On Oct. 17, 2017, five minutes into a decorated partnership the Houston Rockets believe will someday deliver them an NBA championship, James Harden inbounded the ball to Chris Paul along the baseline. With Golden State Warriors wing Patrick McCaw crowding him, Paul slowly rotated his six-foot frame towards the basket, threw a jab step, and then rocked his body an inch out of McCaw’s reach to drill one of his patented fadeaway jumpers.
That was the first hoop Harden and Paul shared in what promised to be the dawn of a wonderful relationship. It was also the last time Harden and Paul would assist one of each other’s baskets until Nov. 18, just over one month later. Two years into their union, the general infrequency in which they feed each other has been a consistent, somewhat surprising theme.
Of Harden’s 586 total assists during the 2018-19 regular season, only 14 went to Paul. More went to, in order: Clint Capela, Eric Gordon, PJ Tucker, Gerald Green, Danuel House Jr., Kenneth Faried, James Ennis III, Austin Rivers, and Nene. Thirteen were distributed to Gary Clark, who played 1,200 fewer minutes than Paul this season. Meanwhile, Paul assisted 39 of Harden’s baskets, fewer than the number of hoops he assisted Gordon, Capela, Tucker, and Green. In 1130 minutes together, Houston’s two best players — a pair that averaged 15.7 assists per game overall this year, which was more than any other two teammates in the league – only set each other up on 53 total buckets.
- Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook and Paul George yielded 212 total assists between them this season.
- Portland’s Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum were at 132.
- Milwaukee’s Khris Middleton and Giannis Antetokounmpo were at 150.
- Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant were at 186.
- Even LeBron James and Lonzo Ball made it to 74 this year.
- Looking at two quick examples from the recent past, Durant and Westbrook – whose partnership often felt like two solo artists working separately – hooked up 320 times in their last regular season together. Dwayne Wade and LeBron assisted each other 67 times during their first championship run in 2012.
Paul missed 48 games over the past two years, which obviously impacts total numbers. But even with that caveat, these are pretty jarring.
In the 2019 playoffs, Harden has assisted at least one basket for nine of his teammates. None have gone to Paul. Meanwhile, Paul has only assisted four Harden buckets. In last year’s playoff run, Harden only assisted six of Paul’s baskets. Paul to Harden? Four. That’s a total of 14 hookups to each other in 624 playoff minutes.
“Is there another tandem of two Hall of Fame point guards?” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said when asked why Harden and Paul don’t collaborate more often. “James is an iso guy, that’s what he does. That’s what he does best. He’s great at it. We exploit that and we’ll live with the consequences...we’re not questioning now ‘Oh yeah let’s change everything and let’s figure something else out.’ No we’re not doing that.”
Paul and Harden are two all-time delivery men and fabulous spot-up shooters who don’t directly use these invaluable traits to help each other. Instead, they take turns conducting the same ship, a setup that is less than ideal in other situations.
So why has the partnership worked so well?
When news first broke that Paul was headed to Houston, many were curious—if not outright skeptical—that his game would fit with Harden’s. Paul and his inner circle has always disputed that notion. The way Paul sees it, his style of play has always been dictated by his teammates.
“Everybody has always thought I wanted to be this ball-dominant guard, but I’ve never played with one. I mean I’ve played with Eric Bledsoe, Darren Collison, Randy Foye—I don’t want to leave nobody out—but I haven’t really played with a lot of other ball-handlers,” Paul told SB Nation. “I mean, like, JJ Redick wasn’t much of a ball handler. [Former New Orleans Hornets teammate Morris Peterson] wasn’t much of a ball handler.”
During the 2014-15 season, no player assisted any one teammate more than Paul assisted Blake Griffin and Redick (262 and 214 times, respectively.) Now 34, Paul enjoys gazing out at a teammate who doesn’t need his assistance.
“It’s been great. It’s been cool. It’s the way that we play,” he said. “If you play the way that we play, push it in transition and stuff like that, and then we play together some and then we don’t play together some. I don’t think for me and him, we don’t even pay any attention [to assisting each other].”
Bobbing off the ball has its advantages, particularly for an aging point guard who no longer is able to commandeer a top-10 offense by himself. During the regular season, Paul has been an even more efficient scorer without Harden on the floor, but this postseason has been a different story. Paul’s effective field goal percentage goes from an atrocious 39.8 without Harden to an impressive 53.1 with him, according to NBA.com.
“Chris is in a situation where he needs someone like James to be able to score the ball as much as he does. That helps his game,” Willie Green, a Warriors assistant coach who is also Paul’s former teammate and close friend, told SB Nation. “Even though he’s not assisting necessarily to James, James puts so much pressure on the defense that it allows other guys to be free.”
