The Point God and The Beard: The Tragic Love Story of Chris Paul and James Harden
Chris Paul and James Harden are at the center of what has the potential to become a William Shakespeare-level romance novel.
These protagonists—and make no mistake, that is what they are—threaten to dance, sing and enlighten us about the intricacies of this beautiful game called basketball. By season’s end, we will be certain of their success, purely based on the ebb and flow of their on-court storytelling.
These are two of the very best at their craft, no matter which way you look at it. The promise to deliver an exciting show from beginning to end is omnipresent. As their audience, our duty isn’t to critique. Instead, we must savor every act as if it’s their last, because that moment will come more suddenly than we realize.
Before we get to the last act, however, we must first find our seats for the show and determine how these two ball-dominant players will mesh.
Last season, Harden successfully transitioned to a full-time point guard role, which saw him play 98 percent of his minutes at that position. This shift in philosophy led to his most successful season yet as he posted a career-high in PER (27.4), total rebound percentage (12.2), assist percentage (50.7), box plus/minus (10.1) and value over replacement player (9.0).
The newly anointed point guard maximized head coach Mike D’Antoni’s beautiful pace-and-space offense, proving to be the new and improved Steve Nash.
The Houston Rockets played with the third-fastest pace last season, running their transition offense for a shot on 18 percent of their possessions (No. 2 in the NBA). However, they have room for improvement, as they only averaged 1.08 points per possession (No. 16).
Surprisingly, Harden struggled mightily in this area, scoring infrequently (0.93 points per possession) while turning the ball over often (29.7 percent of possessions)—not something you’d expect from a dude who appears to thrive in the open floor. While Paul is not perfect in transition, he will bring a nice upgrade and help ease some of his co-star’s ball-handling duties. He averaged 1.14 points per possession and turned the ball over only 15.8 percent of the time during transition plays last season.
A favorite staple in the D’Antoni transition playbook is the throwback into a high ball screen. To begin the play, the lead guard quickly pushes the ball up the floor with a pass to a wing who’s sprinting up the side. The wing then takes a dribble to get to the three-point line before passing the ball back to the now-trailing guard. As the three other perimeter players set up on the outside, the big man sets a ball screen for the trailer. This creates absolute chaos for the defense, as they are sprinting to find their man and out of position.
Forget the missed shot; the floor spacing is a work of art. The defenders just barely get back in time and are still finding their men by the time the shot goes up. Even though Harden chooses not to use a ball screen, this is considered a good shot in D’Antoni’s offense.
Paul will thrive in this scenario, as he is great in open space.
A nearly impossible man to guard one-on-one, the Point God will force the defense to send help, leaving open one of the Rockets’ many perimeter options. If the defense chooses to stay loyal to their assignments, the Wake Forest product will ensure they pay a high price. Not only is he unguardable, but he also demands respect from the paint to the three-point line. Last season he shot 41.1 percent from behind the arc, including 39.1 percent on pull-ups.
We all know Harden shined last year when thrust into serving as a primary ball-handler. Paul’s arrival doesn’t have to change that completely, but it does mean The Beard will be playing off-ball more frequently. He has shown he can be successful in this role, as he shot 38.3 percent on catch-and-shoot opportunities from downtown last season.
Houston has given no indication it can’t carry over its success from last season when the roles are switched, putting Harden as the shot-creator and Paul drifting around the perimeter. In minimal attempts (1.1 per game), Paul shot 49.3 percent on catch-and-shoot opportunities from the outside. The attempts will rise significantly, and it’s only natural to see the percentage dip. He should understand his role going into the season and be working on different aspects of his game in order to augment his three-point-shooting repertoire.
Driving to the bucket is a whole different beast.
The shots won’t fall some nights, especially when defenses get tighter come mid-April. When this happens, mediocre teams fall apart, running home with their tails tucked between their legs. But the truly great teams have secondary weapons upon which they can rely. For the Rockets, it’s their ability, whether through isolation drives or pick-and-rolls, to get into the paint for easy buckets.
D’Antoni’s team finished the regular season ranked fifth in isolation frequency by letting a man go one-on-one 9.4 percent of the time. It was also fifth in effective field-goal percentage (45.1 percent) and scored an average of 0.95 points per possession—fourth most in the NBA.
Obviously, Harden was a central component of that success, as he ran 6.8 isolation plays per game and averaged 0.97 points per possession. While that’s good and all, the former Los Angeles Clipper is even better. He scored an average of 1.09 points on three isolation plays per game, giving him one of the best marks in the league. Adding another tool of this magnitude creates another notch in the Rockets’ proverbial belt.
Pick-and-rolls are yet another weapon Harden and Co. use to complete a full-out onslaught on modern-day defenses.
In 2016-17, Clutch City ran a pick-and-roll resulting in either a shot for the ball-handler or roll man 25.8 percent of the time, ranking in the league’s top 10. When the ball-handler shot, he produced 0.93 points per possession (No. 3 in the NBA).
Meanwhile, Paul isn’t called the Point God for nothing, as he seemingly produces buckets for himself and his teammates even in the most suspect of circumstances. Ranking in the 83rd percentile, he’s a pick-and-roll master. Working as the ball-handler on 7.6 possessions per game, Paul produced 0.96 points per possession. While that doesn’t stack up to Harden’s 1.01, it gives Houston even more firepower for opposing coaches to plan around.
The critics have called out Paul’s former love—the mid-range—as an unnatural fit in D’Antoni’s threes-or-layups offense. Below, you can see the Rockets 2016-17 shot chart compared to the floor general’s (I won’t make you guess which is which):
One is the Rockets' shot chart, one is Chris Paul's. Can you guess which is which? pic.twitter.com/gIGFp87csM
— Brian Sampson (@BrianSampsonNBA) July 7, 2017
I can’t say I have much of a rebuttal to this discrepancy, as this is certainly a kink between the coach and his new star player that will need to get ironed out. Forcing an all-time great to change his game at the height of his reign is a dangerous move to make. On the other hand, Moreyball doesn’t make exceptions to its successful style of play.
The Paul and Harden duo will be one of the most entertaining acts we’ve ever seen. Think along the lines of Romeo and Juilet, Noah and Allie or Jack and Rose.
Unfortunately, like each of those pairings, this love story will come to an unfruitful ending when the cast finally meets the antagonists in the Western Conference Finals. Similar to the iceberg in The Titanic, the Golden State Warriors aren’t to be budged. Sure, the Rockets may put up a fight on the surface, but underneath, the Warriors will absorb minimal damage.
Regardless of the conclusion, this drama will have us sitting on the edge of our seats with no fingernails left to bite. There will be happiness. There will be anger. And by golly, there will be tears.
Follow Brian on Twitter @Brianball0.