When Chris Paul moved to Texas last summer, forecasters were positive, but muted, about the outcome of Daryl Morey’s two point guard experiment. Everyone seemed to think Houston, winners of 55 games last year, would be as good, if not a touch better. But what the Rockets have done before this year’s All-Star break has been jaw-dropping.
With all hands on deck, Houston is not only playing like an historically good team, they are outperforming the Warriors. Injuries have masked this fact, but the Paul-Harden duo is on pace to eclipse Golden State for the top seed in the West. As of Feb. 14, the Rockets have a 9.4 SRS in 22 full-strength games this year. They are 19-3 in such games. The Warriors have posted an 8.2 SRS with their core group and an underachieving 20-7 record.
Just how good is a 9-SRS team historically? If we define a “healthy” team as having all 25- minute per game players in the lineup, then only 30 full-strength squads have posted an SRS above 9 (equivalent to about a 65-win pace). Twenty of the 28 who remained healthy (71 percent) have gone on to win the title, including last year’s record-setting Golden State team (who posted a record SRS of 14). It’s rarified air that only a few teams reach every decade, and the Rockets are flying in it right now.
If we relax the standards of “full-strength” and focus only on the twin turbos powering the machine, Houston has an 11.6 SRS and is 28-3 with Paul and Harden. That’s flirting with 70-win territory. Perhaps most shockingly — and please, sit down for this — they are posting an offensive rating above 120 in those 31 games, 11.9 points better than what their opponents typically yield. That’s better than the 2017 Warriors and pushing the boundaries of the best offense ever.
Many superstar combinations have yielded severe diminishing returns — perhaps most famously, Wilt Chamberlain in Los Angeles in 1969 and Julius Erving in Philadelphia in 1977 — and pairing ball-dominant stars is not always additive, as we saw in Miami in 2011. But Harden and Paul are both good spot-up shooters and passers, two of the most scalable offensive traits in the sport. This has allowed them to retain some value as a wingman when they aren’t piloting the offense.
A few things jump out from the above charts. First, Harden has been helped by Paul’s presence, and that makes a difference for a go-to lineup. Second, they have a super-creator on the court at all times, so Houston can run the same stuff for the entire game with only slight variations. And third, Houston’s net rating is 11 points better than opponents with its two Hall-of-Famers on the court, which is exactly the same as Golden State’s with Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant on the court this year.
Additionally, notice that both Paul and Harden have seen an enormous uptick in their scoring as the lone floor general on the court in 2018. This is a testament to Houston’s historically good floor-spacing that’s making it easier for their point guard to move through basic progressions like a quarterback depending on the opponent’s pick-and-roll coverage. No one has discovered an antidote for this overly-stretched floor against a three-level scorer (3-pointer, mid-range or drive) who can pass into the smallest of windows. Houston now has two of them now; the Rockets have doubled-down on simplicity.
Morey and coach Mike D’Antoni not only deserve credit for cultivating their spacing with stretch players like Ryan Anderson, but for bringing in switchable parts that shoot triples and defend. Most teams give up a lot on defense when they play an offensively-slanted lineup, but Houston is getting something back on the other end by toting out the likes of Luc Mbah a Moute and PJ Tucker. Clint Capela has been excellent as a defender and a roll man, completing the Houston offense with his lob-catching at the rim.
This is deliberate redundancy, as ESPN’s Kevin Pelton discussed with Ian Levy this week, and it’s a rarely used tactic. While a lack of offensive diversity is a theoretical cause for concern, I’m not sure anyone’s discovered a way to slow down this attack yet, and so Houston has played the same hand while gradually improving their table position. Look at the lower-right of the above graphic again — the Rockets have steadily improved in the last few years, independent of Paul and Harden, which has put both of them in a position to succeed.
Of course, the elephant in the room is whether this style can succeed in the playoffs. Here’s the Rockets extraordinary shot chart from 2017, the Morey Rorschach:
The Rockets are practically allergic to 2-pointers outside of the paint, and the thinking seems to be that teams can easily game plan to take away the “predictability” of Houston’s dualistic offense. Since Harden arrived, the Rockets postseason offenses have struggled a bit, losing 4 points of efficiency (per 100) from their regular season average over 45 playoff games. However, in Mike D’Antoni’s first run last year — i.e., Harden’s first year as the point guard — the drop was minimal in 10 short postseason games. Harden’s own playoff numbers over the past three seasons have barely lagged behind his regular season marks, a normal occurrence for most players. In other words, there’s nothing indicating this offense will suddenly fall off a cliff in the playoffs, and that’s before considering Chris Paul.
In hindsight, the real brilliance in the Paul acquisition is how seamlessly the ship flies when Harden goes to the bench. But Paul’s ability to mesh with Harden when they share the court (and vice versa) has turned an unconventional idea into something noteworthy, even if their ceiling is short of the unparalleled greatness of Curry and the Warriors. Time will tell whether Golden State has peaked or if they’re suffering from regular season ennui, but it’s amazing that we’re even having this conversation only a year after most people thought Kevin Durant broke the NBA. Which makes the Chris Paul trade the most successful superstar move of the last few years.