“Sometimes the biggest assist is having James on the court, and me driving and them hugged on him,” he said. “There’s no stat for that though. There’s no stat for that. When I’m driving, and the guy is denying him, you know what I mean?”
Both Paul and Harden are incredible threats off the catch, even if they don’t actually shoot spot-up jumpers often. In their last season on separate teams, Paul made 49.4 percent of his spot-up threes, and Harden drilled 39.4 percent on 2.4 attempts per game. It was easy to envision a world where these two would drive and kick their way into a million open looks for each other. Instead, Harden’s spot-up threes dropped to 1.6 attempts per game in his first season with Paul. This year, they plummeted down to 0.9. In this postseason, Paul is 0-for-5 (total) on spot-up threes.
None of this has damaged the team’s overall offense, though. Using both stars’ gravity, Houston doubled down on an iso-heavy style that’s bred one of the most effective and idiosyncratic offenses in NBA history. Houston led the league in offensive efficiency in 2017-18 and finished fifth this season.
In these playoffs, just over a fifth of all Houston’s possessions have been in isolation. During last year’s playoffs it was just under a fifth. They finished the past two regular seasons 29th in passes per game, and in last year’s postseason averaged nearly 100 fewer than the league-leading Philadelphia 76ers.
“I think they do collaborate. I just think their team is built in a way that’s very unique to any other team in the NBA,” Green said. “Rather than just assisting each other, it’s more about the momentum, the ability to play off each other’s scoring ability and playmaking ability.”
Paul and Harden are two of the smartest passers who’ve ever lived. Their basketball intelligence is in the 99.99999th percentile and they read the game like a children’s book.
“A lot of times when they’re talking about things, a lot of guys are scratching their heads like ‘what are they talking about?’” Rivers said. “It’s just minor stuff. Defensive reads or offensive reads. ‘Hey when you do this, why don’t you set the screen so I get him on it...don’t roll this way, roll that way, that way when you go this way, this guy comes…’ and you just say ‘oh shit, damn, that’s a good point.’ Stuff like that. Obviously that’s why they are who they are. Very elite IQ’s.”
More fundamentally, messing with success makes no sense. Houston finished with the most efficient isolation offense in the league during the regular season, doing it more than twice as often as the second-highest team. Harden averaged 1.11 points per possession when on an island, which is a rate that equates to a top-10 offense.
Looking at the way the way they’ve staggered Paul and Harden’s minutes, the goal isn’t to pound their opponent into smithereens by maximizing them both at the same time, but instead to always have one on the floor. From Day 1, the idea has been to let Harden cook by himself in the middle of each quarter, while Paul assumes control at the end of the first and third, and start of the second and fourth. Every other minute sees them both out there. It’s a relentless handful.
“They take turns. When one guy gets tired from the isolation they’re able to throw the ball at the other guy and then you’ve got another Hall of Famer coming down hill in pick-and-roll, so you never get a break,” Warriors head coach Steve Kerr said. “It’s really hard to defend them and it takes great energy.”
Paul has dominated throughout his career as one of the league’s better independent shot creators. He’s masterful, still, at creating space whenever he needs to. Meanwhile, Harden’s stepback three has decoded the terms of an ongoing league-wide revolution. The day where they’ll regularly feed each other has yet to come, and probably never will. Their connection, instead, is indirect, tied to gravity and the rare benefit of always having at least one Hall of Fame point guard on the floor.
“I just feel like they play off of each other well,” Kevin Durant said. “One guy has the ball and the other guy is off in the weeds just waiting for his opportunity to come in. He’s just waiting for when the other guy needs a breather, and I feel like they have a perfect balance between the two.”
In the NBA, one dominant organization can force those in pursuit to think outside the box. Competition is good, and without it we wouldn’t see innovation-based change. The natural followup question, then, is would the Rockets play this way if the Warriors didn’t exist?
Behind Harden and Paul, Houston has embraced a stye that requires immense individual talent and an ego-free locker room. Trust is paramount. It’s also designed to attack a defense that wants to switch everything and coax hero ball.
While critics worry the Rockets are on track to homogenize the game by solely relying on threes, layups, and free throws, in reality they’re doing what needs to be done, in a way that can’t be duplicated by anyone else. A traditional offensive system would likely foster more of an on-court bond between their two best players, but that’s not the goal. Winning is. Having Paul and Harden do damage on their own track is the strategy that best allows them to get over the hump, as unusual as it might be.