Looking At Chris Paul’s Fit With Houston

Blame it on injuries, bad luck, management, talent, or some combination of those things. Lob City had run its course two months ago, and it officially came to an end Wednesday morning when Chris Paul picked up his player option and requested a trade to the Houston Rockets.

L.A. got a nice bounty in return for a guy they would have lost for nothing. Patrick Beverley is one of the best guard defenders in the league on a great contract; Lou Williams is a microwave scorer and potential trade chip; Sam Dekker and Montrezl Harrell have shown flashes. Maybe DeAndre Liggins turns into a real player.

The Clippers’ impending breakup had been looming for a while. That team, as previously constructed, was not good enough to be a real challenger in the Western Conference, and running the same team back over and over again gets old and frustrating. Dealing Paul signifies, in all likelihood, a rebuild and a major crossroads this summer.

Blake Griffin is a free agent, and other teams—Miami and Boston—can offer him a winning situation at slightly less money than he’d make staying in L.A. Luc Mbah a Moute can opt out of his $2.3 million player option and J.J. Redick is a good bet to sign elsewhere this summer. The Clippers knew this could happen, they just weren’t prepared for it.

The path to taking and rebuilding through the draft would be clear if Doc Rivers hadn’t traded all of his team’s assets for middling veteran bench guys over the last five years. If the Clippers aren’t in the lottery in 2019, they won’t have a draft pick until 2020, when they’ll receive Cleveland’s second-rounder. If they feel they need to collect some assets before then, they could sign-and-trade Griffin and deal Jordan in return for picks or young guys.

Houston, meanwhile, got a top-eight player for a major (short-term) discount while keeping most of its core intact.

Great players are easier to integrate than mediocre ones, and Paul is undeniably great. That being said, Paul and the Rockets weren’t exactly made for one another. CP3 likes to walk the ball up and commandeer the offense, meticulously pounding the rock until a look materializes. His style clashes with that of James Harden, Mike D’Antoni, and Daryl Morey, who prefer a faster, run-and-gun game.

The Rockets are also plopping one of the best midrange shooters in the league into a notoriously midrange-averse system. But Paul’s ability to score efficiently in areas the other Rockets are practically forbidden to inhabit can make Houston more diverse and more unpredictable, something they’ll need in the playoffs. Given the amount of spacing with which the Rockets play, Paul should be able to operate in the midrange more effectively and set up open looks for teammates.

There’s also the matter of pairing Paul with James Harden, who was an MVP candidate this year because he was the Rockets’ offense. Like Paul, Harden is used to having the ball in his hands at all times. He led the league in time of possession in 2017; Paul ranked seventh. Paul has been his team’s definitive lead dog since his early days in the NBA. Both parties will have to get used to playing sidekick from time to time.

Harden and Paul can play in any system, and both are incredibly efficient playing on or off the ball. Paul shot 50 percent (!) on catch-and-shoot threes last season while Harden canned 38.9 percent of his catch-and-shoot looks. That figure should improve as his attempts become more open. Both are among the best in the league at operating in the pick-and-roll, and having another knockdown shooter on the perimeter makes those pick-and-rolls more dangerous. Harden had plenty of experience with that in Oklahoma City.

D’Antoni can get even more creative with his offense now that he has not one, but two of the most artistic playmakers in league history on his squad, and he should look to involve both in as many sets as possible. Expect an uptick in ball and player movement from a Houston team that ranked 28th in passes per game last season and relied mostly on one guy working out of pick-and-rolls.

D’Antoni may try using Harden and Paul as a pick-and-roll duo in five-out lineups, with the roll man either popping for a three or serving as a creator of a kick-out three. The Rockets could also use them together in “Spain” pick-and-rolls:

Put Harden in Gordon’s role and Paul in Beverley’s and that action becomes nearly impossible to stop.

Depth could become an issue for this team, especially if it flips more of its role players like Eric Gordon (on a great contract) and Ryan Anderson (maybe unmovable) for another star. All signs point to Morey pursing another big name this summer, and because he didn’t have to open up the cap space to sign Paul, the Rockets could end up with max-level space to sign a free agent or extend a newly acquired player.

By staying over the salary cap entering free agency, the Rockets keep their midlevel ($8.4 million) and biannual (about $3 million) exceptions. Those will be precious resources to fill out the roster in free agency. The superteams of the last ten years have shown that elite talent is more important than great depth, especially when that talent makes its supporting cast better. Paul and Harden do that, and sacrificing ancillary players for Paul should be worth the payoff. Still, Houston needs those exceptions to bring in competent rotation players.

(With Paul now off the free agent market, expect the Spurs to pursue Kyle Lowry and possibly Gordon Hayward hard in free agency. Paul would have been a perfect fit with the Spurs, and San Antonio still needs to make a big play to remain a threat in the Western Conference.)

This trade—and the next five years of NBA roster construction—all boils down to one question: is it enough to beat the Warriors? In Houston’s case, probably not, even with a potential third All Star. It’s still highly unlikely the Rockets make the Finals. But there’s something to be said for going for it to give yourself even an outside shot. One injury, one cold streak, one monumental upset, and one of those second-tier lurkers can break through. The Rockets have put themselves in as good a position as anyone to be that team.

 

Stats & figures courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference, and Jared Dubin’s Free Agency Guide. 

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