Who Ya Got, Backcourt Edition: Houston Rockets or Golden State Warriors?
With the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets set to open the 2017-18 regular season against one another, now feels like a good time to ask a ridiculously tough question:
Everything will be taken into consideration as we strive to find an answer. Individual production and play styles hold some weight, but backcourts are tiny collectives, so the fit beside one another will also matter a great deal.
Don't worry, though: Losers don't exist here. Not really. Both Houston and Golden State enjoy an embarrassment of riches at their primary guard spots.
We just want to know which backcourt is more embarrassingly rich and prepared to perform best throughout the 2017-18 crusade.
If the Warriors' free-flowing, constant-motion offense betrays Curry and Thompson anywhere, it's here.
Neither guard is asked to ferry heavy on-ball scoring burdens. Golden State prefers to spring shooters using off-ball screens in the half court and caters to pull-up and kick-out threes on the break. No one individual carries the offense, in volume, from a concentrated hub.
Make no mistake: The Warriors allow for improv. Curry might be the best freelancer in NBA history. Defenses must pick him up once he crosses midcourt because they actually have to game-plan around his stop-and-pop jumpers from 30-plus feet.
Pit Curry against either Harden or Paul alone, and he wins this category. He finished in the 94th percentile of isolation efficiency last season and posted an effective field-goal percentage of 53.7 as the pick-and-roll ball-handler—third-best among players to initiate five or more such sets per game. He also canned 36.6 percent of his pull-up threes (low for him) and shot 57.4 percent on drives.
Thompson doesn't enjoy Curry's creative license. The Warriors don't turn to him for from-scratch buckets as much, and his accuracy pales in comparison to that of his partner in crime. He doesn't hold Curry back in this discussion, but when more than 83 percent of his made buckets come off assists, he's not advancing the cause either.
Harden and Paul are more centralized forces. Both generally control the ball more than their counterparts. Harden's touches lasted an average of 8.9 seconds in 2016-17; Paul's went for 7.2. Neither Curry nor Thompson needed to handle the ball for that long. Thompson averaged 1.6 seconds per possession, and around two-thirds of his attempts came without using a dribble.
This stylistic divergence is tough to overlook, even if both Curry and Thompson are capable of additional on-ball work. Harden burned through more isolation sets than anyone in 2016-17 and is a whiz at reaching the free-throw line. Paul put down 46.1 percent of his pull-up looks while shooting more per game than anyone not named Russell Westbrook or DeMar DeRozan.
Maybe the volume doesn't sway you because the efficiency isn't always there. Harden converted just over 35.1 percent of his pull-ups and leans on his knack for drawing, and often exaggerating, contact to get by in isolation.
Houston's backcourt interchangeability is the trump card. Harden or Paul could be running the show, and nothing changes. The Rockets get to run pick-and-rolls and stash shooters around drives to the basket.
The Warriors, to their credit, enjoy much of the same. They have three to five guys on the court at any given moment who can dredge up scoring opportunities for themselves and for others. Thompson is one of them. But Golden State also turns to Curry, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green or Andre Iguodala before him.
Grab a pair of binoculars. Now, point them due north. A little to left...there ya go. See that small speck in the distance? That would be Curry and Thompson, running away with this verdict.
Harden and Paul, through no fault of their own, cannot do anything to bridge the deficit. Both are shooting better than 43 percent on spot-up triples since 2013-14 and shouldn't have trouble increasing their off-ball volume alongside one another. Neither has needed to cede touches or status in recent years, but the adjustment period should feel more like a perk when both wanted to play together.
"It's nice not to have to be in a ball screen every single time," Paul said, per ESPN.com's Tim MacMahon.
But, like, yeah. Let's not get carried away.
Curry is the best shooter of all time. If that makes you uncomfortable, say "Hi" to Ray Allen at your next family reunion. Thompson isn't far off from Curry's status. He's one of the 10 most lethal shooters the NBA has seen, bar none. Bleacher Report's Adam Fromal, fittingly, ranked Thompson's best season (2015-16) among the top 10 individual shooting campaigns in modern history.
