Chris Paul is set to return; We make the case he should begin by coming off the bench

James Harden and Chris Paul are great together off the court. How will they be on it? Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

All Star point guard Chris Paul could return to the Rockets lineup as early as Thursday against Phoenix, according to the Houston Chronicle’s Jonathan Feigen. The question now shifts from when he will return, to how will he fit in? Given the team’s impressive start, the answer may not
be so simple.

The Rockets currently own the second best record in the league and are riding a six-game winning streak. They have accomplished all of this primarily through the offensive efforts of James Harden and Eric Gordon, the latter of which having been promoted to the starting unit in place of Paul.

With Paul out, the Rockets have reverted to a tried and true strategy: let Harden dominate, and make sure everyone else is ready to shoot when he dishes. Harden leads the league in minutes played, points, assists, free throw attempts, and ranks
second in overall usage. The Rockets, at the moment, are James Harden.

Gordon, meanwhile, is benefiting from the increased court time with Harden. He is lighting up the scoreboard in his current starting role, averaging almost 23 points per game, and has ripped off a five-game streak of 20-plus point games.

The narrative leading up to the start of the season was how Paul and Harden-- two players that operate most effectively with the ball in their hands-- would coexist on the court together. Not counting Game 1 against Golden State where Paul was clearly not 100 percent, it looks like we’ll finally get a good sample size sooner than later.

Once he returns, Paul should be expected to slide immediately into the starting point guard position, with Harden returning to the shooting guard role. This shift will bump Gordon back to his sixth man spot, a role he more than excelled in last season. But where will Paul's minutes come from?

Harden may see a slight dip in minutes, but for the most part, his are untouchable. The same can be said for Gordon as well. Where we will most likely see a shift is with the bench wings, P.J. Tucker and Luc Mbah a Moute. Each are averaging almost 29 and 28 minutes respectively, so expect the majority of Paul's minutes to come at their expense.

While Paul may start the game alongside Harden, don't expect them to be side by side throughout the game. In fact, the plan is to stagger each throughout the game so that at least one or the other is on the court at all times. This means that teams who have tried to go on runs against the Rockets while Harden is sitting will have a much tougher go at it, since they will have to contend with Paul (and likely Gordon) in his stead.

In order for Paul to make his transition as seamless as possible, he's going to need to buy into Head Coach Mike D’Antoni’s air raid attack and fire at will. For his career, Paul averages about 5 three point attempts per game. For perspective, none of the Rockets starters (minus Capela) average less than 7 three point attempts per game. Gordon and Harden are each firing an average of
11(!) per game. If Paul is going to maintain the team's current tempo, he's going to need tooperate with the safety off.

Paul's return will impact both Gordon and Harden’s numbers, and hopefully for a good reason. Paul is an offensive force and will produce in both the assists and points departments. Most importantly, teams will no longer be able to focus solely on Harden. In order for Paul to command attention, though, he's going to need to take and make his own shots, which will siphon some production from the Rockets top heavy scoring output of Gordon and Harden. Balancing production between the three of them will be key not only to their continued success, but their overall durability as the season lingers on.

All of this a long term theory. In the immediate future, I expect the CP3’s addition to be more of a wrench in the spoke than an upgrade. The Rockets are firing on all cylinders and seem to be intent on making a major roster change in spite of it. My question is, should they? What if, at least while he was easing back into a regular workload, Paul came off the bench?
Now as a disclaimer, I understand that this more than likely won't happen. Daryl Morey didn't trade half of last year's squad to the Clippers for a sixth man, and Mike D’Antoni has made a compelling case to never be second guessed during the regular season as the Rockets’ head coach.

That being said, hear me out.

Chemistry is one of the most fickle beasts in the NBA. Good chemistry can take a 2007-2008 injury-riddled Rockets team on a 22-game win streak, while bad chemistry can lead a 2017- 2018 Oklahoma City Thunder team comprised of two all stars and a reigning MVP to a 6-7 start. It's dangerous to tamper with.

The palpable chemistry between Harden, Gordon, and Capela has produced an almost obscene
start to the season and a serious discussion should be made as to whether that chemistry
should be tampered with. I never thought I would be entertaining-- much less advocating-- the idea of  Paul coming off
the bench. It sounds insane to say aloud. But at the moment, and in this very unique scenario, I think it would be the best call.

