Paul and James Harden together looks terrific on paper, two legit superstars with a third potentially on the way as the Rockets are reportedly . But for now it's a Big Two, which on its own obviously makes the Rockets better. But how much better?
Figuring Paul into the equation,behind Golden State, but whether Houston makes the jump to true championship contender is going to depend heavily on how Paul and Harden actually fit together on the court.
At first glance, there are reasons for optimism and caution. On the bright side for Houston, you now have two elite players (yes, Paul is still elite), and that goes a long way, particularly when those players are as smart as Harden and Paul, who will likely be able to maneuver most of the speed bumps along the way. But as we've seen in New Orleans with the pairing of DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis, having two stars who do largely the same thing isn't a guaranteed formula for success. And, yes, Paul and Harden do a lot of the same things.
Most glaringly, they're both ball-dominant players. Paul, for his part, is a prodder, keeping his dribble alive as he navigates around ball screens and through traffic before pulling up for his patented midrange jumper or finding a teammate late in the shot clock. Last year, the 4.88 dribbles Paul took per touch was one of the highest marks in the league, and if you're wondering whether he'll be able to remain as involved, and effective, away from the ball, well, there just isn't a lot of evidence to say one way or the other. Last year he attempted less than one shot per game in catch-and-shoot situations.
Meanwhile, almost every word of the above paragraph can also be applied to Harden, who, as the Steve Nash in Mike D'Antoni's pace-and-space system, had the fourth-highest usage rate in the league last year, scoring more than a point per possession out of the pick and roll. Though he didn't dribble quite as much as Paul, the 5.4 seconds Harden controlled the ball per touch also ranked near the top of the league, and like Paul, he also shot nearly 70 percent of his shots after three dribbles or more.
This approach, mind you, obviously worked, as Houston won 55 games and Harden finished second to Russell Westbrook in MVP voting. So what, or who, is going to give?
In a perfect world, Paul and Harden will coexist as hybrids, picking and choosing their spots to control the offense while also working off ball. Stephen Curry is the best in the league at this -- scoring almost a point per possession out of the pick and roll while also accounting for five catch-and-shoots per game. Paul has never had to operate with that kind of on-off ball versatility, so more times than not, it will likely be Harden relinquishing some control.
Like Paul, there just isn't much recent evidence for how Harden will fare in a heavy off-ball role, but you know he's going to score; you just hope it doesn't compromise his ability to create for others. Remember, Harden led the league in assists last year.
There are also some defensive issues with these two occupying the same back court. One of the problems the Clippers had with Paul was a lack of versatility, and Paul was a big part of that. Though still a bulldog on the ball, Paul is not a guy who can guard multiple positions on switches and cross-matches. And Harden, well, he doesn't really guard anyone.
In the end, this might be a lot of nitpicking. Putting Chris Paul at the front of an offense, with the kind of shooting Houston has around him, could be a nightmare for defenses to deal with. Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson -- as long as they aren't moved for another star, which is a distinct possibility -- are going to have more space to shoot than they know what to do with. And Harden is going to be Harden, which is an almost impossible player to stop.
Houston got better on Wednesday. How much better, we don't know. What we do know is that the Warriors have raised the bar. It's no longer good enough to just put two or three great players together. Now, those players have to fit together. It's an added layer in the challenge of building a super-team, which is starting to look like the only kind of team that can win these days. If the Rockets are going to get where they're clearly trying to get in making this move, Paul and Harden have to be the ones to take them there. And they have to figure out how to do it together.