> Tonight on TNT: Rockets vs. Warriors (10:30 ET)
The Houston Rockets begin their quest for a banner season with a new-look backcourt featuring All-Stars James Harden and Chris Paul. When the Rockets acquired Paul in what turned out the be the first of many blockbuster moves in the Western Conference, the rumbling for some began about whether or not Paul and Harden could coexist.
As tonight's season-opener against the Golden State Warriors approaches for Houston, ESPN.com delivered a must-read, behind-the-scenes look at Paul's move to Houston via Jackie MacMullan. In it, Harden, Paul and coach Mike D'Antoni open up about how they plan to make this star guard combination work in 2017-18.
On a warm September morning in Houston, D'Antoni observes his new two-headed point guard monster from the club seats of an otherwise empty Toyota Center. Some of his players, including Paul and Harden, have gathered for their daily scrimmage, and their coach is focused on one thing in particular: Who takes the ball out after a basket?
D'Antoni abhors the notion of having to designate one player for this assignment. Within minutes, it becomes apparent this won't be necessary. When a 3-point bomb by Ariza drops through, Paul instinctively retrieves the ball and fires it to Harden on the left side of the floor. Next time down, when Ariza scores again, it's Harden who is nearest to the basket, so he plucks the ball out of the strings and fires it 20 feet upcourt to his new running mate.
The ball zips up the floor as the two point guards feed off each other. There's Paul lofting a lob to Clint Capela for a slam. There's Paul again, as Harden fills the lane on the wing -- the ball falling into Harden's hands.
"It's unbelievable," Harden will say later. "I don't have to dribble, dribble, dribble. I can shoot it. Right now. Because I'm wide open. Catch and shoot. I haven't done that in five years."
"A bunch of us went to dinner the other night and talked about the AAU feel this team has," Paul says. "A bunch of guys who love to be in the gym."
"It's gonna work," says Harden, who says he's giddy from the notion of Paul as a finisher on the pick-and-roll, as a midrange shooter, as a 3-point threat. "Chris is starting to understand what I like and what I don't like. Same with me. So later this season, when we're yelling at each other on the court, it's not because I'm mad at him or don't like him, it's because we're having honest communication."
According to Houston's analytics staff, Harden led the league with 873 "kick-ahead passes," those advanced 25 feet or more toward the basket. The Rockets scored 477 points directly on such passes, tops in the NBA. By comparison, LeBron was second in the league with 777 kick-ahead passes, John Wall third with 633, and no one else had over 500. Paul ranked 27th with 267.
Harden also scored or assisted on 4,538 points last season, one shy of the NBA record. The presence of Paul will invariably mean fewer field goal attempts and less scoring. Still, Harden insists he won't get hung up on numbers, shots or attention. "None of that," he says. "It's about winning. We've both dealt with the negatives, the frustration, the disappointment. We can't have anything leaking into our goals."
Can they share playmaking duties? Who will run the break? Who takes the last shot? Who is 1? Who is 1A? Can two alpha males coexist with similar skill sets? Those answers, D'Antoni asserts, will make or break his new duo. Paul will need to learn to play faster, D'Antoni says. And Harden will need to remember he's alongside one of today's most gifted pick-and-roll maestros. Both will need to let go of their MVP aspirations.
"It's a matter of getting all the problems out front," D'Antoni says. "Not resolving them, because you can't until they happen, but at least we're discussing them. So when things go south a little bit, you say, 'Hey, remember we talked about this in September?' What you hope they say is, 'Oh, that's right. We're good.'
"It's really up to James and Chris. When stuff comes up -- and it will -- are we going to let it derail us, or are we going ahead with the plan?"
Meanwhile, D'Antoni hauled Paul and Harden into his office and laid out the specifics of their workload. Paul will log 32 to 33 minutes and Harden 34 minutes a night. "I will have a Hall of Fame point guard on the floor at all times, I promise you that," D'Antoni says.
Paul will come out of the game after five minutes of the first quarter, earlier than at any other point in his career. Harden, who prefers to play the entire first quarter, will now have to take a seat with two and a half or three minutes left. By D'Antoni's estimation, Paul and Harden will play 18 minutes together, including the final five of every game. That requires Harden to sit for the first four minutes of the final quarter.
"I already know there will be times (when the game is close) and James will be saying, 'This is bulls--t, I gotta be in there,'" D'Antoni says, laughing. "And I'm gonna say, 'I don't know what to tell you. We talked about this.'"