Before free agency even began, Houston got what would have been one of the best free agents on the market, trading for Chris Paul, who will not exercise his early termination option and will instead remain under contract for one more season.
And now, we wonder how Harden and Paul will work together.
First of all, let's assume that Coach of the Year Mike D'Antoni is smart enough to stagger the two playmakers' playing time, so that one of the two is always on the floor (excluding garbage time). If the 32-year-old Paul stays playing about 32 minutes per game and Harden plays about 36 minutes per game, they'd only be on the floor together about 20 minutes per night (for about five minutes each quarter).
And having the other on the floor while one sits helps avoid the issue that both the Clippers and Rockets have had in the past. L.A. outscored its opponents by 14.9 points per 100 possessions with Paul on the floor and was outscored by 5.3 when he was off the floor. That differential of 20.2 points per 100 possessions was the league's biggest on-off NetRtg differential (by a pretty wide margin -- LeBron James had the second biggest at 16.3) among players who logged at least 1,000 minutes last season.
The Rockets didn't see nearly as big of a drop-off when Harden sat. They were only 3.4 points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor (plus-6.3) than they were with him off the floor (plus-2.8).
But Houston's success still depended on its bench minutes. The Rockets' aggregate bench NetRtg was plus-12.1 in wins and minus-15.3 in losses. That difference of 27.4 was the biggest in the league. More than any other team, how well the bench played is how well the team played.
It remains to be seen how deep of a bench the Rockets will have come October. But by just having Harden and Paul on the roster, they already have the Sixth Man of the Year (Eric Gordon) and one of the league's best playmakers around which to build a second unit.
Still, even if D'Antoni minimizes their minutes together, both Harden and Paul will have to sacrifice touches and touch time. They each ranked in the top seven in time of possession per game last season. Only 76 (9.6 percent) of Paul's 785 shots were catch-and-shoot jumpers last season, while only 194 (12.7) of Harden's 1,533 shots were catch-and-shoot.
According to SportVU, Harden led the league by using 39.1 ball screens per game. Paul ranked fourth, using 29.4 per contest. But they can each continue running lots of pick-and-rolls, even on the same possession. In fact, that's the advantage of having two great playmakers. If the defense stops the first action, there's another guy on the floor who can take advantage of the attention that the first guy has drawn. Imagine a Harden-Clint Capela pick-and-roll leading into a Paul-Ryan Anderson pick-and-pop, with the league leader in corner 3s over the last four years (Trevor Ariza) keeping his defender honest.
That's a big reason why the Rockets traded for Lou Williams in February. They wanted an additional playmaker to make it more difficult for defenses to load up on Harden. Unfortunately, Williams shot 35 percent in the conference semifinals, with more turnovers (nine) than assists (six).
Paul is obviously a huge upgrade (on both ends of the floor) over Williams (who is being sent to L.A. in the trade). When Paul used a ball screen last season, the Clippers scored 1.17 points per possession. When Harden used a ball screen, the Rockets scored at the same rate. Those marks ranked third and fourth among the 46 players that used at least 1,000.
They are both elite pick-and-roll guards, but neither is a liability otherwise. This is not a pairing of Rajon Rondo and Ricky Rubio, where defenses can sag off the guy that doesn't have the ball.
Harden has had an effective field goal percentage of 59.2 percent on catch-and-shoot jumpers over the last three seasons. Paul (though on limited attempts) has been better.
Over the last 3 seasons, Harden & Paul have a combined eFG% of 61.0% on catch-and-shoot jumpers. pic.twitter.com/FeXThBSeL0— John Schuhmann (@johnschuhmann) June 28, 2017
Both Paul and Harden will have to add off-ball cuts to their game. Paul will also have an adjustment to make if the Rockets want to continue playing at a fast pace. The Rockets have been in the top three in pace three times (and no lower than seventh) in Harden's five seasons in Houston. Paul's teams have ranked in the top 10 in pace only once (2013-14 Clippers) and above the league average only one other time ('14-15 Clippers).
And something will have to give in regard to Paul's mid-range shooting. Over the last three years, he has taken 42 percent of his shots from mid-range, while the Rockets have taken only 11 percent of their shots from between the paint and the 3-point line. Paul has been the league's second best mid-range shooter over that time (minimum 500 attempts), with his 48.5 percent from mid-range trailing only Kevin Durant's 48.7 percent, but the Rockets have basically erased his best shot from their offense. After the All-Star break last season, they took less than seven percent of their shots from mid-range. In fact, Paul took more mid-range shots after the All-Star break (149) than the Rockets did (147).
Playing off Harden will lower the percentage of shots that Paul takes from mid-range, because catch-and-shoot jumpers are more likely to come from beyond the arc. Still, it will be fascinating to see how this all plays out, in more ways than one.
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