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James Harden And Chris Paul Are Already In The Argument For The Best Backcourt Ever


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When the James Harden-led Houston Rockets traded for Chris Paul over the summer, the immediate response included a number of people questioning whether two ball-dominant point guards could play together.

After an interrupted start to the duo playing together due to an injury to Paul, the paring seems to be just fine. In fact, they’re looking like they are putting together a great argument for the best-passing backcourt of all-time.

While numbers don’t mean everything, they don’t mean nothing, either. I first perused Basketball-Reference.com’s Play Index, looking at every player who has averaged 8.0 assists per game for a season. I could only find three instances where teammates with at least 11 games averaged eight dimes: Paul (9.6) and Harden (9.4), John Lucas (10.7) and Johnny Moore (9.6) for the 1983-84 San Antonio Spurs, and Norm Nixon (8.8) and Magic Johnson (8.6) for the 1980-81 Lakers.

There is no searchable database I have access to for total assists by a pair of teammates, but as far as what I could find, the Spurs pairing has the record at 20.3. The Houston duo is tied for second (19.0), with the Johnson and Michael Cooper tandem from the 1983-84 Lakers.

But bear in mind that Paul and Harden are playing in the 3-point era, and 9.52 of their assists are for threes. In 1983-84, the Spurs averaged on shot from distance per game, and the Lakers averaged 0.7. That means even if the representative duos assisted on every single three, it wouldn’t make up the difference.

In other words, Harden and Paul are combining to produce 47.52 points per game through their passing, which is at least six more points than any backcourt in NBA history. And that’s just through their passing. They’re also combining to score 47.9 points per game. Lucas and Moore averaged a total of 21. Johnson and Cooper averaged 26.6. Johnson and Nixon averaged 38.7. The 94.5 combined points passing and scoring is unparalleled.

Looking at some other tandems beyond just backcourts, John Stockton and Karl Malone totaled 82.8 in 1989-90. Wilt Chamberlain and Paul Aizin notched 82.3 in 1961-62, the year Wilt famously averaged 50 points per game. Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant combined for 82.13 in 2014-15, and that comes with the caveat that Durant played just 27 games. Dwayne Wade and LeBron James combined for 79.64 in 2010-11.

Michel Jordan and Scottie Pippen’s best season was 1992-93 when they had 77.3. The best Kobe Byrant and Shaquille O’Neal season was 75.5.

I’m not saying that there isn’t a season that touches what Paul and Harden are doing. I’m saying if there is, I can’t find it.

There are some caveats to this, though. Harden’s passing numbers were higher before Paul returned. According to NBA.com, he’s “only” averaging 8.3 assists since Paul came back. He’s also averaging 32.8 points, but that’s another story.

The other caveat is that obviously, some of these assists are to one another. But that isn’t as dramatic as you might think. Harden has assisted Paul four times this season. Paul has assisted Harden 13 times, and 12 of those were for three.

When you discount double points, Paul and Harden are generating an average of 89.6 points per game through their passing and scoring since Paul returned. This is still more than any other duo ever has, and I’m fairly certain some Malone’s points came off Stockton’s assists. My guess is the other duos are probably losing more points based on assisting.

The third caveat is that none of this accounts for efficiency. And that’s where things get insane. Here is what everything looks like when we take scoring and efficiency into account since Paul returned.

PLAYERS PTS TSA TS% PGA POT AST EFG% on Potential Assists Total Points Total Attempts Combined TS%
James Harden 32.8 25.2 65.0% 19.23 15.3 62.8% 52.0 40.5 64.2%
Chris Paul 17.2 13.6 63.1% 24.54 16.2 75.7% 41.7 29.8 70.0%
Totals 49.9 38.4 65.0% 43.9 31.4 69.9% 93.8 70.3 66.6%

That total points figure doesn’t adjust for the 47 points on which Paul and Harden have assisted one another because there’s no way to account for player-to-player potential assists. Suffice to say, this tandem is doing something insane. Not only are they probably generating more points than any backcourt in history, they’re doing so with unprecedented efficiency.

The reason they aren’t assisting one another that much isn’t so much a “chemistry” issue as a factor of their rotations. Paul typically sits early in the first quarter, then he runs the team while Harden catches his breath, and they close out the second quarter for the last few minutes. They start the third together, but then don’t play again until the fourth. That is assuming the game is close, because with the blowouts they’ve had, that doesn’t even always happen.

So by the numbers, there’s not much of a question that they’re working together. But the eye test has a place here, too.

Another reason for the Rockets’ success is that both players have such a unique style and run the offense in their own uniquely brilliant way. But how they run it is just as effective. When Harden and Paul are both on the court the Rockets’ offensive rating is 119.0. When Harden is by himself, it’s 119.6. When Paul is on by himself, it’s 122.5.

And in the 21 minutes of garbage time neither has been on the court, it’s 60.6.

But the pace skyrockets from 99.98 to 105.29 when Haden is sans Paul. And interestingly, it goes up slightly to 101.12 when Paul is without Harden. Harden tends to try to score more when he is without Paul, while Paul creates more points through his passing. But neither becomes a one-trick pony.

Harden will use his old man moves to drive the lane, and when the defense commits to him, he’ll lob it up for a Clint Capela flush.

If you cut off that, he’ll find a shooter and kick it out, like he does here with one of those Chris Paul assists.

If you try and play the shooters, he’ll either finish at the rim or step back and nail an open three. If you try and play him tight, he’ll hook the defender and get a 3-point shooting foul, much to the annoyance of the other team and their fans.

But Harden’s style is to get defenses on their heels, as he drives the lane, pushes for the rim and tries to collapse the defense. Paul’s style is very different. He handles the ball like a yo-yo, weaving about, daring defenses to come out to him. When they do, he either makes clever bounce passes to a rolling big or kicks it out to a 3-point shooter.

Like this…

…or this:

While Harden likes to collapse the defense, Paul prefers to just disrupt them. His brilliance is in his ability to create a small advantage to get a defender out of position, then use that to create a larger advantage, which is usually the shot created by the position left by the defender.

It’s this contrast of styles that makes them so hard to defend as a tandem. As soon as you adjust to Harden lobbing it up for a Capela flush, you have to deal with the power of Paul running the pick-and-roll with Nene.

While they have contrasting styles, though, they both have a nose for efficiency. According to NBAminer.com, Paul is first in assists-to-3-pointers while Harden is fourth. Harden is first in assists to dunks. Paul is seventh. They are sixth and eighth respectively in assists to layups, as well.

Paul is first in points on assists to Morey Zones (inside the little semicircle and outside the big one) at 19.48. Harden is second with 21.8 That their dimes are going to the most efficient areas of the court are why the Rockets are so efficient off their passes.

When you combine the passing, scoring and efficiency of the two, as well as the way they force defenses to respond in different ways, you can make the case that the Harden/Paul backcourt is the best ever.

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