Bring him off the bench to start. Not forever, just to start. This would maintain the chemistry that has been cultivated so far and provide a great spark off the bench as Paul works his way into the system and playing shape. Then from there you gradually transition him back into a starting position.

I never envisioned that the return of Paul to the Rockets’ would elicit more concern than excitement. Ultimately his presence will improve an already great team, but the immediate adjustment period will be a concern that D’Antoni will have to address. It will take a combination of selflessness from Harden and Gordon as well as a willingness from Paul to play within D’Antoni’s system to mitigate the growing pains. Regardless, Chris Paul's return to the team and potential fit is a great problem to have.

Most Popular

SportsMap Emails
Are Awesome

Listen Live

Keep an eye on Alex Bowman this weekend. Image via: Wiki Commons.

For the first time since July 1984, NASCAR returns to one of its most popular cities in Nashville, Tennessee for the inaugural Ally 400 at Nashville Super Speedway. This track is a 1 1/3rd mile concrete oval that was dormant for nearly ten years and was only used as a testing facility. So it came as a bit of a surprise last season when it was announced that this track would be getting a date. For a lot of drivers, this will be a brand new racetrack, but we will see practice and qualifying, so that will be a huge help for the newcomers that haven't raced here before. Back when the Xfinity and Trucks ran here, this track featured a lot of first time winners. Back in 2008, future NASCAR champion Brad Keselowski shocked the world by jumping in Dale Jr's car and capturing his first win here. There will be a lot of veterans like Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick who have plenty of experience at this track, but it will be tough to compare. It should be fun with everyone coming into this race with minimal knowledge.

Last week, Kyle Larson continued his hot streak by winning the All-Star Race. Overall, while Larson and his Hendrick teammates probably enjoyed the race, the feedback from crews and fans was less than positive. As I was walking through the garage area and talking to a few crew members, a lot of them were very critical of the 450 horsepower motor and the tall spoiler to try and keep the cars bunched up. When I asked one of the crew-members what he thought about the package he told me, "Oh it's awful. The track is terrible, the package makes it impossible to pass and it's super hot out here." On green flag runs, it was the same as it ever was as the lead car would pretty much take off and the only time there was really any "pack racing" it came after there were restarts. The whole race was well-intentioned and the fans showed up as it was nearly a capacity crowd, but the whole thing just didn't make any sense. From the start time being in the nearly 100 degree heat to the wacky full-field invert at the end of each stage. Let's hope that next season's All-Star Race is a lot more concise.

In Silly Season news this week, Truck Series regulars GMS racing announced that they would be fielding a full-time cup series team. The team is currently owned by Allegiant Airlines CEO Maurice Gallagher and his son, Spencer, who used to drive for them in the Xfinity Series. This move seemed to come from out of nowhere as there was never any indication that this was a move they were exploring anytime soon after they turned down the opportunity to purchase Furniture Row Racing in 2019. This is certainly a great sight for the sport as there will be more new teams on the track and with their close relationship with Chevy, it wouldn't be a surprise if they step in and help this team become competitive. The favorite to drive their car has to be 2020 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series champion Sheldon Creed. He has easily been their best driver in trucks, and it would make the most sense for him to get the promotion.

This week at Nashville, the driver that I have winning is Alex Bowman. Now while this is a brand new racetrack and he has a grand total of zero starts here, this track suits his driving style perfectly. With the inclusion of this track, there are now four tracks with a concrete surface. Nashville, Bristol, Dover and Martinsville. At the three of the tracks they have run at, he has shown a lot of speed, including a victory at Dover this season and a top ten finish at Bristol. This is also a track where crew-chief Greg Ives said Bowman has gravitated towards during testing. In an interview with Sirius XM Ives was quoted as saying "we used to have a lot of fun testing there," so this is clearly a track that they both enjoy going to. Another big factor going into Sunday will be just how fast these Hendrick Motorsports cars are, they have finished 1-2 over the last four points races. He has watched his teammates Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott have immense success, and now this week I think he is due for a third win of the season. Look for the bright purple #48 Chevy to go to victory lane this week at Nashville.

SportsMap Emails
Are Awesome