As another NBA chapter nears, it’s time for our season previews. Can Harden and Paul co-exist in Houston?
Expected Conference Ranking: 2nd
Best Move of the Offseason: The Chris Paul trade was great. That’s obviously the best move of their offseason. But let’s talk about the brilliant job Daryl Morey did with all of his other roster moves.
He stacked the team with long defenders like P.J. Tucker and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, exactly the kinds of guys Houston didn’t have last season. And he did it for bargain basement prices. He stole every non-guaranteed contract in basketball and now he’s going to use them for some sort of midseason move. He even threw a top-3 protection on that pick he gave up for Paul. Because of course Daryl Morey would do that. This offseason was a symphony. Paul was just the crescendo.
Worst Move of the Offseason: I’m somewhat stunned that they couldn’t seal the deal on a Carmelo Anthony trade in some fashion. Ryan Anderson wasn’t tradable. Fine. I can live with that. But Trevor Ariza is suddenly untouchable? Really? He hasn’t been an elite defender since… he was a Wizard? Ariza is much better in theory than he is in practice. But hey, he’s in a contract year. I guess he might try this year.
Their Offense: It’s going to be a much easier fit than people think. There’s this assumption that James Harden and Chris Paul had the ball on literally every possession last season. That’s not how basketball works. Yes, they generally took the ball up the court, but often enough for it to be meaningful, they passed the ball and didn’t get it back. Harden played with Patrick Beverley and Eric Gordon last season. Paul played with Blake Griffin and the coach’s son. It would not have been possible for them to have the ball on EVERY possession. First Cavs-era LeBron did not have the ball on every possession. Again, basketball doesn’t work that way.
They both know what they’re doing off of the ball. They are both better shooters than they ever get credit for. Paul will erase the mid-range deficiencies that plagued Houston in the playoffs. Harden has far more potential as a screener and cutter than he gets credit for. They’re going to fit better together than anyone thinks.
From there? Things are easy. A couple of guys can dribble. A couple of guys can roll. And a couple of guys can shoot. It’s pretty simple from there.
Their Defense: There are two fundamental questions that need to be answered here.
First, how good can any defense be when they have arguably the two worst defenders at their position playing at the same time? Does having an All-Defense point guard in Paul, plus Ariza who is still decent and playing for a contract, and Clint Capela who is quietly one of the league’s better rim protectors get you to league-average? Having Tucker and Mbah a Moute on the bench, two excellent defenders, helps quite a bit as well.
If the Rockets can go from a slightly below average defense to a slightly above average one, they are a 60-win team.
The other question: can Paul force Harden to try on defense? There’s a solid argument that he will. Paul can intimidate teammates into doing anything. He got DeAndre Jordan to renege on a contract agreement with the Mavericks. Harden will have less offensive responsibility for the Rockets this season, so playing more defense is somewhat possible. If Harden is at least league average, there’s a chance the Rockets could scrape together a defense that actually gets to, well, good.
Their Bench: Four players matter: Mbah a Moute, Tucker, Nenê and Gordon. Player No. 5 will join in February. Maybe this is the year Mike D’Antoni actually uses his bench in the playoffs.
Best Case Scenario: The championship. There are two teams, and ONLY two teams, that legitimately have something that the Warriors don’t. The Cavs have LeBron. The Rockets have two world-class ball-handlers while the Warriors only have one. They lose to Golden State in every other area, but that one is their advantage. There’s a non-zero chance they ride it to the title.
Worst Case Scenario: Paul and Harden hate each other, and Paul leaves.