As the Oklahoma City Thunder’s continued stay in the toilet has reminded NBA fans, the winning and losing of basketball games is about more than assembling the maximum possible amount of sheer talent. The Thunder were projected to be juggernauts in the Western Conference despite a hastily assembled and moderately confounding roster, in part because the team’s three stars—while inexperienced playing alongside each other—at least played different positions and figured to work out of different spots on the floor. It’s not perfect, but teams have built grandiose dreams on much less.
It’s not working. However appealing the idea of this roster is in the abstract, in practice the team has been Russell Westbrook, Paul George, and, worst of all, Carmelo Anthony just sort of standing around and taking turns clanking horrid jumpers and scowling at Billy Donovan. Their offense wasn’t projected to be anywhere near this broken, especially relative to the one that came out of this summer’s other major shake-up. Houston also added a Hall of Fame talent, but it seemed easier to see the challenge, there, what with the ball-dominant Chris Paul playing alongside James Harden, one of the most ball-dominant players in the NBA. That arrangement was presumed to be a more difficult chemistry problem to solve, primarily because, as one million basketbloggers noted when the trade occurred, there is only one basketball.
When, these basketbloggers and other better-adjusted fans wondered, have two of the best point guards in the NBA ever shared the same backcourt? And how could it possibly work when Paul has spent his career yelling at everyone and dribbling for 15 seconds before taking a pull-up two-pointer? The Rockets abhor the long two and James Harden is the tip of that spear, which in theory would seem to leave Paul as a mostly extraneous luxury accessory, or at least as a very expensive Patrick Beverly upgrade. The acquisition of Paul seemed to be the logical extreme of the “talent over fit” school of thought.
Well, it turns out that Paul fits in extremely well alongside Harden, and since he’s returned from a bruised knee, the Rockets have gone on an unholy tear through the NBA, winning their last 11 games by a combined 186 points. Paul’s reintegration into the starting lineup has helped an already-potent offense reach new heights, and Houston is an astonishing +15.7 points per 100 possessions better than their opponents when Paul is on the floor. On Wednesday night against the Hornets, Paul checked in for Harden and promptly led a 25-0 run; he was responsible, either through scoring or assisting, for every point the team scored during that spurt, save for onefree throw and a three from Eric Gordon.
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.”