Who Will Be Houston Rockets' Alpha PG? 'Whoever Has the Ball'

Kelly Scaletta@@KellyScalettaFeatured ColumnistOctober 16, 2017

Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) and Chris Paul (3 )high five in the first half of an NBA exhibition basketball game against the Shanghai Sharks Thursday, Oct. 5, 2017, in Houston. (AP Photo/Michael Wyke)
Michael Wyke/Associated Press

HOUSTON — It didn't take long for the Houston Rockets to see what their new backcourt tandem of Chris Paul and James Harden would look like.

On the first play of the first preseason game, Paul picked the pocket of the Oklahoma City Thunder's Raymond Felton, drove the ball up the court and dropped it to Harden for a wide-open three. 

Not a bad way to debut one of the NBA's newest dynamic duos.

The Rockets obtained Paul, one of the greatest point guards ever, in an early-offseason trade for Patrick Beverley, Lou Williams, Sam Dekker, Montrezl Harrell, a trio of nobodies and a first-round pick.

The 32-year-old Paul is near the end of his prime but is still inside of it. Based on his 7.92 real plus-minus, as tracked by ESPN.com, he was the league's second-most impactful player last year.

However, it was the first of many trades this summer, and it got buried beneath the rubble. 

If you include DeMarcus Cousins' move to the New Orleans Pelicans at last year's deadline, eight of the top 30 players in the league—based on both ESPN's ranking and Sports Illustrated's—have switched teams since. In every case, they join a second player ranked in the top 30.

Of all those stars, Paul was the best (seventh in both rankings). Furthermore, of the teams that traded for one of those elite players, the Rockets had the best record in 2016-17 at 55-27.

Now, there are two teams with multiple top-10 players: Houston and the Golden State Warriors

Like any new pairing, there will be hiccups when it comes to sharing the ball. Rockets head coach Mike D'Antoni admits as much.

"That might be a little tricky," he told Bleacher Report. "There might be some rough spots going forward, but because of the willingness of the players, we'll be able to work it out."

So how will they "work it out," exactly? Based on what we know about these two players, it might be easier than you think.

                        

Best Rockets PG? 'Whoever Has the Ball'

Michael Wyke/Associated Press

The first question we have to ask is whether two ball-dominant point guards can play together. Throughout his career, Paul hasn't had to share the ball much with another backcourt member. Harden hasn't had to either since heading to Houston.

There's a corollary to that observation, though: Neither has had someone with whom he could reliably share the ball-handling duties.

We often conflate what a player has done with what he can do. Just because he hasn't had an opportunity to exhibit a particular skill doesn't mean he doesn't have it in his tool bag.

"I think the biggest thing is," D'Antoni said, "the problem would only come if they [Harden and Paul] didn't want to do it. You know, if they both found themselves on the team and wanted to be ball-dominant, then you'd have a problem, obviously.

"But, they both want to play with one another, and they're both really good off the ball, so just a matter of trying to figure out how to share the time without losing their identity."

D'Antoni is correct that both Paul and Harden are good off the ball. According to NBA.com, over the last three years Harden is 260-of-649 (40.0 percent) on catch-and-shoots from deep. (Compare that with Carmelo Anthony's 221-of-565, 39.1 percent.)

Paul doesn't have quite the same volume, but he's shot 114-of-260 for 43.8 percent.

Harden also played with ball-dominant teammates Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook in Oklahoma City. His last season there, 2011-12, his buckets were nearly split down the middle between assisted (153) and unassisted (156), with 68.2 percent of his made jumpers coming off the pass.

So both players can play off the ball—they just haven't had to do it much lately.

D'Antoni elucidated how the Rockets will make it work: "We're going to experiment with the 2-guard spot and different things like that to see what we can do.

"It's a little bit odd for me; it's different. I've taught a certain style where my point guards were always ball-dominant ... We'll [still] have a point guard who is ball-dominant. It's just whoever has the ball will be dominant that time. It'll be interesting."

There are worse problems to have.

                           

Can Paul Direct a D'Antoni Offense?

