Nylon Calculus: A lineup-based analysis of the Chris Paul trade

After over a month of traveling around the other side of the world, I returned home less than 72 hours ago. Finally back to some relaxation and tranquility, I thought to myself. Roughly 24 hours ago, word of the Chris Paul trade to Houston started breaking. So much for relaxation and tranquility. Two weeks ago, I was somehow at peace with the fact that I wasn’t even able to get on Twitter. After I come back home, I leave Twitter to go brush my teeth, and Chris Paul ends up in Texas.

The biggest ramification of this trade is obviously the Rockets attempting to position themselves as a third true championship contender next season. However, the trade wasn’t without its questions, namely that of the fit between Chris Paul and James Harden.

After all, neither Paul nor Harden in Houston is used to playing with a backcourt mate who is as ball dominant as the other and skilled enough to warrant that level of control over the offense. For some reference, take a look at the (brace yourself) radar charts below overlaying Chris Paul and James Harden against each other as well as their fellow guard pairings from last season (The values displayed in the radar charts reflect the percentile rank of the player relative to everyone in the league who played a minimum of 300 minutes last season):

When I first rolled out my model on lineup balance, I said balance is comprised of three factors: complementariness, synchronousness, and skill. Patrick Beverley, Eric Gordon, and J.J. Redick are all players who are great at what they do, but they are limited. Just as well, none of them posted a usage rate higher than their star guard partners last season. The truth is, as far as balance is concerned, both Harden and Paul covered so much ground on those radar charts that they rendered the concept of complementariness as little more than simply being able to coexist without needing the ball. It’s remarkable then to see Chris Paul’s chart juxtaposed on Harden’s and realize how much synchronousness there was between the two players in their statistical profiles.

With that much overlap, no wonder we are questioning if putting the two of them in the same backcourt will not come with diminishing returns. You can maximize one player’s abilities or the other, but can you properly maximize both? It does seem a little antithetical to witness Harden’s career year by putting the ball totally in his hands, then stating that the way to improve is to take it out of his hands.

However, while the questions are fair, that’s a very reductive way of looking at the Rockets’ new lineup construction. As has been covered in various places already, having Paul in the backcourt presents many advantages for Harden and the Rockets, not the least of which is having another elite playmaker to take the load off of Harden. Their minutes will definitely be staggered to a certain degree as well. Both of them also operate at their best in different areas of the court. The Maestro of the Midrange and the Moreyball Marauder don’t clog up each other’s playgrounds (which of course poses the challenge of CP3 adapting to a Moreyball/D’Antoni offense). While it will certainly take some time for Paul and Harden to adjust, the bottom line and most important aspect of the trade is this: in their quest to catch the Warriors, the Rockets have made up a solid chunk of ground.

In the balance charts above, we can see how some of the Rockets lineups looked last season and then compare it how they might look with Chris Paul in the fold this season. The presented Rockets lineups last season had a balance score of 56. For comparison, the Warriors’ Hamptons lineup led the league with a balance score of 64. With Chris Paul, the projected Rockets’ lineups above have a balance score of 60. Letting Chris Paul and James Harden learn how to work together in the same backcourt, as we’ve seen, is definitely a nontrivial challenge, but it’s one worth having in the grand scheme. After all, star pairings in the NBA, whether it be LeBron James and Dwyane Wade or Steph Curry and Kevin Durant, never start off perfectly smooth, but the final outcomes are usually exactly what you’d hope for.

I issued this redaction on Twitter, but my initial calculation for balance score was based on a misrepresentative and faulty assumption. The updated method of scoring is much simpler and doesn’t mess with area at all — just summing the percentile ranks in each category for every player and dividing that by the potential maximum, which would be 100*5*N categories. I should say also that this is only an extremely rudimentary representation of the notion of balance and that by itself, it holds little analytical value. It’s simply a companion number to quantify the visualizations in each balance chart.