Will James Harden and Chris Paul Repeat Their 2017-18 Performance or Regress?

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistSeptember 26, 2018

HOUSTON, TX - MAY 14:  Chris Paul #3 and James Harden #13 of the Houston Rockets during the game against the Golden State Warriors in Game One of the Western Conference Finals of the 2018 NBA Playoffs on May 14, 2018 at the Toyota Center in Houston, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2018 NBAE (Photo by Bill Baptist/NBAE via Getty Images)
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It is not clear whether the Houston Rockets entered the summer knowing they would author one of the NBA's most arguable offseasons. The point is, they did.

Viewed in the aggregate, the Rockets' moves do not amount to seismic changes. They have not disassembled the framework of a 65-win roster. Clint Capela, James Harden and Chris Paul, their three best players, all remain. So, too, does Eric Gordon, their third-leading scorer. And PJ Tucker, a functional forebearer for their switch-heavy defense.

The departures of a few non-stars—namely Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute—should not cast a dark cloud over the team that came one win shy of dethroning the Golden State Warriors. But their exits, coupled with the additions of Carmelo Anthony, Michael Carter-Williams, James Ennis and Brandon Knight, have left the Rockets to lean on an uncomfortable number of unknown and awkward fits.

Forecasting regression is easy. Houston didn't need to tweak its supporting cast to tease a drop-off. Sixty-five victories is a tough act to follow no matter what. Complete and utter roster continuity wouldn't guarantee a comparable encore.

Plus, at the risk of oversimplifying the Rockets' situation, they still have two top-10 players. Harden and Paul give them a leg up on just about everyone outside Oakland. Houston won't have anything to worry about if these two build upon last season's partnership.

Except, can they?

          

Established Chemistry

Eric Christian Smith/Associated Press

Joining forces didn't require Harden or Paul to make commercial or intrinsic stylistic concessions. The Rockets catered to the strengths of each without doctoring the crux of their identity. No team incorporated isolations more frequently, but Houston still led the league in three-point-attempt rate by an evincive margin.

Paul needed to alter his approach more than Harden, but not to unreasonable lengths. He purged long twos from his offensive diet and upped his three-point output. He spent more time off the ball, but not in a way that reinvented his role. Fewer of his made buckets came off assists (14.4 percent) than they did in 2016-17 (21.4 percent), his final season with the Los Angeles Clippers.

The balance Houston struck between its two stars cannot be overstated. Both increased their usage rates and scoring averages from the year before. Their starkest changes came in the form of rest and simplicity. Harden averaged under 36 minutes per game for the first time since he called Oklahoma City home, and neither he nor Paul needed to shoulder as heavy a playmaking burden.

Staggering their minutes was a pivotal part of establishing this equilibrium, but they were hardly incompatible when sharing the floor. The Rockets outscored opponents by 13.6 points per 100 possessions, with an offensive rating of 119.5, in the 970 minutes they played together.

Typical compromises were made during their joint stints. Both averaged fewer field-goal attempts per 36 minutes when running alongside the other. Paul specifically was thrust into more of a complementary role. He went from firing 19.5 shots per 36 minutes on his own to just 12 whenever he played with Harden.

That happens. Someone's share of the offense has to fall off amid new superstar formations. Even Paul's declining shooting percentages during his reps with Harden are more normal than not. That's when his transition was at its steepest.

Playing with Harden is the kind of thing that will get easier with time. Repetition is the chief remedy to newness. Those minutes will start to feel like second nature. Paul won't feel as displaced when operating off the ball or beside Harden in general. The Rockets' offseason suggests they're depending on it.

Because that's where this dynamic starts to teeter: with the new-look supporting cast.

           

Roster Complications

Michael Wyke/Associated Press

The talent around Harden and Paul is no longer predominantly plug-and-play. Anthony, Carter-Williams and Knight, who will miss time after undergoing left knee surgery, are more ball-dominant options. Ennis, Tucker and even Gerald Green help counteract some of the push and pull, but there will be a louder call for Harden and Paul to exist as a necessary tandem rather than convenient co-opt.

And that could give way to some real problems. Again: Harden and Paul are still used to going it alone on some level. Houston meticulously juggled the minutes of its most ball-dominant talent last season.

Look at how much time Gordon, Harden and Paul averaged per game without the other two:

Working Anthony into that mix is a chore on its own—particularly if he's not coming off the bench. Inevitably accounting for a healthy Knight instead of Ryan Anderson only complicates matters.

This doesn't speak to concern about Harden and Paul grappling with more togetherness. Rather, it hints at added wrinkles during their solo acts. They'll be navigating less seamless fits during their me-time, an obstacle they seldom, if ever, had to worry about last season.

Both Harden and Paul played most of their minutes without the other beside Anderson, Ariza, Capela and Gordon, according to Cleaning The Glass. The Capela and Gordon components remain, but the Rockets have forfeited primo onlooker options in Anderson and Ariza.

More than 75 percent of Anderson's shot attempts last season came without taking a dribble. Almost 66 percent of Ariza's were under the same circumstances. Throw Mbah a Moute in here as well; about 65 percent of his looks came without putting the ball on the floor.

How much of an impact will the departures of Ariza, Anderson and Mbah a Moute have on Harden and Paul?
How much of an impact will the departures of Ariza, Anderson and Mbah a Moute have on Harden and Paul?Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

That distribution doesn't hold up across most of Houston's replacements, with Ennis being the sole exception. Here's how often their most important additions fired away without using a dribble:

Counting on the Rockets to figure out workarounds is fine. Only the Dallas Mavericks, Indiana Pacers and Utah Jazz generated wide-open looks on a more regular basis. Quality opportunities will offset some of the unfamiliarity for players tasked with modifying their shot profiles.