David J. Phillip/Associated Press

The Harden-Paul tandem isn't the only fit people question. Another challenge is whether Paul can perform well in D'Antoni's seven-seconds-or-less style of offense. Paul famously likes to walk the ball up the court, measuring his options, deploying his weapons and striking when he sees—or more often creates—a crack in the defense.

Pace is a tricky and sometimes deceptive concept. The notion is that if you can push the ball up the court and attack the basket before the defense can get set, you have an advantage.

We typically measure it by looking at how many possessions a team averages in 48 minutes. That can be deceptive, though, because some squads, such as the Rockets, are good at speeding up the pace on offense and slowing it on defense. So, the overall speed at which they play is slower than it seems.

A better method is to look at average seconds used on offense and defense.

Last year, the Rockets were the second-fastest team at pushing the ball (13.6 seconds per possession, behind the Golden State Warriors' 13.5 seconds). They were also the 10th-best at slowing it down (14.9), per Inpredictable, although they were "only" third in pace, per NBA.com.

By contrast, the Clippers were 17th in pace but 18th in seconds per offensive possession, and they had a slower pace with Paul on the court.

I asked D'Antoni if the offense would slow down for Paul or if the guard would speed up.

"We kind of had the same thing when we started James at the point guard. You know, a lot of people said that he doesn't push the ball. That he kind of likes to hold the ball, and we were like second or third in pace last year.

"So, you know pace can be produced different ways. We're going to try to speed up our play a little bit. And so, Chris will be given the freedom to do that. But every great point guard has their own pace where they're comfortable; that's why they become great."

It's quite the balancing act—taking a great player and adding him to a great yet seemingly contrasting system. Luckily for Paul, D'Antoni has a vision.

"I'm not going to sit around and force either one to become somebody they're not. But we'll look at it and see if we can find some common ground. We know we want to play faster—and it can be accomplished different ways—so I don't see it as a big problem."

There's a bit of wisdom here. It seems like the plan is to coax a little more pace out of Paul but not to make him play at an uncomfortable rhythm.

D'Antoni elaborated on how that might work: "When you think about it, too, a lot of people are a little bit slower because they have to think about every decision; they have to play all the important minutes. Now, because they [Paul and Harden] can share and because then different guys can push the ball, I think each one can speed up a little bit."

It's worth taking a moment to consider this because it's a profound point. We think about the physical toll a player incurs during a game but not always the mental toll—particularly if it's a player like Paul or Harden who bears the onus of the offense on every possession.

The shared role will free up both physical and mental energy for each off the ball, which should allow for more pace.

There's also the issue of shot selection. Paul is one of the best (if not the best) mid-range shooters in basketball. He was 210-of-416 (50.5 percent) between the two semi-circles last season. Paul was the only player in the league to average over five such shots per game and make half of them.

Chris Paul's Shotchart
Chris Paul's ShotchartNBA.com

That sounds groovy, right? But consider this: Factoring in the "extra point," 50.5 percent mid-range shooting is the equivalent of 33.7 percent shooting from deep. That's what Wilson Chandler did, and he finished 106th out of 117 players who qualified for the three-point shooting leaderboard, according to Basketball Reference.

The best mid-range shot in the game is the equivalent of marginal three-point shooting. So there's this question of whether Paul will shoot more threes, or if D'Antoni will adjust his offense to allow more mid-range shots.

"Effective field-goal percentage needs to be over 50 percent or it's a bad shot," D'Antoni said. "If you're shooting a lot of twos and it's below 50 percent, it's a drag on the offense.

"[Paul's] one of the few, and I'll make an exception for that. But again, I think he averaged about three threes last year, and we'll try and get that to six this year."

In three preseason games, Paul averaged 6.7 three-point attempts and 8.7 total field-goal attempts.

Asked about the criticism that last year the Rockets didn't have the mid-range jumper in their arsenal, D'Antoni quipped with a laugh: "Yeah, we could throw that in. That makes sense to me. Let's put the worst shot in basketball into the arsenal. That makes a lot of sense.

"I don't believe in it. I don't think our offense is the problem and never has been. We just need to be better defensively."

