Chris Paul provides a missing ingredient to Houston Rockets' roster
While James Harden remains face of franchise, Paul's ability to lead will be instrumental to success
James Harden is the face of the franchise and the Rockets will re-emphasize that later this summer when they give him another contract extension worth more dollars than he has whiskers on his chin.
He is the Rockets’ leading scorer, an offensive savant who can shoot, drive, swivel, dance, act or bully the ball into the bottom of the net all on his own.
He can find open teammates in traffic and set them up with open shots due to his willingness and uncanny ability to pass, not to mention that he draws defenders like metal filings to a magnet.
He will make you shake your head in wonderment one trip down the floor with a twisting, turning, hips-go-this-way-and-long-arm-the-other drive and make your eyes bug out of your head the next time with a step-back 3-pointer that might be launched from just over the county line.
But in five All-Star seasons in Houston what Harden has not been is the kind of transcendent player who lifts his team up to the next level as a true championship contender.
Enter Chris Paul, the best pure point guard in the traditional sense of the past decade, to duplicate many of the ball-handling and distributing tasks that Harden performed last season with numbers that made him a runner-up to Russell Westbrook in the MVP balloting.
Oh, let the mad scientist Mike D’Antoni worry about how to split the ball and the time and the roles to make it all work. The 2017 Coach of the Year has never met an offensive puzzle that he can’t solve and usually makes the tweaks or radical moves — i.e. Harden as full-time point guard — that are so off-the-wall brilliant and simple that you wonder why nobody else thought of them before.
Just figure that by the time New Year’s Day rolls around, Mad Mike will have the Rockets moving and scoring the ball at a rate that will test the limits of your calculator.
But the real test will be whether the Rockets are still alive in the playoffs when Memorial Day arrives in late May.
That’s where Paul comes in. If there’s a deeper reason for his presence in the Rockets’ lineup, it is to be the burr under the saddle that perhaps uncomfortably drives Harden to a loftier place.
General manager Daryl Morey, of course, is far from done with all of his wheeling and dealing attempts. He’ll be right there chasing Carmelo Anthony, Paul George, Paul Millsap, Kyle Lowry and maybe the ghost of George Mikan in his usual spaghetti-plate-against-the-wall style to find something that sticks.
That worked in 2013 when Morey convinced Dwight Howard to join the Rockets and got them to the Western Conference finals in 2015 after, coincidentally enough, Paul’s L.A. Clippers did a swan dive off a 3-1 series lead.
It was an unexpected playoff run that ended with Harden worn out and spent physically and emotionally, turning the ball over a record 12 times in the last game and dribbling himself right into the floor on the final possession. Then last season ended in a similarly dubious fashion for Harden when he no-showed at home against the Spurs without Kawhi Leonard and Tony Parker, not even taking his first shot until 18 minutes into the elimination Game 6.
The Harden and Howard partnership disintegrated beneath the weight of a passive-aggressive personality conflict that to this day neither will own up to publicly. Both wanted to be known as the leader, yet neither was/is capable.
Harden’s 2016-17 season of solo virtuosity ended with a 2-for-11, six-turnover flameout and a hurried sprint into summer leaving his teammates holding the bag and still not facing up to the questions about what happened. The image left was that he surrendered.
No one has ever accused Paul of surrender. Even though his own resume still does not include a single game played past the second round of the playoffs, his reputation on the court and in the locker room is as a bulldog, a martinet. He holds teammates responsible for missed assignments during games and in practices. His back pats and pep talks are outnumbered by his in-your-face confrontations on the court and chewing out of slackers in the locker room. Yes, he’ll probably mention it when Harden lets his man sail in for a layup.
For all the burden that will be unshouldered not having to start and finish so much of the offense, Harden will have to carry a different load of a teammate — a friend that he says he respects — expectations.
The Rockets can still call themselves Harden’s team, if it makes everybody feel good. But there’s a new boss that they can only hope makes him better.
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