Chris Paul has been under pressure his whole career, especially the last three years in Los Angeles. But he has never faced what confronts him in Houston this season.
For the first time, he does not come into camp as the alpha dog on his team; even as a rookie, he was the No. 4 pick for a New Orleans franchise that was ravaged by Hurricane Katrina in between the NBA Draft and his first game. He would lead the Hornets in minutes, assists, steals and games played that year.
In Houston, he enters the realm of a player who could have won two out of the last three MVP awards, something even Paul, a unanimous Hall of Famer were he to retire tomorrow, can’t claim. He is 32, his new running mate is 28, makes more money, has been in the city for longer and is already a more recognizable national figure, thanks to his signature facial hair.
And yet, it is Paul who will face more pressure. It is he who is coming to a team that won 55 games with a harmonious brand of basketball, one focused around his new running mate’s unselfishness and offensive wizardry. He will be playing in the spot occupied by Patrick Beverley, one of the three most beloved sports figures in Houston by the time the 2017 playoffs ended. He is coming into town with a reputation of a hard-driving taskmaster who can’t carry his team to the Western Conference Finals. The Rockets have been there
twice (whoops this is why you shouldn’t write at 1 a.m. kids!) once in the last three years, taking advantage of a mythical collapse from a team Paul led.
Want more pressure on CP3? How about the fact that he’s playing for what is likely his last major contract. If the Rockets’ season goes way south, he won’t sniff $150 million, let alone the $200 million max contact he desires. He will be viewed as the ingredient that spoiled the recipe, no matter the truth. D’Antoni, Harden and Morey are constants. Barring something exception, they will not receive the vast majority of blame if it is going around, Paul will.
That’s a lot of pressure facing Christopher Emmanuel Paul. But it’s nothing compared to the kind of pressure he and his new running mate will be putting on opponents this year.
To look at Chris Paul stats on Basketball-Reference is to wonder if one’s computer is experiencing some kind of monotony glitch. Since his first year in LA, he has scored between 16.9 and 19.8 points per game, averaged between 9.1 and 10.7 assists, stolen between 1.9 and 2.5 balls per game, shot between .462 and .485 from the field and averaged between 2.1 and 2.6 turnovers per game. The only wild fluctuation comes in the games played column, from 82 in 2014-2015 to 61 games last year, all since being traded to Hollywood in 2011.
Don’t be fooled by the military consistency and drill sergeant demeanor. What gets lost in the popular narrative about Chris Paul is just how lethal he is with the ball in his hands. He’s not simply a game manager, he is a game maestro.
Paul may have never made a Western Conference Finals, but there is nothing like watching him take over a game, and he’s done it a lot in huge moments. The highlights above from last year’s Jazz series show a gamer who scores at every level of the floor, and find his teammates for open looks (notably Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, who ... hey, he’s on the Rockets now too!
He averaged 25 points, 9.9 assists, 5 rebounds and 1.7 steals in seven games in the playoffs to the Jazz. Did he lose? Yes. Was he playing on a team that gave 39-year-old Paul Pierce 14 minutes per game, and LMAM, who is fine but the 9th guy on the Rockets’ bench, 32 minutes a game, the fourth-most on the team. The Clippers, in case you forgot last year, were not as good as the Rockets.
The Bona Fides
CP3 has led the NBA in offensive win shares three times (Harden led the league last year) and has led the league in steals six times, being named to seven All-Defense first teams. He’s averaged 18.7 points, 9.9 assists and 2.3 steals per game in his 12-year career, and, at 32, he’s very much in his prime, if near its end.
It’s not a stretch to say he’s one of the greatest point guards of all time. I know to some who are either blinded by their (perfectly understandable) dislike of CP3, the narrative of great player, not a winner is a way they can easily dismiss his accomplishments. But to dismiss his superlative career thus far as not an all-timer would be to ignore the facts. I mean, holy hell:
Beyond his individual statistics, Chris Paul teams win. A lot. He’s been in the playoffs seven straight years, and nine of the last 10. His playoff numbers are even better than his regular season numbers, scoring 21 points, with 9.4 assists and 2.7 turnovers in 38 minutes per game, shooting 38 percent from deep and a .585 True Shooting Percentage.
