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What changes for James Harden now that Chris Paul is back in the lineup?
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Steve Aschburner: Hopefully Paul’s return will allow Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni to shave two or three minutes nightly off Harden’s average (37.4), and four or five points off his usage percentage (39.3). Both are league highs and seem unsustainable with any ambition to play into June. There’s no easy way to lighten Harden’s load on the court, but D’Antoni has to try and part of Paul’s leadership is to see that it happens. Of course, the veteran point guard needs to cloak himself in bubble wrap as well, so that he’s intact for whatever winds up as Houston’s final game.
John Schuhmann: Obviously, Harden’s load is a little lighter. Harden has averaged 35.9 minutes in the 25 games both he and Paul have played and 39.2 minutes in the 22 games Paul has missed. Harden’s usage rate has been much lower with Paul on the floor (32.3 percent) than it’s been with Paul off the floor (41.6 percent), and his field goals have been assisted more than twice as often. With Harden, Paul and Eric Gordon healthy, you can have at least two of those guys on the floor at all times and none of the three is ever responsible for making every play. How much Paul helps on defense is as important as the offense. The Rockets rank 27th defensively overall, having allowed 112 points per 100 possessions in their 50 games. But they’ve allowed 109.7 per 100 (a rate which would rank 18th) in the 28 games Paul has played and just 105 per 100 (a rate which would rank sixth) with Paul on the floor. Better defense takes some of the pressure off Harden on the other end of the floor.
Sekou Smith: He gets some rest, particularly on the offensive end and in terms of facilitating for anyone else (which Harden wasn’t doing a ton of recently, anyway). But Chris Paul’s return allows Harden to ease off the gas just a little bit. There’s no need for his usage rate to remain sky-high with Paul back in the mix. And the truth is, the Rockets need to be mindful of making sure Harden preserves a little something for the stretch run of the season and the playoffs. As magical as his January run has been (and it might have clinched him a second straight Kia MVP in the eyes of many voters), it cannot be the high-point of his season. The Rockets need him to go nuclear in the postseason far more than they need him to keep up his torrid scoring streak.