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.

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5 questions on the John Wall trade

The Rockets made a big move. Photo by Elsa/Getty Images.

The Houston Rockets point guard carousel continued to spin Wednesday night, as the Woj bomb-iest of Houston-related Woj bombs erupted in the Space City:

For the third year in a row, the Rockets will begin the season with a new point guard, in an attempt to finally find someone that can play alongside James Harden. Let's take a look at how the Rockets got to this point, and what it means moving forward.

What led to the trade?

Russell Westbrook simply wanted out. Westbrook is the type of player that needs to be the number one ball handler and that simply wasn't ever going to happen on a James Harden led team. Other reports cited Westbrook's frustration with the lack of accountability and casual atmosphere within the locker room. Ultimately if anyone was going to be moved between Harden and Westbrook, it was always going to be Westbrook.

Why John Wall?

This one is another fairly straightforward answer: they both have relatively similar contracts. Each is making an absurdly overpriced $40 million this season, and both were disgruntled with their current team. Rockets General Manager Rafael Stone and Wizards GM Tommy Sheppard tossed the idea around a few weeks ago, but couldn't find a deal they liked. It was reported that discussions resumed Wednesday afternoon and within a few hours the deal was done in an almost one-for-one swap.

How does Wall fit?

This is a little more complicated because it's not exactly known what head coach Stephen Silas' game plan is. It's also difficult to predict whether or not Harden will still be on the roster when the season starts. But let's assume that Harden takes the court for the Rockets and that Silas' system resembles something similar to what we've seen in Houston for the past few years. In that case, Wall would be a slight upgrade to Westbrook. Westbrook is more athletic than Wall, but when healthy Wall was no slouch. In addition he's a much better defensive player and has much better court vision than Westbrook. Westbrook's assists were usually a bailout after attacking the lane with his head down, while Wall is more likely to set up a teammate.

This isn't to say that Wall doesn't need the ball though. He's fairly ball dominant, but not nearly as much as Westbrook. Harden proved last season that he's capable of effectively playing off the ball if necessary, so it seems like a better fit from a distribution rate alone. If they can find that sweet spot like they did with Chris Paul and stagger the lineups so that each star gets their own time to create, there's potential for an improved Rockets team more reminiscent of their 2018 run than the past two years.

What are the best and worst case scenarios?

The worst case is that the Rockets were sold a lemon. Wall has potential to be an upgrade, but comes with huge risk. He last took the court in 2018, where he was sidelined with a knee injury. He subsequently ruptured his Achilles in an accident at his home while recovering from the knee injury, forcing Wall off the court for almost two years. It's possible an extremely unfortunate Wall reinjures something and completely derails the machinations of the trade. Even if he's recovered fully, it will take time to get him up to game speed which could frustrate Harden on a team that can't afford a slow start in their stacked conference. Harden has managed to cultivate drama with just about every co-star he's played with, so there's no reason to assume this attempt would go any better. If things turn sour, Harden could be out the door even quicker than expected.

The best case scenario is that Wall arrives ready to play team basketball and resembles the better part of his pre-injury form. Wall and Harden buy into Silas' new system, space the floor, and take turns carving up the lane with dribble drives and kick outs to players who can actually hit from distance. This version of the Rockets could potentially be a 3-seed in this year's Western Conference.

Who won the trade?

At the moment the Rockets. Not only did they remove at least one of their locker room distractions, but they also gain a first round pick. If Wall can stay healthy and Silas can keep both stars happy, this team should be a lot more fun to watch than last season's clunker.

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