Who Ya Got: James Harden or Chris Paul as Rockets' Alpha Dog?

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistAugust 3, 2017

Who Ya Got: James Harden or Chris Paul as Rockets' Alpha Dog?

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    Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

    Trusting James Harden and Chris Paul to work out the key issue surrounding their partnership is different than saying there's no issue in the first place.

    Yes, these are two of the NBA's most talented players. And yes, they are good enough to figure out a ball-sharing compromise.

    They're already working on it.

    "In any relationship or partnership, you need to have communication," Harden told Ben Golliver of The Crossover. "You’ve got to know that person. Me and Chris have communicated every single day. We’ve worked out several times already, just to build that relationship, that togetherness before training camp hits."

    Harden and Paul will undoubtedly share the floor during the rebuilt Houston Rockets' most pivotal moments. They'll have to work cooperatively on critical, season-defining possessions.

    And that's when a pecking order, or at least a mutual understanding of who should be doing what, will matter most.

    More broadly, every team benefits from the stability of a hierarchical structure. Knowing who's in charge, who's setting the tone in the locker room and the huddle, matters.

    So with Harden and Paul so accustomed to occupying the same top-of-the-food-chain position, who should really be running things for the Rockets this year?

    Let's break it down.


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    Which guy rolls out of bed in the morning calling shots, correcting mistakes and organizing everyone around him? Which guy has made a career of micromanagement and deliberate, end-to-end control? Which guy can't help delivering two or three paternal, stare-right-through-you "No, you do it like this" directives per game?

    That'd be Paul, obviously.

    Harden has taken heat for an aloof demeanor and disinterested defense. Paul has long been viewed as overbearing, having worn on DeAndre Jordan to the point of almost causing a Clippers breakup two years ago.

    "Chris studies it more than everybody. He watches it more than everybody. The only thing I’ve told Chris is that you don’t have to be a play-by-play announcer during the game," Clippers coach Doc Rivers told Dan Woike of the Orange County Register in 2015. "Just play. You don’t have to tell them what they are and aren’t doing all time."

    Harden clashed with Dwight Howard in Houston, but that leadership struggle produced passive-aggressive discord. If teammates don't fall in line with Paul, the point guard's track record suggests things will get ugly.

    Paul is hardwired to yell, direct and lead. His way has always been the way. Harden has been more malleable, and we can't forget he was once a third option in Oklahoma City. Paul's been in charge since his first game in the league, and he doesn't know any other way to be.

    Verdict: Paul

On the Ball

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    Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

    OK, now for some X's an O's.

    The Rockets spread the floor and let a primary ball-handler attack in the pick-and-roll. That's pretty much it, and it worked like gangbusters last year because Harden was ridiculously good at solving the drive-pass-shoot decision tree when coming off the high screen.

    He generated 1.01 points per play as the pick-and-roll ball-handler in 2016-17, ranking in the 92nd percentile. And in terms of pure points generated, nobody was better than The Beard last year, who added 27.1 points per game via assists to his individual scoring average of 29.1, creating an absurd 56.2 points per game.

    That led the league by plenty.

    Paul, though, is one of history's most surgical operators in the pick-and-roll. More of a prober than a downhill, foul-drawing attacker like Harden, CP3 ranked in the 83rd percentile with a per-play average of .96 points last year. Note, though, that Paul didn't have the benefit of perfect spacing or Mike D'Antoni's system, which once turned Jeremy Lin and Kendall Marshall into studs.

    Blake Griffin and Luc Mbah a Moute don't exactly open up the lane like Ryan Anderson and Trevor Ariza.

    Harden was also a hair better than Paul (.97 points per play to .94) in 2015-16.

    There is no wrong answer here. Paul and Harden are equally beastly as pick-and-roll facilitators, even if the numbers hint that Harden should have the ball.

    Verdict: Hung Jury

Off the Ball

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    Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

    Maybe this will solve the pick-and-roll deadlock.

    Because if both Paul and Harden are dominant in the ball-handler spot, the best way to break the tie is to see which one has the most use in a secondary role.

    As you'd imagine, neither Harden nor Paul spent much time away from the rock last year. Harden used just five percent of his offensive possessions as a spot-up shooter, but he was excellent in that role, scoring 1.2 points per play and ranking in the 90th percentile.

