NBA: Harden’s Return Could Land the Rockets on Top of the West

So Far, So Good for the Chris Paul Experiment in Houston

Finally, a credible threat to the Warriors’ Western Conference dominance. Can Houston’s new backcourt overcome Golden State?

By Michael Zhou

Houston, we have a solution: Harden & Paul’s backcourt chemistry has been a successful experiment thus far

After a disappointing loss to the San Antonio Spurs in last year’s Western Conference semifinals, James Harden and the Houston Rockets knew they needed to upgrade their roster this summer if they wanted to compete for a title.

The team’s front office, steered by analytics-driven General Manager Daryl Morey, did just that—and then some. Houston wasted no time in the offseason, quickly agreeing to trade a package of assets to the Los Angeles Clippers for future Hall of Fame point guard Chris Paul.

Houston also signed PJ Tucker and Luc Mbah a Moute to improve a mediocre defense, bring some much-needed toughness and make up for the exodus of Rocket role players to Los Angeles in the Chris Paul trade. As the tumultuous NBA offseason progressed, it seemed like the Rockets were also destined to acquire Carmelo Anthony, a close friend and fellow Team USA member of Paul’s, from the New York Knicks. The chagrin of Houston fans when the Carmelo deal didn’t come to fruition is now almost laughable.

It’s tough to imagine, but there were major question marks surrounding this Rockets squad coming into the season. Even with Paul on board, it seemed like the Rockets still to lacked the star power to match up with a team like three-time defending conference champion Golden State; furthermore, there was also concern about how two ball-dominant guards in James Harden and Chris Paul would play together.

Now almost halfway through the season—with the obvious exception of the duo’s respective injury issues—the Harden-Paul backcourt has worked out to near-perfection, highlighted by a November-to-December 14-game win streak. While Paul’s injuries sidelined the new arrival early in the season and Harden is now expected to miss the first two weeks of 2018 with a hamstring tear, when both are on the court they’ve fit together fit together seamlessly within Houston’s system and made the team almost impossible to beat.

Head Coach Mike D’Antoni has made it a point to make sure that either Harden or Paul are on the court at all times, which has essentially enabled Paul to primarily play against opposing second units. To put it frankly, he’s destroyed them. The secondary playmaking ability Paul brings to the table is exactly what Harden and Houston did not have last year. The resulting burden on Harden may have led last year’s MVP runner-up to wear down near the end of the season and submit a lackluster playoff performance.

By sharing the workload this year at the expense of both star guards’ usage rates, both Harden and Paul have had career seasons so far. Harden is leading the league with a career-high 32.3 points per game while shooting over solid 45% from the field and just under 40% from 3-point range. Paul’s stats have dipped slightly from his tenure with the Clippers down to 17.1 points and 9 assists per game, but he is knocking down a career-high 2.5 3-pointers per game at an efficient 41% rate while maintaining a 48% mark from the field overall.

And the Rockets’ early success hasn’t only been fueled by the two superstars. The offseason additions of Tucker and Mbah a Moute, as well as the steady presence of Trevor Ariza, has vastly improved a once-mediocre at best defense to 8th in the league. Clint Capela has taken multiple facets of his his game to the next level by becoming one the league’s best pick-and-roll finishers, a nearly top-five rebounder and a reliable rim protector. Capela ranks 6th in the league (in front of the 10th place Paul and behind the 1st place Harden) in Player Efficiency Rating, per ESPN.

Veteran guard Eric Gordon has shot the ball well, and has filled in admirably for an injured Paul as a starting guard alongside Harden his absence. Compared to last year, when Gordon was primarily a three-point specialist, he has demonstrated a renewed desire to put the ball on the floor —a tendency often resulting in dunks like this. With Harden now out for a few weeks, Gordon will again be relied on to generate offense, this time alongside Paul in the starting lineup.

The big question remains: Will the Rockets be able to stay healthy, maintain their early flashes of success and dethrone the Warriors? Even with a lucky health draw, the jump-shooting Rockets might still be only a cold streak away from a slump or an early playoff exit. If Houston can weather injuries and make it to the All-Star break near the top of the Western Conference, it bodes well for an exciting an exciting NBA playoffs out west.

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