With Chris Paul in tow alongside James Harden, how high can the Rockets fly?
Just a few days before free agency started, the Houston Rockets made headlines by acquiring All-Star point guard Chris Paul from the Los Angeles Clippers. This is a big acquisition for Houston, as the NBA has firmly transitioned into a superstars league. However, the move might look better now than it does when the Rockets have to play this out, given the style of both Paul and Houston’s incumbent superstar James Harden.
In the trade, the Clippers received Patrick Beverley, Lou Williams, Sam Dekker, Montrezl Harrell, Darrun Hilliard, DeAndre Liggins, Kyle Wiltjer, a 2018 first round pick, and cash considerations.
Houston’s general manger Daryl Morey is known for aggressively pursuing and acquiring stars and had this to say about the trade: “It’s a weapons race in the NBA and you’re either in the weapons race or on the sidelines. We felt like with James Harden in his prime and Chris Paul in his prime this gives us a real shot to chase the juggernaut teams that are out there. This puts us right there with them.”
NBA TV (@NBATV) June 28, 2017
While Morey hopes the new duo can help push Houston over the top, it will take the two stars fitting together seamlessly (and probably another piece) to challenge the likes of the San Antonio Spurs and Cleveland Cavaliers and dethrone the Golden State Warriors. Let’s dive into the numbers to see how this pairing looks on paper.
James Harden turned into an MVP candidate last season after head coach Mike D’Antoni transitioned him to point guard and put the ball in his hands. Leading the “pace and space” offense that D’Antoni is known for, Harden led the league with 11.2 assists per game. In order to do that, however, Harden was second in the league with 99.2 touches per game, behind only Russell Westbrook’s 99.5 who parlayed an unheard of usage rating to win his first MVP award. This is where Chris Paul comes in.
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
Paul led the Clippers’ half court-heavy offense for the past six seasons as a ball-dominant point guard. This past season, he ranked eighth in the league with 86.2 touches per game and is very used to controlling whatever offense he’s been a part of. Paul used his touches to turn in the fourth-highest assist average in the league at 9.2 per game. This of course requires the ball to be in Paul’s hands a majority of the time for his offense to properly flourish.
The tricky part about these numbers are that both these point guards are now on the same team (and Harden is most likely back to being a shooting guard). Both are now expected to work much more off the ball then they did last season, which may come as a struggle.
In terms of touches, Harden’s next-highest teammate was Patrick Beverley with 49.7 per game and Paul’s next-highest teammate was Blake Griffin with 80.2 per game. Now, with each other in the fold, Harden and Paul will both have to yield control of the offense more than at any point over the last year. Harden has much more experience playing off the ball, dating back to his OKC days and his early years with Houston before he became the full-time point guard. The question is, with the way he played last season with the ball in his hands all the time, why would he sign off on a trade for another ball-dominant presence?
Style of Play
As I alluded to earlier, another potential factor in the pairing of James Harden and Chris Paul is the pace of play. D’Antoni’s “pace and space” offense is what he first brought to the league with the “seven seconds or less” Phoenix Suns and Steve Nash. Built around a ball-dominant distributor (Nash and Harden), the offense is centered on running up the court as fast as possible surrounded with shooters, which affords the ball handler more open space to work with and pick apart the defense.
The pace is a huge part of Houston’s offense because fast breaks lead to mismatches and open shooters. Last season, Houston ranked third in the league with 102.54 possessions per game. They were just behind the Brooklyn Nets and Phoenix Suns, respectively, who were the two worst teams in the league, proving that without the right personnel, playing too fast will just lead to sloppy, careless basketball. The Houston Rockets had the perfect complement of players surrounding Harden last season to make it work. This is where Chris Paul comes in.
Paul is an amazing traditional point guard who runs a half court offense to perfection, with tons of pick and rolls leading to lobs or finding an open man after a defender rotates. The Clippers ranked 17th in the league this past season with 98.22 possessions per game. This is how the Clippers have been run under Doc Rivers, to varying degrees of success, from the moment Paul got there at age 26. Now 32, he is on the back side of his physical prime and has a history of injuries so it is hard to imagine him keeping up with the high octane Houston offense.
Daryl Morey and the Houston Rockets are the pioneers of analytics in an ever-improving NBA. They have based their offense on the numbers and shoot a high percentage of their shots from three point range or layups and dunks. Last season, the Rockets led the league in three point field goal frequency with 46.3% of their field goal attempts coming from long range. In turn, their effective field goal percentage was third in the league (54.5%) behind only the two teams who met in the NBA Finals for the third straight year. Effective field goal percentage is similar to standard field goal percentage, but takes into account the fact that three-point field goals are worth 50% more than two-point field goals. Moreyball strikes again.
In contrast to the Rockets, the Clippers’ three-point field goal frequency last season was 33%, 10th in the league. This is due to Chris Paul being one of the best midrange jump shooters in the league, something that is frowned upon when analyzing the numbers. Midrange jump shots are the least efficient shot in basketball and have been a huge part of Paul’s game coming off of screens or finding a spot on the floor to pull up from. Paul’s personal two-point field goal frequency was 61.6% last season and the largest percentage of those two-point field goal attempts (28.4%) were after seven-plus dribbles. This is a direct result of Paul being the ball-dominant point guard that he’s been his entire career.
Peter Llewellyn-USA TODAY Sports
How Does it All Work?
While the similarities of the point guards combined with the differences in play style could lead to a rough adjustment period, I think the Rockets will figure out how to make this pairing work. Both stars can adjust to playing off the ball more and the addition of Paul’s efficient midrange game may give the Rockets an extra bailout move to go to when its offense stalls, like it did in this past season’s conference semifinals against the San Antonio Spurs. Additionally, Mike D’Antoni might try staggering the minutes of his two stars in order to utilize them in their most effective roles and keep them fresh for crunch time. It will be interesting to see this new star duo on the court together come October.
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