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TULSA, Okla. — The easiest way to become a pebble-in-his-Jordans annoyance to Chris Paul these days is to question how he and James Harden will co-exist because both have been so “ball-dominant” over the years. Paul has heard the “b-word” description so many times since joining the Houston Rockets that it’s become trite and, in many ways, offensive, with regard to his latest career move. He also would rather not have his knowledge of basketball — not the game he’s been playing since he was “4 or 5” — doubted the way it is has been since he decided to form one of the more intriguing backcourt pairings in decades.
To Paul, the concerns over whether this partnership will work suggests that he flippantly decided to take command of his career by opting into the final year of his contract and demanding a trade from the Los Angeles Clippers — as if he hadn’t done his homework with Harden and studied how they would complement each other. No way would a player with impeccable on-court vision be so short-sighted when it came to his career. Paul would rather the naysayers find another argument because calling him and Harden “ball-dominant” isn’t going to cut it.
“I hate to say this, but somebody who says that, they obviously don’t watch enough,” Paul told The Vertical before helping the Rockets beat the new-look Oklahoma City Thunder 104-97 in his preseason debut Tuesday at BOK Center. “Somebody will say, ‘ball-dominant,’ but at the end of the day, you’re called on to do what your team needs you to do. If you’re a 3-point shooter, and the coach puts you in to shoot 3-pointers, are you going to say, ‘He’s just a 3-point shooter?’ The thing is, having the ability to have a guy who can create off the dribble and stuff like that is nice. And great.”
For much of his 12-year career through New Orleans and Los Angeles, Paul has had the ball in his hands and was tasked with running the show. He has turned that responsibility into a Hall of Fame-caliber career that finds him as the active leader in career assists, on pace toward becoming in another three seasons the sixth player in NBA history to reach 10,000 dimes. But that success has come without an adequate postseason résumé, the frustration prompting him to finally try something different after a second straight first-round exit.
“It was definitely time for a change. It was definitely time for a change,” Paul told The Vertical, repeating for emphasis.
Harden was open to change, too. Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni put the ball in his hands like never before and Harden put up numbers that would’ve easily earned him an MVP trophy in any other season except one in which his good friend, Russell Westbrook, became the first player in 55 years to average a triple-double. But a second career runner-up MVP finish was unfulfilling because of an inexplicable postseason flameout that could mostly be attributed to fatigue and attrition. Harden’s pride wasn’t going to get in the way of accepting help. And his desire to have Paul around to relieve him from all of the playmaking and decision-making made it easier for Paul to make his decision.
The NBA has had its share of duos throughout league history, but the most legendary combinations were either a big man and a guard (Bill Russell and Bob Cousy, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson, Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant) or two wing players (Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, Jerry West and Elgin Baylor, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade). Backcourt combos are even harder to find. And most of the more memorable championship pairings were drafted and developed together (Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson). Two potential Hall of Famers coming together, as Paul and Harden have, hasn’t happened since Walt Frazier and Earl Monroe brought some magic — and a title — to Madison Square Garden in the 1970s.
Monroe forced his trade from the Baltimore Bullets at the start of the 1971-72 season and never experienced a training camp, so he spent most of his first season with the Knicks trying to fit in — an adjustment made more difficult because he had a foot injury that required surgery the following summer. “When you go some place else, you kind of have to sit back and let the game come to you,” Monroe told The Vertical in a phone interview. “If Clyde was coming to Baltimore, he would’ve done the same thing, because it was his show up there and it was my show down in Baltimore. You have to understand that and sacrifice your talents. On any wheel, there’s spokes and you have to figure out which spoke you are.”
Monroe doesn’t know exactly how he and Frazier were able to make it work but acknowledged that instinct and mutual respect played a role in their success. Paul and Harden, he said, already have an advantage in the early stages because they’ve had an entire offseason to get to know each other and become acclimated on the court. Both Paul and Harden are also healthy and were hanging out together in Las Vegas shortly after the deal went down. Since then, they’ve attended teammate Trevor Ariza’s wedding, played pickup and charity games in Los Angeles, New York and Houston, and even participated in a player-organized camp in the Bahamas. That’s why Harden said there is “nothing” he and Paul need to figure out in training camp.
