Will Chris Paul's return to lineup disrupt or catapult the Houston Rockets?

Chris Paul is expected to suit up for just the second time as a Rocket on Thursday. (AP Photo/Michael Wyke)

Chris Paul and James Harden’s debut as a backcourt power couple in the Houston Rocketsopening night win over the Golden State Warriors  was merely a preview. Officially, Paul played during the win, but only at half capacity. After waiting with bated breath for Paul to leave his stamp on a title contender, he registered only four points on 2-of-9 shooting to accompany his 10 assists while laboring on a gimpy left knee that he bruised during the preseason. A few days later, he was shut down for the next four weeks.

According to multiple reports, Paul is slated to be in the lineup when the Rockets take on the Phoenix Suns on Thursday night. While Paul’s injury was never considered severe, doubts creeped in about his fit in a physically demanding uptempo offensive role at the age of 32, especially when he’s due for a super-max contract extension this summer. Bringing Paul into the fold against Phoenix enables Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni to ease him into action against a vastly inferior opponent that is notably anemic at the point guard position.

Phoenix’s Mike James and Tyler Ulis will now stare down a tandem expected to wield more firepower than just about any backcourt in the league. Paul and Harden’s union is supposed to be the most potent point guard duo since Clyde Frazier and Earl “The Pearl “Monroe brought Eden to Madison Square Garden.

If Paul isn’t deemed ready to go against Phoenix after workouts on Wednesday, D’Antoni could opt to hold off on reintegrating Paul until Saturday, according to the Houston Chronicle’s Jonathan Feigen:

After a light day on Monday with the Rockets off following the back-to-back, Paul is expected to go through a more extense workout on Tuesday and the Rockets’ practice on Wednesday. The Rockets would not decide when he will play until Thursday when they can measure how he responds to the practice sessions and the flight to Phoenix […]

“We don’t want to push it,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said. “If not Thursday, then we’ll see about Saturday (in Memphis). He worked out hard (Sunday.) We’ll see how he feels Tuesday and Wednesday. That (having Paul play on Thursday) is what we’re shooting for.”

The question at the forefront of everyone’s mind is how Paul will change the dynamic. Despite Tuesday’s 129-113 loss to the Toronto Raptors, the Rockets are still 11-4, good for second place in the West.

Their defense ranks 13th in points allowed per possession, but it could stand to improve, and will likely need to for Houston get where it’s going. Only 12 out of 94 NBA Finals teams since 1971 have finished outside the top 10 in defensive efficiency. Whether Paul helps Houston rise on that end figures to depend on how close to full strength his wheels are when he returns.

On the other end of the court, Harden has been superb accounting for Paul’s void. It’s like last season never ended. He’s continued pacing the league in assists (and turnovers) and is running a close second to Giannis Antetokounmpo for the scoring crown, averaging 30.7 points per game. Paul’s micromanaging and love of set plays will certainly eat into Harden’s league-leading 37.0 usage rate and probably his assist totals, but sacrifices must be made to attain NBA championship immortality.

Paul’s return could also complicate Eric Gordon’s breakout start to the season. Without Patrick Beverley, Lou Williams and Paul to siphon off his touches, Gordon’s started the last 13 games for which he’s been active, a needed shift after the former Indiana standout earned Sixth Man of the Year honors and served a perfect off-ball complement to Harden (when his shot is falling).

However, the acquisition of Paul was a move made for the grind of late April, May and June, when teams can exploit weaknesses over the course of a seven-game series and fatigue Harden past his limit. Don’t be fooled by Houston’s record in mid-November. Gordon is prone to cold streaks and can be a one-trick pony when his shot isn’t falling.

Paul’s tenacious perimeter defense, playmaking ability and 3-point range give D’Antoni the option to stagger the minutes of his point-guard tandem over the course of 48 minutes, ensuring that Houston remains unrelenting on offense when Harden gets a breather. Paul’s midrange efficacy should somewhat diversify the Rockets’ shot profile, forcing defenses to guard the space between the arc and paint.

Phoenix will be a perfect environment to test Harden and Paul’s chemistry, but Memphis’ Grit ‘N Grind Grizzlies will likely offer a more legitimate litmus test. The Rockets have started out strong in the West, but they have another tier to ascend to compete for a title, and a healthy Paul could allow them to reach that echelon. Questions remain about whether they’ll be able to get there, but fortunately, it looks like the next few days will bring us all closer to the answers we seek.