets he boasted a 50.7 percent assist percentage, which means every other bucket his team scored came from his hands. With capable shooters around him, Harden was able to open the doors for his teammates, but shouldering a load that heavy can only take you so far. A Western Conference semifinals loss is how far it can take you, to be exact.
By bringing Paul onboard, suddenly the world isn’t being asked of Harden anymore. And for a player that averaged 29.1 points per game last season without a threat like Paul alongside him, that’s a potential nightmare for opposing defenses.
There is still a question of who will know when to take the offensive reins while Harden and Paul share the court. But the man with a beard bigger than his scoring numbers doesn’t seem too concerned.
“It’s just a flow,” Harden said. “You don’t know. I guess that’s a good thing too, because it keeps the defenses on their heels. But, catch and shoot opportunities, I had several. Just gotta get used to that. He had a couple as well. So, it’s gonna be a lot of fun out there.”
Being on the receiving end of some buckets will be a newer experience for Harden. Last year Harden was assisted on just 9.5 percent of his two-point field goals and 31.7 percent of his three-point field goals, despite shots from downtown consisting of nearly 50 percent of his shot attempts.
Putting Paul in an opportunity to get open looks from the perimeter isn’t such uncharted territory for the future hall of fame point guard. Last season, 78 percent of Paul’s buckets from beyond the arc came from an assist.
Operating a high-speed offense with two elite playmakers and shot makers is a dream come true for D’Antoni.
“The more point guards you can have on the floor, the better,” D’Antoni said following the Rockets’ preseason opener.
In an NBA climate where superstar players are teaming up across the league to take a calculated shot at the Golden State Warriors, having two in the bank the way the Rockets do certainly help their cause.
A ball-screen set by either Harden or Paul for the other, followed by a drive that collapses the defense only to have the ball kicked right back out by the screener for a wide open three is the benefit of having two point guards at once.
Or various iterations of pick-and-rolls and pick-and-pops that Harden and Paul can use to set the other free is the beautiful problem D’Antoni will have as he draws up the next play for the Rockets on his whiteboard.
Paul’s best backcourt peers throughout his career have been different versions of a similar mold. Whether it was Peja Stojakovic or J.J. Redick, spot up shooters have been paired with Paul over the years because of his innate ability to find the open man. Never before has Paul had someone beside him who not only could create for himself at the same level Paul does, but also create for others.
In that same respect, D’Antoni has never had an offense that features two ball-handlers of that caliber either.
“Normally, my offenses have been one kind of Hall of Fame point guard,” Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni said on Rockets media day. “Now we’ve got two that’ll be on the court the whole time.”
Pairing two ball-dominant point guards together caused some to scratch their heads and wonder whether they can play effectively with one another. After a few preseason games, it’s clear that people in and around the NBA will continue to scratch their heads, wondering how to defend Houston’s offensive attack with Paul and Harden leading the way.
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