The Houston Rockets are in outer space.
If the Golden State Warriors exist on a far-off, distant basketball planet, and most of the league -- save the Spurs and Cavaliers -- is stuck on Earth, the Rockets have at least escaped the atmosphere.
Last season, the Rockets finished with the 10th-best offense since 1974 (the 2016-17 Warriors finished second). They were eliminated in a tough six-game series vs. San Antonio, when a lot of weird stuff happened. The easy way to approach this summer would have been running everything back and expecting -- at least -- to reach last season's heights, when the Rockets were among the league's three best teams at 55-27. That would have given them a reasonable chance to challenge, if not beat, Golden State. But they did not settle.
Instead, they acquired Chris Paul.
Paul is a future Hall of Famer, one of the best point guards of a generation. He is arguably the most efficient volume passer over the past 15 years. He is a highly efficient shooter, one of only eight players to shoot better than 50 percent from 2-point range and 37 percent from 3-point range over the past 10 years. He's arguably the NBA's most competitive player.
He's also 32, and had the meniscus removed from his right knee in 2010. A perfectionist, his demands have grated on teammates and he has been dogged by postseason failures, particularly in elimination games.
Yet he's also one the league's strongest leaders in the locker room and in off-court pursuits like the players' union and community service.
For Houston, dealing for Paul is at once a no-brainer (as its front office and coaches insist) and an enormous gamble. The Rockets' formula was successful, approaching what may have been the perfect distillation of Mike D'Antoni's system. They have instead reconfigured dramatically. General manager Daryl Morey decided to go big or go home, leaving one big question: How is this going to work?
The big question: Fit
Paul is a notorious control freak who has never been known to invest in a free-flowing, high-pace offense. But in Houston, there's more freedom -- which empowers and gives confidence to players -- than almost anywhere in the league. D'Antoni always has valued the same principles of efficiency as Morey: layups, dunks, free throws and 3-pointers are good. Mid-range jumpers are bad. Paul took 5.3 mid-range jumpers per game last season. The Rockets, as a team, took a league-low 7.3.
When asked if Paul's mid-range game fits his club's philosophy, D'Antoni said CP3 is "the exception to the rule." That illustrates D'Antoni's approach: Coaches must adapt to personnel, especially great players. Even assuming that, there has to be skepticism about how Paul will adapt without forcing the Rockets into his kind of basketball. Isn't there a concern about Paul's approach going in?
"No, and here's why," D'Antoni told CBS Sports this week. "He and James Harden wanted to play together. My experience with Team USA taught me that when great players want to play together, they will mold their games and find their happy spot. The synergy is even better when that happens."
It's a fairly revealing point, and speaks to the gap between statistical analysis and real-world implications of roster building. D'Antoni struggled in New York and Los Angeles with players who were brought together, rather than great players who wanted to play together. Buy-in from players who feel it's their choice to adapt instead of being asked to sacrifice for a system can be the difference between success and failure. All the same, D'Antoni reasserted that ultimately, the decision to adapt will be Paul's.
"Now, I'm not smart enough to go out and tell Chris Paul, 'No, we're going to do it this way,'" D'Antoni said. "He knows better than I do, but he's going to adjust to make the team better. That's what makes him special."
Whether that actually works is the question, but D'Antoni notes that Paul's versatility will help him thrive next to Harden.
"He's great on and off-ball, and off-ball is James' natural position," D'Antoni said.
Instead of fighting over the ball, the two figure to share responsibilities and counter what the defense expects. When they attempt to limit Harden's considerable pick-and-roll abilities, Paul can spot up. When Paul is running the pick and roll with Clint Capela, Harden will be waiting off-ball. One thing D'Antoni doesn't expect to use is screen action featuring the two stars, recently made popular by Golden State with Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson. D'Antoni points out that action also brings the two best perimeter defenders into the play. Regardless, D'Antoni thinks the transition will be relatively smooth.
"I'll be surprised if it doesn't work right off the bat," D'Antoni says. "Now, there will be rough patches, like there always are, and we'll deal with them."
While saying the "Warriors set the bar" for offense in the league, D'Antoni added that he expects the Rockets to lead the league in offensive efficiency next season.
Paul's efficiency as a shooter often is underestimated. In nine of his 12 seasons, he has shot better than 46 percent overall, 36 percent from 3-point range and 80 percent from the stripe. His efficiency in nearly every situation is remarkable. He's one of the best in the league at probing the defense, finding an open man, and then spotting up for his shot. He doesn't just surrender the possession.
Paul keeps his dribble alive, which opens opportunities. What separates him as a shooter is that he can deliver when the offense breaks down. Paul shot 45 percent -- with a 50 percent effective field-goal mark -- off the dribble last season, good for the 90th percentile leaguewide.
And he can hit over anything, including the Stifle Tower:
Paul's ability to turn low-percentage situations into high-percentage shots is a bonus for the Rockets, who were already strong in tight spots -- ranking fifth last season in offense with four seconds left on the shot clock.
One weakness: Paul shot only 36.4 percent (21st percentile) on guarded catch-and-shoot opportunities last season, though he didn't have many (he always had the ball and was guarded when off-ball) but the number sticks out when compared to his typically model efficiency.
Hey, it turns out Paul is a pretty good passer. Shocker.
One player who benefits most from Paul's arrival enough is Capela. He was fifth in dunks leaguewide last season, and with opponents so focused on defending Harden and cutting off 3-point threats, Paul's presence should open more opportunities for Capela -- even if his usage goes down because Paul will take more shots.
"I wouldn't be surprised if Clint led our team in scoring," D'Antoni half-joked.
