Rockets, Chris Paul, James Harden

By Mike O’Connor

One month ago, the Golden State Warriors completed one of the most dominant playoff runs in NBA history by embarrassing the field and trouncing LeBron freaking James in the NBA finals. It was a clear statement by the Warriors: this is our league, and resistance is futile. Three weeks later, Chris Paul was a Rocket, Rudy Gay was a Spur, Paul Millsap was a Nugget, Gordon Hayward was a Celtic, Paul George joined the Thunder, Jimmy Butler joined the Timberwolves and the Clippers rebuked a rebuild to bring in a whole slew of talent.

When all logical signs pointed towards teams retreating and patiently awaiting the Warriors’ downfall, they reloaded and bunkered in for a hard-fought dethronement of the Dubs.

What a league.

But how successful will their rebuttal be? Can anyone topple the Dubs? I’m here to investigate. Over the next couple weeks, I’ll be doing a series of free agent fit analyses to answer said questions. First up: Chris Paul and the Houston Rockets.

Does Paul Fit?

In acquiring Paul, the team that recorded the fifth best Offensive Rating of all time while running its offense through one autonomous ball handler and strict diet of layups and threes went out and acquired a ball dominant guard who had the 23rd most mid-range shot attempts despite playing just 59 games. And it was a no-brainer. There are a few layers to unpack here. Let’s start with their offense and its limitations.

The Problem

Houston’s highly stretched pick and roll offense is not a maze. If anything, it’s straight to the point. “We’re gonna set a screen for our 6-foot-5 point guard from 30 feet with shooters all around. What are you gonna do?”

It’s a simple attack with clear intentions. They want threes or layups. Yet, what the Rockets’ attack did best is punish defenses that get caught in limbo. Teams that stunt wing defenders at the driving Harden get punished with threes, even if taken from the parking lot. Teams that send their bigs out to meet Harden around the screen get torched while backpedalling to the rim or via pick and pop.

The Rockets beg you to half-commit, to think that your stunting wing defender can slow down Harden and recover to defend the shot, or that your backpedalling big can impede both Harden and the roll man.

The consequences are clear, and yet nobody could slow their historic efficiency down until they ran into the San Antonio Spurs.

While the Spurs did not exactly “silence” the Rockets, they were able to thwart that through an incredibly logical and replicable formula. They stayed glued to the shooters, planted big bodies near the rim and, most notably, left the middle of the floor uncovered. In other words, they committed. 

Oh, and they also did everything short of tying their hands behind their back to avoid foul calls while fighting over screens.

In classic Spurs fashion, they utilized ingenious yet simple scheming with precise execution to funnel the Rockets to the one area of the floor where they a) don’t want to operate and b) are of average efficiency. The Rockets had no answer, and they crumbled in six games.

Which brings us to Chris Paul.

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The Solution

If you’re the Rockets, the solution is a matter of adding more dimensions. Paul offers a clear counter to the coverage that the Spurs utilized. At 48 percent, Paul was one of the most efficient midrange shooters in the NBA last season. There is no choice but to deter Paul from the middle of the floor.

Yet in many cases, the midrange pull-up is an unintended byproduct of the pick and roll rather than the goal. There’s been much made about the level of discrepancy between Paul’s shot selection and the Rockets’. Let’s contextualize Paul’s shot selection. Just 12.2 percent of his midrange field goals were assisted. In a Clippers starting lineup with only one other shooter above league average from three, it makes sense that teams could pack the lane and coerce Paul into deeper midrange shots.

Thus, we should perceive Paul’s midrange shots more as a byproduct than a penchant for inefficient chucking. D’Antoni’s offense provides him with an unprecedented amount of space. With three shooters instead of one, as well as multiple capable playmakers, Paul figures to bask in the unforeseen space rather than being confined to the outskirts of two point land.

Not only will Chris Paul provide a slower, more decisive pick and roll attack, but he and Harden also provide another layer for one another in re-screening actions with slightly cracked rotations due to the pick and roll prior. Those wing defenders who stunt off Paul will be at a rather disadvantageous starting point when Paul flows into a second pick and roll.

The Verdict

The Chris Paul trade offers a counter to the one known coverage to forestall the Rockets’ attack. It also figures to pay major dividends for Paul and Harden individually as players.

The caveat that many do, and should, get hung up on is that Harden is a more seamless fit as the primary ball handler in D’Antoni’s offense. Can Paul, who likes to dribble the air out of the ball as much as anyone in the league, manage to take a slightly less primary role?

Harden ran 56.3 percent of the Rockets’ pick and rolls last season. He’ll have to downgrade that number to the 35-40 percent range, and Paul will have to settle in the 25 percent range compared to his 30 percent last season while missing 23 games. It won’t be an entirely natural shift.

But for Paul, it’s sink or swim. He’s 32 years old and has been gifted a tremendous potential fit — with the help of Carmelo Anthony possibly on the way — should he choose to settle into this role. My gut tells me that Paul accepts this role, makes tremendous impacts as a secondary initiator, and counters the Spurs-like pick and roll coverages when asked to. If he does, it’s going to be a fun year in Houston.

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Mike O'Connor

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