Last year alone, both Curry (fourth) and Thompson (13th) finished in the top 15 of value added to spot-up possessions, according to NBA Math's Play-Type Profiles. Neither Harden nor Paul ranked inside the top 50.
Thompson, in his role as Golden State's resident pinball, shot nearly 68 percent on a steady dose of cuts. Golden State even finds room to work in Curry as an off-ball slasher. Harden and Paul have yet to be used in that same vein.
Playing off one another might allow both to expand their stage-left resumes. Paul doesn't have the size, at 6'0", to be a high-volume knifer, but Harden does. And at the very least, they'll see a rise in catch-and-shoot opportunities. Maybe they're able to build a stronger case for themselves this time next year.
For now, though, Curry and Thompson win by a comfortable margin.
Verdict: Golden State
Interchangeability rules the days once again.
Pairing Harden with Paul would have a different feel to it if this were 2015-16, or even the summer before last season. But Harden spent all of 2016-17 working as Houston's de facto point guard and responded by pacing the NBA in points generated off assists.
Now he's joining forces with Paul, another one of the Association's premier dime-droppers. Paul placed fifth in points generated off his passes and churns out double-digit assist totals almost nightly. Only four other players have averaged 10 assists at least five times for their career: Magic Johnson, Steve Nash, Oscar Robertson and John Stockton.
No other team in the NBA sports this kind of playmaking power. That includes the Warriors. Curry is an underrated passer and has the open-sesame handles to implode defenses and clear wide-open lanes to the basket for his teammates. But his off-ball duties often supersede that part of his job description, and when he is directing the offense, Golden State wants him to score.
Lining up next to so many other ball-handlers also curbs his conventional point guard responsibilities. Durant, Green and Iguodala all have a hand in jump-starting possessions. Curry hasn't even led the Warriors in assists since 2014-15. That honor belongs to Green, largely by design, through each of the past two seasons.
And we can forget about Thompson pitching in here. He's hardly allowed to dribble, let alone set up friendlies.
It looked like he might be branching out a bit in 2014-15 when he dished out a career-best 4.4 assists per 100 possessions, but Green's breakout mandated an enhanced role. Then, shortly after that, the Warriors made room for the second-best player in the world.
Any hope of Thompson making a Jimmy Butler-like leap as a distributor is tabled for good. The Warriors don't need him to be that life jacket. Not that it matters.
Give Thompson Butler's numbers. Hell, give him Curry's passing acumen. Harden and Paul would still take this home.
Sorry, Houston. Harden's defensive struggles—and, at times, glaring disinterest—cannot be overlooked looked here. Paul is good. He isn't that good.
Perhaps playing beside Paul resonates in some profound way for Harden. Patrick Beverley didn't have the cachet to chew him out for missing a rotation or letting the ball get by him. Paul does. He'll let Harden know when he screws up.
Meanwhile, the prospect of Paul getting to conserve energy on offense that he then carries over to the defensive side should incite fear within 29 other starting point guards. He only knows one speed to begin with: exhaustive. He is suffocating when matching up against ball-handlers, and while the height he often gives up at his own spot makes switching problematic, he has some of that Tony Allen I-don't-give-AF gene in him.
Still, 6'0" floor generals who seek to blow up every defensive possession aren't supposed to age well. And Paul is 32. More than that, Harden isn't suddenly a great defender.
The gap between these backcourts will vary depending on how you view Curry and Thompson.
Some consider Curry a liability because he doesn't smother rivals like Paul or feign effort via occasional explosion like Westbrook. But he's not a damning obstacle the Warriors must overcome. They'll move him off point guards because they can—because Thompson can take them. Curry might be a defender borne in part of convenience, but he doesn't earn nearly enough credit for keeping tabs on spot-up shooters and teleporting into passing lanes.
