Chris Paul & James Harden: Peanut Butter & Jelly or Peanut Butter & Pepperoni?

It wasn’t surprising that Chris Paul decided to move on from the Clippers but the Rockets are not an intuitive fit for him.   Paul is great but he seems somewhat redundant to the Rockets.  Houston was already second in the NBA in offense and James Harden was the de facto point guard.  And Harden was a particularly heavy part of the offense.  Harden’s 34.2 usage rate last year was 20th highest ever for a single season.

Pretty much every single player with a higher usage rate than 2016-17 Harden didn’t play with a real point guard or another ball dominant perimeter player.  Per, here are the players with highest single season usage rates (minimum 2,000 minutes):

Russell Westbrook 2016-17, 41.7

Kobe Bryant 2005-06, 38.7

Russell Westbrook 2014-15, 38.4

Michael Jordan 1986-87, 38.3

Allen Iverson 2001-02, 37.8

Dwyane Wade 2008-09, 36.2

Michael Jordan 2001-02, 36.0

Allen Iverson 2000-01, 35.9

Allen Iverson 2005-06, 35.8

Kobe Bryant 2011-12, 35.7

Allen Iverson 2003-04, 35.3

Jerry Stackhouse 2000-01, 35.2

Kobe Bryant 2010-11, 35.1

George Gervin 1981-82, 35.0

Allen Iverson 2004-05, 35.0

Dwyane Wade 2009-10, 34.9

Michael Jordan 1992-93, 34.7

Allen Iverson 1999-00, 34.4

DeMar DeRozan 2016-17, 34.3

James Harden 2016-17, 34.2

Of the 20 players, we have a lot of the usual ball-dominant guards you would think (the Wade seasons were pre-LeBron).  Of the 20 players listed above, 19 were paired in the backcourt with specialists like Eric Snow, Chucky Atkins, Eric Snow, B.J. Armstrong, and Smush Parker.  The only player with a higher usage who also played with another ball-dominant guard was DeRozan, who put up a 34.3 usage rate and still shared the ball with Kyle Lowry (24.9 usage).  But even that example is misleading because Lowry missed 22 games with injury.  In 2015-16, when both DeRozan and Lowry were healthy, their usage rates were 29.8 and 26.1 respectively.  So, there is reason to be skeptical that Harden and Paul can both be as effective together as they were without a second banana.

There is some evidence that Paul will adjust and let Harden have a lot of touches.  Paul did play with Jamal Crawford in Los Angeles (though Crawford came off the bench and led the second-team offense).  Back when Paul was in New Orleans, he played with other more ball dominant players like Marcus Thornton and Darren Collison in 2009-10 and 2010-11.  The result was that Paul’s usage rate dipped to career low 22.2 and 21.1 usage rates.  In addition, Paul was still a star but his PER was 23.7 both seasons, which is great but below his 26-27 range he has been in ever since.

Mike D’Antoni has also done a great job, in the past, using all his offensive players.  In Phoenix, he ran an offense that balanced his weapons nicely and all the stars played with ridiculous efficiency.  Steve Nash ran the show and there were plenty of touches for Shawn Marion and Amare Stoudemire.  Of course, Nash had the ball in hands most of the time and did not have another lead guard playing with him (his two guard was Raja Bell).   When D’Antoni had Nash playing with Kobe, things weren’t quite as smooth, though Nash was older at the time and Bryant raised all sorts of other non-offense related issues.

Next year, we can expect Paul will go the John Stockton route and really reduce his shots and touches but hyper-efficient offensively.  That is a better scenario than having only Harden running the offense (Harden was bound to wear down with too much on his shoulders) but, from a practical perspective, Paul and Harden next year probably won’t be that much more efficient than Harden during his awesome 2016-17 season.

The stealth improvement that Paul will provide is on defense.  Paul is not a better defender than Patrick Beverley was but Paul is still a pretty good defender.  Paul’s presence will also help reduce reliance on Eric Gordon, who was one of Houston’s big defensive problems last year (-2.4 DBMP).  In short, the Paul move is nice and will help but there is more work to be done in Houston.  We’ll have to see what else the Rockets do to address their other issues.


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