Why it will work with Harden (probably)
I suppose I should begin this section by acknowledging the argument against that is being debated across basketball media (at least you’re paying attention!) this summer: Paul and Harden will have trouble coexisting because each of them need the ball in their hands. I can see the argument, I really can, but it is built on an assumption, not a fact — that Harden and Paul need the ball in their hands.
Beard and CP3 are each at their offensive best when they are picking apart a defense. Of this there is no question. Not only are they are their offensive best, but the two new backcourt mates are just about Nos. 1 and 1a in the NBA at operating in the pick and roll.
Paul averaged 31.5 minutes a game last season, the lowest of his career. At his age, right around 32 minutes in the regular season is where he belongs. That leaves 16 minutes, a full quarter of the game, for Harden to dance on as many unfortunate big men who get switched on him, lob to Clint Capela and throw 40-foot lookahead passes to Trevor Ariza on the elbow. That’s plenty of time to torch defenses as only Harden can.
Last year, Harden averaged 36.4 minutes per game last year, mercifully down from the more-than 38 minutes he played in that dreadful 41-41 season. With CP3 in tow, that should go down to around 34 minutes, leaving 14 minutes for Paul to methodically slice up the D with Capela/Nene, Mbah a Moute, P.J. Tucker and Eric Gordon around him while strangling the life out of opponents’ overmatched second units. These will be 14 minutes of hell for opposing fans.
Sixteen plus 14 leaves 18 minutes for the two to share the floor together. With their solo offense cravings satiated, the two can practice harmonious passing only a pair of basketball geniuses can muster. There will be no need for disharmony, and Ariza, Ryan Anderson and Capela will be all the supporting cast they need to run roughshod over most of the league.
In the preseason, Paul shot 20 three-pointers in limited action. Several of those shots came from Harden passes, which is likely the biggest example of why they work together: their natural unselfishness. CP3 had no problems feeding Blake Griffin the ball, just as Harden loves setting his teammates up for shots. The only difference is the open man who’s on the other end of their passes will be another Hall of Fame point guard in his prime.
I said this first on the Limited Upside podcast, but my bold prediction is both Harden and Paul average 9 assists per game this year. They would be the first teammates in NBA history to do so. I’m not even sure what the most assists per game two teammates have averaged is, because I don’t have time for that level of research (if you do, post the answer in the comments). But I know no pair has each gotten 9.
Last year, Harden averaged 11.2 assists per game, the most in the NBA since Steve Nash in 2011. The second-most prolific passer on the Rockets was Patrick Beverley, with 4.2 assists per game. If the Rockets match last year’s offense, you can take two Harden assists, give them to CP3 and he’ll need three more assists per game to meet that mark.
It will be tough, but there has never been a pairing like this before. Don’t be surprised if the Rockets wind up shooting much earlier in the shot clock, more like D’Antoni’s Suns, because players will be told to shoot when open. With these point guards on the floor, Rockets are going to be open a lot.
Chris Paul is not Dwight Howard. While the Clippers locker room wasn’t exactly a zen garden the last few years, he is around several people he already knows and likes: Harden, Ariza, Bobby Brown (UNDERESTIMATE HIS WORTH, I DARE YOU) and LMAM. The Rockets have been going to Astros games together for weeks now, went to concerts and played basketball together all summer. The buy-in is real. The Rockets looked like one of the sharpest team in the preseason, and everyone appears healthy.
Paul is entering the biggest season of his career. It looks like it’s coming in the right place and the right time. A Finals trip doesn’t need to be a success for him, for he has a mountain to climb still. The Conference Finals await.