Sure, James Harden and Chris Paul can play together

June 28, 2017

What do you do with two lead guards who both play their best with the ball in their hands, carving up defenses and initiating plays for themselves and others?

 

I mean, I dunno, let them take turns?

 

This really shouldn't be that hard. James Harden and Chris Paul can play together, they'll figure it out.

 

The reason this feels more difficult than it probably (eventually) will be in practice is because, as we're often told in basketball, there's only one ball. If James Harden is an MVP-level player and Chris Paul is an MVP-level player as primary, heavy-usage scoring-facilitating point guards, won't they kind of negate each other's value playing in the same backcourt? 

 

And the answer to that is, sure, some, but so what? We just saw how this can work in Golden State, and even the Durant-deprived Oklahoma City Thunder are a good confirmation in the inverse.

 

Take someone incredibly good, pair them with someone also incredibly good but whose skills or roles overlap a little bit, and yeah, you will deny either the eye-popping individual displays that, say, a Russell Westbrook delivered night after night once Kevin Durant was gone.

 

But together, from simply a value standpoint, you still have more than you did before. This might sound too obvious to the point of being obnoxiously snarky, but I swear I have a real point here: Even if, yes, Chris Paul and James Harden are good in many parts the same way, it's still better to have them next to each other and even sometimes being a bit redundant than it is to have Chris Paul or James Harden next to JJ Redick or Patrick Beverley.

 

Even if, by playing James Harden at the 'two' (or just off-ball, since there's no real point keeping up the pretense of a 1-5 spectrum on a team that will employ both Chris Paul and James Harden in its backcourt), you'll sometimes be reducing him to an overqualified Klay Thompson (offensively), I can't for the life of me think why it would be bad and not good to have an overqualified Klay Thompson on the floor.

 

And the fact is Harden won't spend all his time waiting on the wings, deferring to Paul. They will trade off, much like the Warriors let Stephen Curry handle default lead guard duties but a very considerable chunk of time let Draymond Green or Durant initiate. 

 

Paul will be the "point guard" here, handling probably the majority of the initiating responsibilities. But not by a huge majority, Harden will also do plenty of that. 

 

They ought to be able to interchange pretty seamlessly on offense. Either can certainly run traditional pick-and-roll actions with Clint Capela or another big, and they could become a unique kind of lethal running screen actions for each other, whether that's a corner pindown for Harden or a flare-type screen to set Paul up in the midrange. 

 

Defensively, there shouldn't be all that much different about this. The Rockets allowed 107.3 points per 100 with Harden on the floor last year and 103.7 when he was off, because he's a bad defender. He was better hidden on opposition point guards when he shared the floor with a bigger, though not great defensive wing like Eric Gordon last year (106.4 pts/100 in 1,511 minutes) than he was with a traditional, though good defensive point guard like Beverley (109.0 pts/100 in 1,303 minutes) but the Rockets should still be fine. 

 

As long as a capable defensive wing like Trevor Ariza is on the floor and Clint Capela does a good job patrolling the middle, Houston shouldn't get killed or anything. The Rockets were 18th in defensive efficiency last season, and this won't likely move the needle much either way.

 

Meanwhile they'll have one of the more interesting backcourt pairings ever. It will take time, yes, for both to get comfortable in the off-ball role they'll each spend some amount of time in. Inventing and executing screen actions together will take time. Even things as simple as learning to anticipate one another, to set up and feed in the most opportune moments, will take time. 

 

And yes, they were already second in offensive efficiency last season (111.8 pts/100). There's not a ton more to juice out of this team. Yes, by virtue of their overlapping skills neither Harden or Paul will excel quite the same way as we're used to them doing. 

 

But together, each a little less than before, they can still add up to more than they've either had with any other backcourt partner. It might make the Rockets more of a 60-win team than 55-win team, and more importantly it might give them a dimension that can actually trouble the Warriors (imagine Chris Paul and James Harden on opposite sides of a court and trying to maintain a coherent defensive shape).

 

Or maybe not. It would be naive to think there's some unconventional key (DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis! Chris Paul and James Harden!)  to unlocking Golden State's vulnerabilities. But it was definitely worth the shot, and they will almost certainly show that they can do some fascinating stuff next to each other.

 

One more thing:

 

Yes, the Clippers did fairly well to get anything at all for an out-the-door Paul. This is a 'win' in the limited sense that if you view this trade in a vacuum, Los Angeles got something when they easily could have been left empty-handed.

 

The other way to look at it is the Clippers, by their own admission, knew as far back as two years ago that they might be maxed out as a very good but not seriously contending team.

 

Knowing that, they still failed to plan for a post-Chris Paul era. Rather than hitting reset and trying to build around Blake Griffin, they stood pat, for two years, ran into the same ceiling they did for over half a decade, and now Chris Paul is gone and all they have to show for it is Sam Dekker, a likely late first-round pick, and a couple of tradeable players in Lou Williams and Pat Beverley who may fetch another couple picks.

 

Hindsight might be 20/20, but they had some foresight of this. “We’re right on the borderline,” Doc Rivers told Zach Lowe in October 2015. “I have no problem saying that. I’m a believer that teams can get stale. After a while, you don’t win. It just doesn’t work."

 

If you want to see it as a success that Chris Paul is no longer a Clipper and what they have to show for it all is at least some stuff and not no stuff, go right ahead. I'm instead seeing a team that had one of the greatest players of his generation, had every opportunity to either max out his value or figure out how to surround him with a better cast, and ultimately did neither.

 

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