Dismiss this potential snag, and the Rockets are still left to reconcile a certain unfamiliarity.

Harden and Paul played a grand total of 151 possessions without Ariza or Mbah a Moute last season, per Cleaning The Glass. Add in Capela, and the Rockets are working with a sample size of 85 possessions—during which time the defense imploded.

Ennis should come close to canceling out Ariza's impact. Houston does not have another two-way wing beyond him.

Anthony could wind up stabilizing the offense but remains a defensive lability whether he's playing the 3 or 4. Carter-Williams' length is a tantalizing fit for the Rockets' defensive scheme, but he's a career negative at the offensive end. Knight is a wild card, albeit an intriguing one, if he's expected to be more than a toned-down Eric Gordon.

Tinkering on the margins will not change everything about the Rockets. They can be worse off overall while the Harden-Paul connection reaches new heights.

But their offseason moves, which verge on a background overhaul, basically beg the duo to match or exceed its inaugural performance just so this season's squad can rival the bar set by last year's team.

           

Fit To Navigate Change...

NEW ORLEANS, LA - MARCH 17:  Head coach Mike D'Antoni of the Houston Rockets, James Harden #13 and Chris Paul #3 talk during the second half against the New Orleans Pelicans at the Smoothie King Center on March 17, 2018 in New Orleans, Louisiana. NOTE TO
Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

Expecting, even demanding, more from the Harden-Paul collaboration is not overtly impractical. The early returns were encouraging even at their clumsiest.

Shots didn't need to fall, defenses didn't need to break, to detect their commitment to one another. Paul appeared uncomfortable on occasion, even lost, when ceding half-court touches and status to Harden. Yet he never strayed too far from the program. Houston's regular season is not littered with instances of telltale look-offs or hijacked possessions.

"I don't mean to sound too mushy or whatnot," Harden said in April of his chemistry with Paul, "but it was like love at first sight."

Harden's wishy-washy sentiments manifested themselves in how Houston played—not every now and then, but time after time after time. Paul devoted a good chunk of the regular season learning how to fill in gaps without minimizing his aggression. Harden showed no qualms when it was his time to defer. Look no further than Paul's 41-point detonation in Game 5 of the Western Conference Semifinals for proof.

Aspects of their partnership will change, because they need to. Both have to drum up their standstill volume if Houston is going to maximize its array, perhaps overkill, of inbound ball-handlers. But Harden and Paul needed to make that adjustment anyway.

Three-guard arrangements became a staple for Houston as 2018-19 wore on. After turning to the Gordon-Harden-Paul trio for 148 minutes across 32 appearances during the regular season, head coach Mike D'Antoni ran them out for 137 minutes through 15 playoff games. Teams are more inclined to bust out smaller combinations in the postseason, but the Rockets' yearlong reliance on from-scratch shot creation inferred larger implications.

Their offseason transactions, right down to the trade for Knight, unfolded like an extension of their playoff approach. The primary goal, it seems, is to take pressure off Harden and Paul. Playing with Harden has already done that for Paul, but the former still tied for the league lead in tightly contested field-goal attempts per game.

Extra off-ball work is a byproduct of any search for relief—the endgame, even. Harden and Paul are fit to thrive amid that transition. Paul cleared the 95th percentile of spot-up efficiency last year. Harden finished in the 33rd, but he surpassed the 90th percentile during each of the previous two seasons and has always been an underrated cutter.

            

...But What About Time?

Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

Age and durability are the more imminent threats to Harden and Paul's marriage hitting a wall.

So much about the Rockets' rise is tied to Harden's own ascent. He has made offensive strides just about every year since arriving in Houston. His progression over the past two seasons is particularly influential. The more control he's gained over the offense, the easier the game has come to him. Defenses have no answer for someone who seeks out contested step-backs and tosses ridiculously difficult passes on the move with needle-point precision.

That momentum will invariably subside. Harden is 29 and has missed 15 regular-season games since joining the Rockets in 2012-13. He will not be on the upswing forever.

Paul, meanwhile, is a backslide waiting to happen. His reign as a superstar has leaked into borrowed time, and preservation has already started taking priority. As The Ringer's Jonathan Tjarks wrote:

"The biggest concern for Houston is keeping Paul fresh. Rockets head coach Mike D'Antoni doesn't like going deep into his bench, but he has to limit Paul's playing time in the regular season. Last season was proof that home-court advantage doesn't mean anything if Paul isn't 100 percent in May and June. He's an undersized 33-year-old headed into his 14th season. There are only so many miles left on his body, and Houston just signed him to a four-year, $160 million extension. The Rockets can't burn him out in year one."

Difficult discussions and decisions await Houston...eventually. But not right now. Harden is still in his prime—still in MVP territory. And 60 games of Paul is better than 82 games from 95 percent of the NBA's point guards.

Things have changed in Houston, and probably not for the better. But the shuffling around Harden and Paul can do only so much to crimp their cooperative progress. They remain top-10 players at the height or near-pinnacle of their powers who have never been more familiar with one another.

Save the regressive refrains for 2019-20 and beyond. Year two of Harden and Paul's partnership should be better than the first—even if the Rockets as a team are not.

            

Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.com or Basketball Reference. Salary and cap-hold information via Basketball Insiders and RealGM.

Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@danfavale) and listen to his Hardwood Knocks podcast, co-hosted by B/R's Andrew Bailey.