“Chris is coming in as the so-called one. Harden has been a two most of his career. It shouldn’t be a big issue, in terms of who is going to handle the ball,” Monroe told The Vertical. “The main thing is the point of attack and not so much who brings it up. If you have two guys in the backcourt that can handle the ball, that get from spot to spot, you can always stay in the game.”
Paul has generated a reputation for being controlling and demanding on the floor but he’s long desired to spend more time off the ball. A lot has been made about how Carmelo Anthony plays a different way in an Olympic setting — “Olympic Melo,” as he’s called — but Paul also played a different role in those settings, sharing the floor with other playmakers in Deron Williams and LeBron James. His backcourt mates in the NBA, from Morris Peterson to JJ Redick, have never been noted facilitators. Paul sought out a union with Harden because both could use the help.
“I respected it a lot,” Paul told the Vertical of Harden’s historic first season as a point guard. “I know how hard that can be, coming down, having to create so many plays on a nightly basis. That’s something me and him talked about; being able to deviate some of that pressure.”
Paul had 11 points, seven assists — including a dish to a trailing Harden for the game’s first points — and no turnovers in Tuesday’s win. But the most encouraging sign that this partnership of the two active players with the highest single-season assist totals could work is that Harden led the team with 10 assists. “I’ve had the ball in my hands a lot over my career and while it’s been successful — I’ve played with some great players, an unbelievable knockdown shooter in JJ Redick, I had Jamal [Crawford] coming off the bench, and different things like that — I never really played with another guy who can break down guys off the dribble and create a lot of things.”
Monroe is interested in how Paul and Harden will fare but added, “I’d be more excited if they would’ve gotten Carmelo. You still have to have those other spots filled up. Look, they’re going up against Golden State. OKC is a threat. You’ve got to match up with all of that.”
Anthony had held out hope for a trade that would finally unite him with his good friend Paul in Houston but eventually accepted a deal with Oklahoma City. After their preseason debuts with new teams, the two spent several minutes talking on the court. Neither wants to focus on a missed opportunity, with the Rockets unable to find the pieces needed to complete a transaction with New York. Paul also finds frustrating questions about Anthony’s ability to adjust with two All-Stars in Oklahoma City.
“I don’t know, man. I see Melo in a whole different light than everybody else. He can hoop. He’s nice,” Paul said. “Whatever Melo you’re going to get is going to be effective. So, yeah, I think everybody’s always trying to put him in a box. Just let him hoop.”
As for the possibility of one day playing with Anthony before their careers are over, Paul was hesitant to say anything that could be twisted into some click-baiting sound bite. “I don’t ever know what is going to happen in the future,” Paul told The Vertical. “After the season, I’m a free agent. It is what it is. Melo is happy where he is and that makes me happy. He has his team. I have my team and that’s that.”
Playing with Harden was only part of what attracted Paul to the Rockets. He’s close friends with Ariza, his former teammate in New Orleans, and guard Bobby Brown. He’s also excited to be back with Mike D’Antoni, with whom he’s familiar from USA Basketball. But Paul also knows what people will wonder about all season. And he can’t wait for them to find another word, besides “ball-dominant” to describe his game. Paul is eager to show that he can play off the ball, thrilled that he’ll get the chance to spot up in the corner and relieved to not have to rely on ball screens to score.
“I say it, and it sounds crazy. I don’t know if you’re a journalist or whatnot, but if you write, you know what words are usually going to go where, right? Because you know that stuff like the back of your hand,” Paul said. “You know that if you say, ‘I’m going to the store,’ you know ‘store’ is going to go after ‘the.’ Basketball, there’s only so many different things you can do. If we draw up a play, Clint Capela, at some point, where is he going to end up at? Seriously?”
“Right. So, it’s not that hard,” Paul continued. “For me, because I’ve been playing this game since I was 4 or 5, so I study it. Yeah.”
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