Chris Paul is back in the Rockets' lineup. How does he fit with James Harden?

Photo of Chris Paul is back in the Rockets' lineup. How does he fit with James Harden?
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The short answer: Nobody knows.

Chris Paul is expected to rejoin the Houston Rockets on Thursday night for their matchup against the Phoenix Suns, according to ESPN’s Tim MacMahon. He had been out since the Oct. 17 season opener with a bruised left knee.

Paul, who was expected to decline the player option of the final year of his contract and test free agency last summer, opted into his contract for the 2017-18 season. He then forced a trade from the Los Angeles Clippers to the Rockets, joining James Harden to create what appears to be the most dynamic backcourt in the NBA.

At least on paper.

Paul played in 33 minutes in the opener against the Warriors. He played on his injured knee, posting just four points on 2-of-9 shooting to go with his 10 assists, eight rebounds, and two steals. When the Rockets subbed CP3 out in favor of Eric Gordon with just under five minutes left in the fourth quarter, they went on a 13-7 run to win the game.

Since then, Houston has won 10 of its last 14 games without Paul, its 11-4 record third-best in the NBA behind Boston and Golden State. Now, the Rockets’ all-world point guard is set to return to the starting lineup and play about 20 minutes against the Suns on Thursday, according to the Houston Chronicle’s Jonathan Feigen.

That leaves one question.

How will this work?

The short answer: We really don’t know.

Paul and Harden are two players who have historically needed the ball to be effective. Harden currently leads the league in usage percentage (36.0), ahead of Kristaps Porzingis, D’Angelo Russell and Joel Embiid — three players who are the end-all, be-all for their respective teams. Paul’s usage rating has been below 23 only twice in his career.

Paul and Harden played 21 minutes together against the Warriors in the season opener. The Rockets were outscored by an average of 27.5 points per 100 possessions in lineups with the two all-star guards on the floor, according to data from NBA.com. The caveat? Not every team plays defense like Golden State, and ideally, Paul isn’t injured like he was in the opener.

All that, and it was just one game. Never jump to conclusions after one game.

The Portland Trail Blazers solved this conundrum beautifully when pairing Damian Lillard with C.J. McCollum years ago. Now, both serve as primary ball-handlers and off-guards when needed, both have their moments to play without the other on the floor, and both are finding success some didn’t believe was possible. The Brooklyn Nets were also prepared to do similar things with Jeremy Lin and D’Angelo Russell, until Lin’s season was cut short by a ruptured patella tendon.

Our own Tim Cato explored how Paul can fit in with the Rockets in a piece he wrote in mid-November:

As impressive as the Rockets have been, they need Paul. We saw them bottom out of last year’s playoffs in six games. They’re not on Golden State’s level and Paul might not get them there, but they have to try.

Paul, at worst, is an elite spot-up shooter who can spell Harden as the primary ball-handler and shot creator. The Rockets are worst with Eric Gordon off the court (minus-3.6), not Harden, because Gordon’s a glue that helps bring lineups together. Paul can duplicate his game more than any other Rocket, to an extent.

The Rockets desire for the Paul and Harden pairing to be more, of course. They envision a 1A and 1B situation, not just the current structure that has Paul fitting in where he can find space. We saw Paul and Harden playing off each other in the preseason. We’ll likely see more — some things that work, some things that don’t — once Paul returns.

High-usage (sometimes, high-ego) guards have been paired together throughout the course of NBA history. Sometimes it works. Other times, it doesn’t. It’ll fall on Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni to make sure it does.

And if it does, Houston’s 11-4 start virtually without one of the best point guards in basketball history could be just the beginning of the surface the Rockets are beginning to scratch.

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