In the lead up to the season, we heard every reason why the Houston Rockets would falter after combining two future Hall of Fame point guards together in the same back court.
There’s only one ball. They both need to have control. Chris Paul and his clinical style would never mesh with James Harden and his more freewheeling approach. Some even predicted (or were hoping for) a disaster in Houston.
We even heard it again while the Rockets were winning when CP3 was out with a knee injury. There was speculation that things might not go so great once Paul returned and started barking orders and Harden had less control over the offense. At the very least, there would be a short adjustment period. I even said that one myself, silly me.
But through six total games of CP3 (five since he’s been back from injury) the Rockets are proving all sort of doubters wrong, from the outright haters all the way down to those like me who thought it would take at least just a few games. But the Rockets are 6-0 with Paul in the lineup, including that season-opening win over the defending champion Golden State Warriors, and CP3 has been as good as advertised.
He’s currently averaging 10.8 assists per game, which would be good enough to lead the NBA had he played enough games (interesting enough, Harden is the actual leader, with 9.8 dimes per game). Paul’s number (though an admittedly very small sample size), is currently at the highest level he’s seen in several years. Paul averaged 10.7 assists back in 2014.
Perhaps most impressively, Paul has 65 assists and just 7 total turnovers in his six games. In his past three contests, it’s been a mind-boggling 39 assists and 2 turnovers.
Sure, his scoring this season is currently way down, but it’s only a matter of time before Paul gets his shooting legs under him (he’s hitting just 38.6 percent from the field so far this season) and when he does, we’ll surely see plenty more of the 23-point, 12-dime nights we saw last week versus the Denver Nuggets.
I'm sorry... What did Chris Paul just do? pic.twitter.com/h0ukF1YWEx— Def Pen Hoops (@DefPenHoops) November 23, 2017
But CP3 has been contributing so positively to the team in so many ways that his lack of premier scoring has been barely noticeable. And as you might have noticed, the Rockets as a team have had very little trouble putting the ball in the basket. Paul’s made an already deadly offense and solid defense even better.
To put it another way, Chris Paul has more games with at least 10 assists and two steals (five) than anyone in the league, and he's played in six just games. https://t.co/IEe2ilwOsS— Jonathan Feigen (@Jonathan_Feigen) November 28, 2017
The team has been on absolute fire, as they lead the league in offensive rating and are second in defensive rating since Paul returned. They’re also scoring 121 points per game over their last five, the most in the Association during that period.
And it’s important to remember that head coach Mike D’Antoni is still working to fully incorporate Paul into the offense. Paul is slowly ramping up his minutes as his game-conditioning improves, just hitting 30 minutes for the first time since coming back in each of his last two contests.
The coach often staggers his two superstars, and as Paul’s minutes get higher and the team continues to build chemistry, they’ll be spending more and more time together. Even so, they’re already doing this together:
Reminder: Chris Paul and James Harden will be just fine. pic.twitter.com/64CGnlaInz— Trent Arnold (@TrentArnoldNBA) November 28, 2017
In fact, in the five games since Paul’s return, The Beard is sporting averages of 34.4 points, 5.4 rebounds, and 8.2 assists on 49.5 percent from the field and 46.4 percent from three. So far, Harden’s game hasn’t only not suffered playing with another so-called “ball dominant” guard, it’s flourished.
According to The Ringer, Harden’s usage of 32.4 when Paul is on the court is only slightly less than his season average of 36 and last season’s average of 34.2. So The Beard is still getting his, even while ceding some of the offensive control to Paul.
The transition has gone exactly how D’Antoni and GM Daryl Morey had hoped when they traded fan favorite Patrick Beverley, most of last year’s reserves and draft picks to the L.A. Clippers for Paul in the offseason. With the Rockets sporting the best record in the Western Conference through the first quarter of the season, D’Antoni told the Houston Chronicle that this impressive early-season run has been a validation of the Rockets’ offseason personnel changes.
“I think what it did, it showed some of our wishes, like Chris and James can play together. It took five games to figure that out. They reaffirmed a lot of stuff we were hoping would happen, like they can play together, that the defense would be better because we added some defensive-minded guys, that we'd come together chemistry-wise.”
It’s also been a validation to all of the skeptics out there who thought this would either never click, or at least take a little time (again, including myself). When you have two talents such as these who have the desire to play together, it’s going to work.
Throw in some summer court time building chemistry and a cadre of talented Rockets role players who know their job is to complement Houston’s dynamic duo, and voila, you have yourself what’s looking like a championship contender.