LAS VEGAS — Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry just breezed to a title, LeBron James and Kyrie Irving have lit up July with their soap opera drama, and Russell Westbrook and Paul George will be must-see TV thanks to a fearless gamble by Oklahoma City’s front office. But the NBA’s most engrossing superstar marriage can now be found in Houston, where James Harden and Chris Paul have come together at a time when both badly need each other and when the league desperately needs a worthy challenger to the Warriors.
The basketball stakes for both players are clear. Harden is fresh off the biggest postseason disappointment of his career, a head-scratching collapse against San Antonio that undercut a brilliant, MVP-worthy campaign and revealed the limits of his individual mastery. Paul, after playing very well but not quite well enough to avoid yet another Clippers flameout, remains in search of his long-awaited, reputation-altering postseason breakthrough as his clock starts to tick more loudly at age 32.
The biographical stakes, fair or not, are equally clear. Harden’s previous partnership with Dwight Howard splintered in ugly fashion, and Paul’s pairing with Blake Griffin never reached its sky-high potential. In both cases, the fits were successful but not completely satisfying. In both cases, injuries to their co-stars proved to be the major limiting factor. And, in both cases, personality questions bubbled over as explanations for their shortcomings. Was Harden fully committed to winning? Then, was he capable of sharing? Was Paul too tightly-wound for his own good? Was he driving his teammates crazy?
Their union therefore opens with the highest of hopes and offers a real opportunity to rewrite stories on and off the court. So far, so good. Harden told The Crossover that he and Paul have been in daily contact since the June 28 trade that sent Paul to Houston, working out together in Los Angeles and even taking the Drew League court as teammates on Sunday. In Paul, he sees a kindred spirit with a “similar personality,” painting them as two “laid back and humble” people who hate losing. And he seems to be doing everything possible to get a jump start this summer, to get ahead of the questions about their ability to work together as teammates and co-stars.
“In any relationship or partnership, you need to have communication,” Harden told The Crossover from the Adidas Basketball LVL3 event in Las Vegas. “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. Once it starts, we’ll be rolling already.”
Most of the initial post-trade discussion centered on how Harden and Paul, two ball-dominant lead guards with long track records of leading elite offenses, would coexist. Last season, Harden ranked second and Paul ranked eighth in touches per game, and they both ranked in the top seven in average time of possession. What’s more, Harden is coming off a season in which he, under coach Mike D’Antoni, had posted career-highs in scoring (29.1 PPG), usage rate (34.2), assists (a league-leading 11.2) while leading one of the 10 most efficient attacks of the modern era. Right after Harden did more and did it more effectively than ever before, he must now change directions in a major way.
While Harden is loath to reflect at length on the Rockets’ loss in the West semis—one that culminated with a perplexing 2 for 11 showing in a blowout Game 5 defeat—GM Daryl Morey knew he needed to act after watching the Spurs stymie his Harden-led attack.
“If you want to win the championship, you can’t just have one top-10 player in the league,” Morey told The Crossover by phone. “You need multiple top players. There was just too much of a burden on James. He had an MVP-caliber season but that can only take you so far. We needed another elite player, and we’re pretty excited about Chris.”
To Morey, fit concerns or personality narratives never entered the decision-making process, not when he had the opportunity to pair two high-IQ, multiple-dimensional playmakers with brilliant passing skills and well-rounded, efficient scoring games.
“[Chris and James] are both hyper-competitive, which is a good thing,” Morey said. “There are times [when issues arise because of that]. We like to have a growth mindset, bringing young players along. Throughout history and with all the superstars I’ve worked with, it’s hard for them sometimes to nurture young players who are still developing. That’s common to all these hyper-competitive guys that you absolutely want on your team.
“Talent was priority 1, 2 and 3 [in the Paul decision]. Generally, when you’re looking at long-term acquisitions of top-10 players in the league, it’s better to not be too selective and then work out the best way to create synergy second. … We were in the  West finals, and there were 26 other teams that didn’t make it, some of which people said had better chemistry than us. Would you rather be the team with what people might consider less-than-perfect chemistry, or the team that’s not in the conference finals?”
Indeed, one can argue that less attention should be paid to how Harden and Paul will make due with “only one ball” and more given to the benefits of their new mutual support system. Yes, the 2018 Rockets might descend into tug of war, but they also might prove to be an example of how a rising tide—in the form of Paul’s talent—can lift all boats.
Consider: The burden that’s faced Harden and Paul in recent years isn’t just about touches, dribbles and workload, it’s about their indispensability. Throughout Harden’s tenure in Houston and Paul’s tenure in LA, their respective offenses have shown a drastic decline whenever they leave the court. While this is a common and expected trend among stars, the degree to the drop-off is staggering in these two cases and both organizations have suffered from depth and predictability issues during the playoffs.