       

48 Minutes of Greatness

MEMPHIS, TN - OCTOBER 11:  Chris Paul #3 of the Houston Rockets drives to the basket during a preseason game against the Memphis Grizzlies on October 11, 2017 at FedExForum in Memphis, Tennessee. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that,
Joe Murphy/Getty Images

According to Basketball Reference, two players in NBA history have had a 25 percent usage percentage, 50 percent assist percentage and an effective field-goal percentage over 50 in a season: Paul (three times) and Harden (2016-17).

The ability to dominate either scoring or passing is remarkable. Being able to do both efficiently is even more remarkable.

Having two players who can do that puts the Rockets in a historically unique position.

"The biggest thing is that they're both not only good off the ball, you've got a Hall of Fame point guard on the floor for 48 minutes," D'Antoni said.

"Twenty-eight minutes they're on the floor by themselves. Then the other 20 minutes they just have to figure out who turns back and gets the ball when the ball goes out of bounds and stuff like that. Or after made baskets, who turns around for the ball?"

Players who can break down defenses and score efficiently while being willing passers also tend to make their teammates more efficient scorers. Getting an advantage off the bounce can cause a help defender to leave his man. An astute passer can spy out these situations and turn a small advantage into a bigger one.

One way this is evident with Paul and Harden is in the team passing numbers at NBA.com. Paul's teammates shot an effective field-goal percentage of 56.5 when he delivered the ball but only 53.8 percent when other players did so. Harden's mates shot 56.5 off his altruism but only 54.7 on the others'.

Last season, Harden averaged 5.89 assists on dunks or layups per game, according to NBAMiner.com, most in the NBA. Paul's 3.9 such dimes were fifth. Harden was second (behind LeBron James) in assists on three-pointers with 4.5. Paul was fourth with 2.7.

All told, they combined for nearly 47 points per game in the so-called "Morey Zones" (the combination of the points inside the restricted area and three-pointers, named for Rockets general manager Daryl Morey). While those numbers will come down, since there's only one ball, the guys on the receiving end of those passes have to be salivating.

That's all the more compelling when you look at Houston's restructured lineup and all the shooters it has. Here is what this year's relevant Rockets shot last year on catch-and-shoots:

Houston Rockets Rotation Shooters on Catch-and-Shoots in 2016-17
PLAYERFGMFGAFG%3PM3PA3P%EFG%
Chris Paul0.61.347.40.61.150.069.2
Ryan Anderson2.55.842.82.45.742.663.9
James Harden1.02.439.60.92.438.958.4
PJ Tucker1.02.539.70.82.237.456.0
Eric Gordon2.46.736.32.46.636.254.3
Luc Mbah a Moute0.81.941.40.51.339.054.3
Trevor Ariza2.05.635.42.05.635.453.0
Total12.230.939.410.928.837.857.1
NBA.com

It's not all about three-point shooting either. Also according to NBAMiner.com, Harden led the NBA with 2.74 assists on dunks per game last year. Paul was third at 1.82. Harden was second in assists on layups at 3.15. Paul was fifth at 2.08.

In D'Antoni's words: "We kind of have a free-flowing style. A lot of the players and their abilities to be able to make plays will dictate what we really run. We give players a lot of freedom and put them into certain positions. And then they make stuff up."

The coach continued: "Basically, we want to call plays. We don't want to have something set. And they just learn to play with each other and read the defense, and the defense wants to push you left, we go right. We just try and do the opposite of what the defense is trying to get you to do.

"The biggest thing, as always, we're just gonna shoot a lot of threes and a lot of layups and a lot of foul shots. And that's what we want."

That has been evident throughout the preseason. According to NBA.com, the Rockets are leading the NBA in threes made, threes attempted, effective field-goal percentage and net rating. They're second in true shooting percentage and in offensive rating.

Granted, it's just preseason, and one of Houston's games came against non-NBA competition, the Shanghai Sharks. But it's also not as if it's doing something that's unforeseeable.

With Paul and Harden together out of desire rather than compulsion, the effect should be synergy (a word D'Antoni used) rather than discord, and that's a formula for winning basketball.

The historically unique two-point guard attack could challenge the Warriors for most entertaining squad this season. Far more importantly, Houston will give the Dubs a run for their money when it comes to having the league's best offense.

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