The pairing of Chris Paul and James Harden has re-stimulated Rockets fans excitement, so much so, that on opening night against the Warriors expectations are very high. The trade for Chris Paul, as well as reeling in various other pieces including PJ Tucker and Luc Mbah a Moute, has prompted a large number of experts to suggest that the Rockets are the best bet to stop the Warriors from winning their third championship in the last four years. Las Vegas oddsmakers seem to agree with this verdict too, having placed the Rockets at second in the Western Conference this season.
It is clear that the Rockets believes in these expectations too. On media day, General Manager Daryl Morey mentioned that the team has a “real shot at winning a championship”, echoing comments by shooting guard Eric Gordon.
Last season, Gordon was integral as a sixth-man in Coach Mike D’Antoni’s free-flowing, three-point shooting offense. He was used as one of many floor spacers in a three-point dependent system. The offense, however, was centered around James Harden, whose conversion to point guard was nothing short of a success. Besides attaining the third seed in the conference, the Rockets had the second most efficient offense in the league.
However crafty and intelligent of an addition Chris Paul is, he has never been the focal point in an offense that bases itself upon speed and efficiency. In contrast to the Rockets ranked 3rd in pace (last season), Paul’s Clippers were in the middle of the pack at 16th. Paul handling the ball in Houston could disrupt the tempo which contributed to a large amount of the Rockets success in 2016-17. D’Antoni would have to carefully remodel his system to allow for Paul’s skills as a facilitator to be maximized without straying too far away from the core drivers of his team’s success.
The biggest potential issue regarding this trade, however, is that of Harden and Paul’s ability to share the ball. Paul’s size prevents him from donning the role of a shooting guard, leaving Harden to re-insert himself into this position. This will inevitability lead to fewer touches for him, and possibly his conversion into a catch-and-shoot player.
During his stint as a point guard, Harden had complete control over the team. When he’d clap his hands for the ball, fellow guard Patrick Beverly would immediately surrender it.
Chris Paul’s usage as the ball handler will remove Harden from this role though, leaving him with a diminished job on offense. While Paul is one of the most productive point guards on the ball, his minutes as the primary facilitator could take away from the Rockets proven success with Harden manning the ball. The Rockets, thus, will not be able utilize both players in an effective way. They are both most successful when the ball is in their hands.
Besides the potential disruption in the team’s flow, the circumstances around Paul’s trade doesn’t make it any easier for him to fit in. Harden is coming off a career season. Handing the reins of his team over after this success may not be easy. In the past, Harden has not responded well to having to share the spotlight with another superstar. Much of the reason behind Dwight Howard’s short stint is that he had issues with Harden. It was rumored that Harden pressed coaches to reduce Howard’s playing minutes. While Harden may have matured, any little feud between himself and Chris Paul could have devastating repercussions for the team’s spirit and overall confidence, an intangible which played a major part in last season’s success. Given that Paul will be directly taking away from Harden’s spotlight as the team leader, complications are bound to arise.
Chris Paul’s addition aside, the loss of Patrick Beverly has definitely gone under the radar. Beverly, alongside Harden in the backcourt, attributed to a fair amount of Houston’s success. Harden, known for his lack of effort on the defensive side of the court, required a locked-in defensive guard alongside him to lift some of the burden off his shoulders. Beverly did just that. The All-Defense guard has the reputation as being one of the most aggressive on-ball defenders in the league, and was regularly thrust into the role of guarding the best player on the opposition.
While Paul is widely considered as being a solid defender himself, his limited athletic ability at the age of 32 could prevent him from consistently locking down his tougher defensive assignments, considering the extra duties which come along with sharing a backcourt with Harden. The Rockets found themselves at a disappointing 15th in Defensive Efficiency rankings last season. It will be difficult to pose a challenge to the Warriors if they can’t bump this up to at least a top-10.
Besides the intriguing situation of choosing between Harden and Paul to make the final play in a tight contest, there are multiple scenarios which could cause reality to shift away from the high pre-season expectations placed on the Rockets. Their inability to soundly defend is unlikely to stop the Spurs from gaining a higher seeding than them, while the vastly-improved Thunder starting five could exploit their holes, particularly in the frontcourt.
Given the overall rise in competitive level in the Western Conference, it would be a miracle to see the Rockets placed just behind the Warriors in the conference rankings come playoff time. But in Houston, hope is eternal.
photo via llannba