"Even Curry's defense is misunderstood; some opponents will always get the better of him, physically, but Curry can add to a sound system through his steals and timing," Sports Illustrated's Rob Mahoney wrote. "The mismatch situations that gave a hobbled Curry trouble in 2016 have been mitigated by his improved ability to swipe-and-recover or compete after switching."
Thompson is similarly miscast, albeit as an overrated defender rather than a poor one. Not all metrics love him. He finished as a net negative in ESPN's defensive real-plus minus. But Golden State needs him. He rotates across three positions and requires minimal help.
Indeed, the Warriors have founded a top-tier defense upon rampant switching, yet Thompson breaks the mold. They don't hand off his assignments as much because he's a hawk, even when fighting over screens.
Verdict: Golden State
The way Harden and Paul play isn't pretty. It's not supposed to be.
Round-ball geeks hold a certain appreciation, if affinity, for Paul's pinpoint precision off the dribble. He's an expert lobber who makes impossible timing and placement look effortless. He doesn't defer for the retweets, but he'll fling the occasional one-handed needle-threader and behind-the-back dish.
Finding aesthetic value in what Harden does is a lot more difficult. He matches Paul's patience in the lane, which makes for some nice lobs, and his Eurosteps still carry flair. But he barrels into the lane looking for contact, and not in a way that replicates the fluid sleekness championed by DeRozan.
Watching Thompson ping around screens and zoom to the basket is objectively more fulfilling. Run-of-the-mill catch-and-shoot looks from the corner can even be more entertaining. He seems to release the ball immediately upon reception—a quick trigger that almost never comes at the expense of form and enables him to piece together quarters-long detonations.
Remove Thompson's visual appeal from consideration, and the Rockets backcourt still finishes down a peg because Curry exists.
The Baby-Faced Assassin is not from this planet, and he doesn't play like it. His limitless range gets all the love, as it should, but he's developed into a mystical ball-handler. His beelines into the lane or face-ups in space are live-action magic tricks.
Plenty of his half-court touches would reek of over-dribbling if the way he bobs in and out of traffic weren't so enthralling. He will cut back past the free-throw line only to turn around once again. He'll unleash an off-balanced floater. He'll dribble out of the paint, beyond the arc, and hoist a three that bears resemblance to a turnaround fadeaway. Circus layups are his default finishes.
Harden and Paul cannot compete with someone who graduated from Hogwarts. And in their defense, no one can.
Final Verdict: Golden State
Who Ya Got?
Curry and Thompson should be who ya got.
Rolling with them can feel slightly disingenuous. Harden and Paul are both top-10 stars, a dual distinction Golden State's backcourt doesn't share. Having two other All-NBA talents, in Durant and Green, would also look good on anyone and is a luxury Houston's duo doesn't enjoy.
But fit trounces star power under these circumstances—and the Warriors aren't giving up a ton of that either. Curry is a top-five player, and employing the best member of this group matters. And Thompson's no slouch. His two-way contributions should earn him real estate in most top-25 ladders.
That Curry and Thompson are more of a natural fit also tips the scales. Harden and Paul may have the spot-up touch to fend off a wicked learning curve, but they're ball-dominant creators at heart. One of them will have to sacrifice more than the other, which is fine in training camp and during preseason but a different animal over the course of an 82-game schedule peppered with inevitable tough stretches.
These logistical problems don't apply to the Warriors backcourt. Thompson is a 20-something All-Star who has embraced a complementary role and doesn't tie his defensive effort to his involvement at the other end. The offensive chain of command is drama-free.
Evaluating Curry and Thompson outside the confines of the Warriors' star-stuffed roster doesn't change the verdict. Harden must become a better defender for this to progress into a tighter debate. Paul is the best pest among the foursome, but he doesn't have the physical profile to cover up for Harden when it requires switching onto taller guards and wings.
Thompson can do that for Curry. Even more importantly, he sometimes doesn't have to do that at all. Golden State's backcourt is, in essence, a coupling without an exploitable weak link. Houston cannot quite say the same.
Final Verdict: Golden State