Aside from throwing lobs to Capela, Paul also will have more stretch weapons than ever. With the Clippers, he found shooters in space like J.J. Redick -- Eric Gordon will ably fill that role for Houston -- but Paul has never played with a stretch four like Ryan Anderson. Even mid-range assassin David West's range held at 18 feet during their Hornets days. It's entirely possible Paul and Anderson tear up bench units with pick-and-pop plays. The Rockets reportedly have been the leaders to acquire longtime Paul friend Carmelo Anthony from the Knicks. He also would fill this role incredibly well.
Meanwhile, D'Antoni says he expects new additions P.J. Tucker and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute to have career shooting seasons, and that the team's shooting percentage should rise with Paul's help. We live in a Vine era, where the flashiest passes are recognized most, and the plays Paul makes -- consistent, smart, effective and precise -- can get lost. He not only finds guys in space, but also gets the ball where they want it, on target.
With Paul sharing scoring and playmaking chores, Harden will get an occasional breather and the Rockets can give opponents different looks. For instance, say Kawhi Leonard is latched onto Harden and draining the life force from his soul, the Rockets can execute in different ways.
Paul's ability to shoot and create off the dribble on fast breaks is a quietly crucial part of this equation, especially when you look at reality vs. perception with Houston.
Paul shot 44 percent on transition 3s last season as the ball-handler. With Houston's pace, that's a big help, especially because the Rockets were surprisingly low in transition offense last season (17th in transition points per possession; Harden was only 21st percentile in individual transition offense). On possessions where Paul is running the break, Harden should be able to shake loose for cuts or spot-ups, as opposed to watching the defense throw up three layers to stop him in transition.
Balance will be an issue. Truth be told, one issue with Paul's game is his reluctance to take over as a scorer. D'Antoni's approach is based on taking the shot when it's available. For Paul, that shot is often a mid-range jumper. While D'Antoni says he's fine with CP3's mid-range game, saying it and being OK with it consistently may be different.
Harden and Paul have to walk a line between sacrificing to make each other better and playing their respective games. They also have to keep teammates involved and Paul must be willing to take the spot-up jumper when it's there. It won't be easy, but there are a lot of touches to go around in a fast-pace system. Successfully distributing them is the trick.
And, perhaps above all, Paul has to be able to play more loose, with more joy. He cannot be the killjoy he has been for so many years, or it could drain what makes the Rockets work.
Paul's instincts are phenomenal. He sometimes gets caught directing traffic instead of staying tethered to his man, but he rarely loses his guy, and attempts to run him loose are not fruitful:
D'Antoni noted that the addition of Tucker helps because Paul will not be tasked with guarding the opponent's best perimeter player. Paul can guard the secondary option, in turn making it easier to hide Harden's shaky defense.
Paul does have two issues. One, he's short, so opponents can shoot over him. Two, he's older, so it's easier to clear him when setting good screens with big bodies:
The question of whether Paul will be better in this regard than Patrick Beverley is debatable. Beverley's numbers reflect better in guarding spot-up shots and his overall defensive numbers are great, but he consistently lost Tony Parker and later Patty Mills in the Rockets' playoff loss to San Antonio. Paul is able to effectively manage the defense and call out assignments while staying tethered. He's more measured, and that likely will help.
This isn't all Paul, but when he was involved in pick-and-roll defense last season, the Clippers forced a turnover 18.9 percent of the time. His hands are so quick, he gives able ball-handlers nightmares:
Paul wasn't challenged much last season one on one. Like a shutdown corner in football, great defenders rarely are. Teams went at him only 39 times in ISO. Most of the time opponents scored on-ball with him defending was the result of good screens that left him plastered and unable to contain, or involved dribble hand-offs (extremely hard to guard in the NBA these days).
Paul isn't a better on-ball defender than Beverley, who is willing and able to sacrifice his body to get over screens and he digs into his opponent much harder, because he can risk foul trouble. Still, Paul's savvy (yes -- including his ability to draw fouls with flops) is still very valuable.
Lineups and matchups
If the Rockets are facing the Spurs, they'll still have the same issue as last season. Paul can do a better job guarding Parker and Mills coming around screens, and Tucker can guard Leonard (while Mbah a Moute or Trevor Ariza guards LaMarcus Aldridge), but Harden still must guard Danny Green, .
But we're still talking about little upticks on defense. Paul's court awareness will help, and with Tucker able to take the tougher assignments, they have more flexibility. They can go small with CP3, Harden, Tucker, Ariza and Mbah a Moute to put four good defenders on the floor. They can go bigger with Capela and Nene, and still only have to cover for Harden. When Harden is off the floor, the Rockets are going to have genuinely stout defensive lineups, and there won't be much offensive drop-off because of Paul. That will create more balance between the units.
What it will take to work
Even with D'Antoni's West Virginian drawl, his excitement is pretty palpable. He expects challenges, but he also believes this team can be better than it was last season.
It's August. It's easy to talk about the ways Paul can help and that the Rockets will "figure it out." In 2010, after LeBron James signed with the Heat, Dwyane Wade said, "The hard part's over." That just wasn't the case. These things are more difficult, and it takes the right melding of attitudes. That's crucial with Paul. If he tries to be an overbearing perfectionist, it could blow up the team. If Dwight Howard was too goofy, Paul can be too serious.
The Rockets have the stars, the coach, the role players and the system to be a Western Conference power. Their reach can extend beyond the NBA's solar system -- closer to Golden State than anyone else. Still, space travel is dangerous, and Houston will have to navigate many different gravitational pulls with Paul on board.