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Can Chris Paul And James Harden Play Together?

With Wednesday’s bombshell that the LA Clippers are trading Chris Paul to the Houston Rockets, the main question on most NBA observers’ minds is this: How exactly is the new pairing between Paul and James Harden — two ace playmakers who’ve spent years as the focal point of their respective offenses — supposed to work together in harmony?

Both Paul and Harden ranked among the league’s top four players in assist rate last season, and both were among the top 50 in usage rate as well.1 They’re both used to dominating the ball and calling the shots. But come next season, one (or, more likely, both) will probably have to adjust to a different role in order to coexist.

In the modern NBA, we’ve never really seen a pair of playmakers be thrown together quite like this. I went back to the 1976 NBA-ABA merger and searched for any time two players who logged at least 1,500 minutes with a high assist rate (at least 30 percent) and a high usage rate (at least 20 percent) came together after playing some (or all) of the previous season on different teams.2 There were only 13 situations fitting those criteria; Paul and Harden would become the 14th.

(And the cut-offs I used in each stat were liberal — Paul and Harden each had assist rates in excess of 45 percent and usages over 24 percent last season, far above the thresholds I imposed.)

We’ve never seen a pairing like CP3 and Harden before

Teams on which players with a previous assist rate of at least 30 percent and a previous usage rate of at least 20 percent played together

COMBINED ASSIST % COMBINED USAGE %
YEAR TEAM PLAYERS APART TOGETHER APART TOGETHER
2018 HOU C. Paul & J. Harden 97.5 58.6
1997 PHO J. Kidd & K. Johnson 83.0 76.7 46.9 39.7
2012 LAC M. Williams & C. Paul 82.7 62.3 45.8 47.2
2014 TOR G. Vasquez & K. Lowry 79.5 64.2 43.3 45.1
2011 MIA D. Wade & L. James 78.2 58.4 68.4 63.1
2016 HOU J. Harden & T. Lawson 77.6 57.7 51.9 47.3
2017 DET R. Jackson & I. Smith 74.5 62.8 53.0 46.9
2003 MIL G. Payton & S. Cassell 73.7 63.4 54.5 51.5
2003 DAL N. Van Exel & S. Nash 71.2 60.7 49.8 47.2
2002 DAL T. Hardaway & S. Nash 70.1 59.8 45.4 44.3
2009 CLE L. James & M. Williams 67.3 58.1 55.6 57.2
2013 CHA K. Walker & R. Sessions 65.7 56.7 46.8 51.3
2015 TOR K. Lowry & G. Vasquez 65.1 56.3 44.0 45.2
2015 CLE L. James & K. Irving 63.6 63.6 59.2 58.5

To qualify, players had to play at least 1,500 minutes the previous season, at least partially for different teams. They also had to play at least 1,000 minutes during the season in question.

Source: Basketball-Reference.com

Harden and Paul’s combined assist rate of 97.5 percent last season easily tops the list, and their combined usage of 58.6 percent ranks third (trailing only LeBron James’ partnerships with Dwyane Wade and Kyrie Irving). As far as teams with two world-class facilitators go, the 2017-18 Houston Rockets will be unlike anything we’ve ever witnessed in NBA history.

(That history, it should be noted, seldom saw these kinds of team-ups at all until very recently, probably because teams worried about the defensive consequences of playing two point guards together — a concern that is vanished in the “positionless basketball” era.)


VIDEO: Chris Paul and James Harden are a rare duo


The fact that the Rockets’ new pairing is unique doesn’t mean it won’t work. First of all, having more gifted passers on the floor is almost always a good thing — ball movement greases the wheels of the modern scoring machine, after all — which is probably why the teams above improved their offenses by an average of 3.0 points per 100 possessions (relative to league average) after acquiring their new playmakers. Secondly, both Paul and Harden are great shooters: CP3 knocked down 39 percent of his 3-pointers these past three seasons, and Harden was a 37 percent shooter from downtown as a member of the Thunder early in his career, before he was asked to carry so much of the Rockets’ offensive burden.

To that last point, Harden’s workload has increased so much in recent seasons that he was doing nearly the work of two players anyway. If it weren’t for Russell Westbrook redefining just how much responsibility a single player can bear, we’d be talking about Harden putting on arguably the greatest one-man show in NBA history. Having Paul aboard will lighten the all-around load for a player who’s also proven he can be one of the most efficient complementary scorers in modern history.

Of course, the Rockets also dealt away a number of players to get Paul, who missed 21 games with an injury last season. So depth might be a concern: even after picking up CP3, FiveThirtyEight’s preliminary CARMELO projections think the Rockets only have 56 wins of talent on hand for next year, only a game better than they did last year. (Though a bunch of the teams’ minutes will go to players who aren’t signed yet. The projection assumes the Rockets will resign Nene, which they haven’t yet.)

The Rockets are going to be good, but not Warriors-good

CARMELO projections for the 2017-18 Houston Rockets

PLAYER TOTAL MIN. PLAYED OFF. PLUS/MINUS DEF. PLUS/MINUS
Chris Paul 30 +6.2 -0.1
James Harden 35 +5.8 +0.8
Eric Gordon 25 +1.8 -2.4
Trevor Ariza 30 -0.1 +0.8
Clint Capela 25 -0.9 +1.3
Ryan Anderson 25 +1.8 -2.2
Troy Williams 15 -2.7 +0.5
Nene 15 -0.6 +1.5
Replacement level player 40 -1.7 -0.3
Team total 240 +7.1 -0.4
WINS LOSSES
Rockets’ projected record 55.5 26.5

*This projection assumes the Rockets resign Nene.

One more factor to consider: the diminishing returns we have to discuss whenever we talk about superteams. If we’ve learned anything from the brief history of these lineups at work, it’s that teams with complementary skills — like the 2016-17 Golden State Warriors and 2007-08 Boston Celtics — retain more of their on-paper production than teams like the 2010-11 Miami Heat, whose stars (James and Wade) duplicated many of the same skills.

In Paul and Harden, there are a lot of skills being duplicated. But the Rockets are hoping that it will be offset by the sheer talent and adaptability of the players involved. Either way, it should be one of the more interesting experiments ever conducted on an NBA court.

CORRECTION (June 29, 11:17 a.m.): A previous version of this story listed Montrezl Harrell on the projected roster for the 2017-18 Rockets. Harrell was traded to the Clippers in the Chris Paul deal. The table has been amended with a new win projection for the 2017-18 Rockets, giving Harrell’s minutes to forward Troy Williams.

Footnotes

  1. OK, so it’s more Harden who dominated the usage rate rankings (he ranked fourth and Paul was 47th). But still.

  2. I also ensured they played 1,000 or more minutes the next season on the same team.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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