It turns out that Harden and Paul sharing the court doesn’t restrict the Rockets’ offense at all. What looked like complicated chemistry is, it turns out, elementary arithmetic: adding one of the best passers and best ball-handlers in basketball to one of the other best passers and ball-handlers in basketball makes the team essentially impossible to defend. Houston’s offensive strategy is a more extreme iteration of the same Mike D’Antoni fever dream we saw last year, as this year’s Rockets chuck threes on 51.6 percent of their possessions, which is 12 percent higher than the next most three-happy team. They are on pace to break their own NBA record for three-pointers attempted per game. Houston has seven willing and able three-point shooters, which means the floor is always spread out for Harden to find driving lanes and throw those little whip kick-out passes that Ryan Anderson seems to shoot approximately 100 percent on. According to NBA tracking data, 47 percent of Rockets three-point attempts are classified as either “open” or “wide open.” This is all to say that it is good to have shooters and passers working together.

When both Paul and Harden share the floor, defenses have no real hope of keeping both of them contained while also keeping Eric Gordon or Anderson or Trevor Ariza or P.J. Tucker from bombing away with impunity. The Paul-Harden-Ariza-Anderson-Clint Capela lineup has the best offensive efficiency of any five-man lineup that’s logged over 100 minutes, scoring a cool 121 points per 100 possessions. The shooting is the main reason why that lineup is untouchable, though it also helps that Clint Capela has become a terror around the basket who leads the league in dunks and field goal percentage. Paul is an alley-oop genius who always keeps an eye out for easy dunk opportunities, and he had the same salutary effect on DeAndre Jordan’s productivity. His new Swiss buddy is nearly as springy as Jordan and thanks to Houston’s bushel of shooters, he now has more space to work with than Jordan did with the Clippers.

Because Harden is having one of the best offensive seasons of all time and should run away with the MVP, it might seem that Paul’s own offense has suffered as he’s been shunted into a secondary role. That’s not really the case. Paul is dealing out the most assists per 36 minutes of his career and has he best assist to pass percentage in the NBA, but he’s also shooting a career-high 41.8 percent from three and converting a career-high 79 percent at the rim. Last night he had his best game of the year, notching 31 points, 11 assist, and seven boards. He’s as aggressive as ever, but he’s just doing it in a slightly different way when Harden’s on the court. When he runs the show, he still looks like vintage Chris Paul, except that he now has more shooters around him than he’s ever had before and also he’s taking threes instead of midrange jumpers. I’ve never seen him this loose.

(I’d also like to direct your attention to the first clip in this highlight reel, in which he makes Jalen Jones see double.)


Paul has long had a reputation as a fearsome defender, and he’s helped Houston maintain the fifth-best defensive efficiency in the league. Team defense hasn’t ever been a focus for D’Antoni, in Houston or anywhere else, and lord knows we’ve roasted James Harden plenty around here. But the two most important anchor positions for a defense are point guard and center, and a team that has someone who can harry the opposing ball-handler and an imposing shot-blocker in the middle has a leg up in two critical areas. (The Warriors turn this concept on its head in a very intriguing way, as they have a bevy of defenders who can do both.) Harden clearly gives a shit on both ends this year, and even Ryan Anderson is lighter on his feet and putting in a serious effort. If the Rockets are a serious threat to the Warriors in the West, it is because of their defensive improvement, a great deal of which is attributable Paul.


That’s a long way off, of course, as we are still in the part of the season in which Steve Kerr is giving interviews from his bathtub. Astonishing as they’ve been of late, the Rockets are still in the process of figuring things out and fully integrating Paul into the fabric of their team. Going undefeated through his first 12 games is impressive, and as the season continues, it figures that Paul’s connection with Harden and others will only get stronger. Finally free of the Rivers family and the task of leading a shallow team year after year, the legendarily intense Paul seems to be having a blast. “I’ve been on a team that won 17 games in a row, and it didn’t feel like that. You know what I mean? Just because it’s all about playing the right way, it’s all about building,” he told ESPN, “You can win however many games you want in a row. It means nothing if you’re not playing the right way, but right now we’re playing the right way and still trying to get better.”