    Paul took spot-ups on nine percent of his possessions, averaging 1.1 points per play and ranking in the 77th percentile.

    Still good, but not on Harden's level.

    Then again, Harden shot 38.3 percent on catch-and-shoot threes while Paul was at 49.3 percent. In Houston's offense, the catch-and-shoot trey is a staple. Nobody took more such shots than the Rockets' 26.2 per game last year.

    Does that mean Paul's accuracy as a standstill three-ball gunner makes him the off-ball choice?

    What about Harden's more dangerous cutting game? Or his ability to create contact when attacking a scrambling defense? Those are valuable weapons, too.

    Strange as it sounds, the balance of the evidence here suggests Paul, the game's purest point guard, should probably be off the ball. After reaching no decision on the pick-and-roll section, what we learned here means Harden should have the rock, which makes him the alpha.

    Verdict: Harden


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    Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

    Not much to see here, folks.

    Harden has been, at best, a below-average defender in his career. At worst, he's been the subject of lowlight compilations and no shortage of criticism. As a point in his favor, Harden is strong enough to battle bigger players who try to post him up, which is valuable when Houston inevitably pushes small-ball norms.

    But Paul is historically good. He's been first-team All-Defense for six straight seasons (seven overall) and ranked first among point guards in ESPN's Defensive Real Plus-Minus each of the last two years.

    On a team that already had enough offense to rank second in the league without CP3 last season, you could make the case that Paul will make at least as big of an impact on the other end, where Patrick Beverley's reputation never measured up to his statistical contributions on D.

    Paul is the real deal, a vicious disruptor who'll lie, cheat, steal, kick, punch and grab to shut you down. He switches onto bigger players, hounds point guards and competes harder than everyone. Stats aside, whatever qualitative value attaches to tone-setting on defense, he'll crush Harden there.

    Verdict: Paul

Organizational Pull

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    Eric Gay/Associated Press

    Maybe you've heard: The NBA is a business.

    The cliche gets tossed around all the time, but it's vital to keep in mind here.

    Because while Paul is programmed to take charge and will undoubtedly set the tone on defense, in the huddle and in the locker room, he can't compete with Harden in one critical area: organizational investment.

    Houston just committed a four-year, $228 million extension to Harden, making him the most important figure in the entire organization. Any discord or dispute will always be resolved in his favor because he's got the financial backing and the bottom-line pull.

    Paul is headed for unrestricted free agency in 2018, which means his time in Houston could turn out to be a rental if things don't work. He's not quite a high-profile flier, but he's close.

    We don't yet know who the Rockets' new owner will be, but you can imagine that if both Harden and Paul walk into the office insisting one or the other has to go, whoever's in charge will side with the guy on the hook for a quarter-billion dollars.

    Verdict: Harden

So, Who's in Charge?

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    Eric Gay/Associated Press

    Look, we all know Houston's success this season depends on Harden and Paul working together. Both need to play like alphas while, critically, not caring who's really running things.

    Based on our breakdown, Harden should probably be considered top dog on offense and in the owner's suite, while Paul is going to be the vocal shot-caller who also takes charge on defense.

    It's close to a wash, so let's frame it this way: Harden will actually be the most powerful figure in this duo—both because he'll control the offense when it matters and because he's the long-term signee. But it'll be best if Paul is allowed to act the part of on-court leader.

    It's how he's built, and he may not be able to resist it anyway.

    In some sense, this feels like humoring Paul. Like letting him play the role while everyone else knows he's not really in charge. But that's not how it'll be. Harden signed up for this, actively recruiting CP3 to join the Rockets.

    He green-lit the CP3 acquisition with eyes open. That means Harden is comfortable ceding control to Paul, whose personality and approach he must understand.

    So if we really think hard about this, isn't Harden's willingness to bring in a strong personality like Paul's a sign of leadership? Doesn't it indicate confidence, a team-first attitude and an emphasis on winning over status?

    That's enough to tip this alpha question toward Harden.

    Final Verdict: Harden


    Stats courtesy of Basketball Reference or NBA.com.

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