With Paul, the effect is especially pronounced because Clippers coach Doc Rivers generally resisted staggering his stars’ minutes and regularly struggled to cobble together passable second units. Here’s a look at how the Clippers’ offensive rating with Paul compares to their offensive rating without Paul over the past six seasons, with the league’s average offensive rating included for perspective.
The trend has been very similar, if not quite as dramatic, in Houston during Harden’s five-year tenure.
This with/without disparity was most pronounced for both teams during the 2014-15 season, when Harden finished second in MVP voting and Paul finished sixth before the Rockets and Clippers famously faced off in the West semifinals. The chart below shows the major impact Paul and Harden had on their offenses that season. The Clippers had a No. 1 offense with Paul and the Rockets had a top-five offense with Harden. When the stars left the court, both teams plummeted near the bottom of the offensive efficiency charts, besting only the tanking Sixers.
Here’s a look at the same splits from last season. Again, both the Clippers and Rockets were off the charts when their star guards were on the court. Houston, thanks to D’Antoni’s offensive emphasis and a good cast of second-unit scorers, managed to be middling without Harden. The Clippers were better than in some previous seasons when Paul left the court but still well below-average.
Houston is now in prime position to fill in those sinkholes and keep its attacking humming at all times. Morey said that D’Antoni plans to stagger Harden and Paul’s minutes, ensuring that one of the star guards is always on the court. While they will need to sacrifice when they play together, they should be able to enjoy real rest—not just white-knuckled by-standing—when they go to the bench. For Harden, Paul is a hell of an upgrade over Jeremy Lin, Jason Terry, Ty Lawson, Lou Williams and Patrick Beverley. For Paul, Harden should be just a touch more dependable than Darren Collison, Jordan Farmar, Austin Rivers, Raymond Felton, Pablo Prigioni, and Jamal Crawford (this list could go on forever, couldn’t it?).
Last season, the Rockets posted the league’s third-best record on the strength of their offense, and their 2018 goal is to challenge the Warriors for the league’s top attack one season after Golden State tied the 1987 Lakers’ all-time record. “The hope is that we would tie or surpass Golden State in offense,” Morey said. “And our defense needs to get from average, we were around 15th, to top 10.”
The GM’s early expectation is that Houston will still play at a “high-level” pace like last year, and that D’Antoni’s primary emphasis will continue to be generating “high-quality shots extremely fast, with one or two passes.” In other words, the hope is that Paul, who played at a slower place in LA, will adjust to his new surroundings, not the other way around.
Newcomers P.J. Tucker and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute give Houston added defensive depth and interchangeability, and the Rockets are looking forward to playing versatile lineups that can switch screens without making major sacrifices. Paul’s mid-range acumen should also add a new dimension to Houston’s offense, which has famously prioritized lay-ups and threes for years. Now that Paul is in the fold, postseason opponents should find it much more difficult to replicate the Spurs’ defensive gameplan of selling out to defend the arc and the rim while sacrificing virtually all of the real estate in between.
With San Antonio sitting tight and Cleveland in turmoil, Houston may very well enter next season with the tag as "Golden State’s biggest threat." However, that’s a hefty title that few teams covet, and one that Morey admits the Rockets have yet to “earn,” even if he feels his team has “closed the gap” this summer. Houston, it must be noted, is 1-10 in the regular season and 2-8 in the playoffs against Golden State over the last three years.
Harden, for his part, views the Warriors as both a target and a model. “We have to find a way to match that intensity,” he said. “They’re really, really talented, but the chemistry that they’ve built the last few years is what makes everything mesh. Adding Chris, it’s going to take some time, but we’re trying to get ahead of the game right now in the summer. It’s chemistry and talent [together], that’s when you’ve got something special.”
There is time for Harden and Paul to get this right—to build a record-setting, relentless offense and push past San Antonio back into the West finals—but there’s an unavoidable deadline too. Paul can become an unrestricted free agent next summer and, like George in Oklahoma City, there’s no guarantee that he commits to returning to the Rockets if the situation fails to produce immediate dividends.
“We’ve had high-level discussions [with Paul about his future],” Morey told The Crossover, noting that Harden’s recent $228 million extension provides a “signaling aspect” to other stars that Houston caters to its marquee players. “[Paul] hopes to continue with Houston. He likes the team, the organization and the city. In terms of him actually signing long-term, that’s something that won’t be decided until next year.”
That turns this coming season, and especially the 2018 postseason, into a referendum with wide-ranging outcomes. If Harden and Paul function together as planned, they should be chasing 60 wins for the first time in their respective careers before taking their best shots yet at a title. If not, Paul could be on to the next one in a 2018 free agency class loaded with other potential superstar partners, leaving Harden to face a new round of “What if he’s the real problem?” doubts. Which will it be: Boom or bust?