Putting James Harden and Chris Paul side-by-side on the Houston Rockets in a Mike D’Antoni offense has unbridled potential. On face value, the red and yellow boys are a better team than they were last season.
If all goes well there’s going to be lots of wins, limited losses, a deep playoff run and James Harden will pass the ultimate test of his disposition while paired with Chris Paul.
This is Harden’s team, but Paul is almost immediately its on-court leader. The diminutive point guard carries a nearly unrivaled reputation as a floor general, strong-willed competitor and feisty point guard willing to cajole opponents, referees and yes, teammates.
Delivering orders, calling out mistakes and setting the tone for an entire team’s temperament are Paul’s calling cards. It can be motivational and teaching or it can be demoralizing and badgering.
Theoretically, this pairing of personalities meshes to Harden’s past as much as Paul’s.
In Oklahoma City, The Beard was willing to be the sixth man in support of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Alongside Dwight Howard, he avoided leadership responsibility as locker room rifts festered while day-to-day leadership responsibilities belonged to veteran Jason Terry.
More than the statistics and MVP performance this past season was Harden’s coming-out party as a leader. He was the unquestioned general of D’Antoni’s system and visibly coached everyone from Patrick Beverley to Clint Capela.
Harden is not the same player or personality who once came off the bench or was paired with Dwight Howard. In just three years he’s gone from player-supported MVP to a season mired in dysfunction and dejection to all-around team leader.
A huge part of the Rockets 2016 - 2017 revival was Harden’s surefooted leadership.
Paul’s presence will certainly change this dynamic for the team. The ‘Point God’ will be quicker to offer points of improvement and criticism to his teammates and that includes James Harden.
How the spoken tweetstorm of incoming chatter from Paul is received by Harden will be the biggest test to his disposition. This includes how Harden reacts to Paul instituting his personal brand of leadership on their mutual teammates and how Harden reacts when Paul calls out a beard-driven mistake.
In past seasons, Harden hasn’t taken well to criticism or challenges to his authority: “Report: Teammates frustrated by James Harden’s aloof play” Fox Sports, November 18, 2015.
In his final season alongside Dwight Howard, Harden virtually gave up on any emotional investment in games and did his best to ignore his superstar pairing. The numbers were still there, but Harden sleepwalked through a dismal season.
And it goes without mention but requires mentioning: the Game 6 collapse against San Antonio. An absence of heart would be a generous way of describing Harden’s disinterested performance from an ambiguously irked Rocket superstar at a crucial moment.
Can you imagine Chris Paul reacting to Harden in that game? Or reacting to a play where Harden loses his cool when a teammate declines to play defense?
This isn’t to say the pairing isn’t going to work, or that Harden isn’t a better leader and more mature player than ever before. D’Antoni will figure out how to fit the superstars on the court together and Harden’s maturity is at a high watermark for his career.
It’s a potentially awkward pairing because Chris Paul’s demanding personality seems entirely at odds with Harden’s historical response to challenging personalities. It’s not hard to clash with Harden’s more laid back style and seemingly unspoken expectation to be considered the unquestioned alpha dog.
At the end of the day Harden and Paul are responsible for this pairing. It would have been impossible for The Beard to have ignored Paul’s history and his style of leadership in the behind-the-scenes machinations bringing Houston to this point.
For Harden it would be basketball malpractice to have requested the pairing then bristle and shut down when Paul’s personality takes hold.
The entire season alongside Paul will be the ultimate test of Harden’s disposition, and it will determine whether this is the future of the Rockets, or merely a one-year phenomenon. We’ll know for sure after three or four glaring defensive lapses.