There isn’t a single player whose presence is more pivotal in the 2019 Western Conference playoffs than Houston Rockets point guard Chris Paul.
The Rockets went into this season with high expectations. After reaching the Western Conference Finals, but losing to the Golden State Warriors in seven games — with Game 7 being on their home floor — last season, the Rockets had unfinished business. And with the likes of Paul and James Harden in place, they had the chance to get back to the conference finals.
In the wake of the free-agent departures of Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute, Houston took a flier on the enigma that has become Carmelo Anthony; it didn’t work out. The Rockets began the season 11-14, some pondered as to whether Anthony was the reason for their struggles, and the team later parted ways with the forward.
Whether their early-season struggles had anything to do with Anthony, the Rockets returned to being a top seed in the West once they parted ways with the forward. Finishing the season 53-29, they’re the three seed in the West and playing like the team that was the one seed in the conference last season.
Harden is putting together another MVP-caliber season, as he went into the team’s Tuesday night matchup with the Oklahoma City Thunder averaging a remarkable 36.1 points per game; Paul has been his stellar self, serving as a go-to scorer, reliable facilitator, and gritty defender; Clint Capela has been a two-way force by finishing in the paint, hitting the boards at a high level, and denying shots inside; Eric Gordon has been his steady-scoring self, whether it be as a starter or reserve; Kenneth Faried has revived his career, as he went into Tuesday night averaging 12.9 points and 8.2 rebounds per game with the Rockets; P.J. Tucker has been the physical defender the Rockets lean on. Meanwhile, Austin Rivers and Gerald Green have given head coach Mike D’Antoni reliable production off the bench on a nightly basis.
The Rockets offense is humming, their defense has returned to form, and they look like a threat, once again, to dethrone the Warriors in the West. The one thing standing in their way? Paul’s health.
Last season, the Rockets proved that they could beat and hang with the Warriors. They could match their offensive tempo, Harden could slow the game down, and they had the bodies to bang with the Warriors’ frontline; they still have that today. They also went 3-1 against them in the regular season, and Paul didn’t play in one of those wins. But if Paul doesn’t play due to a theoretical injury, the Rockets won’t be able to hang with, or take the Warriors to seven games.
While the potential for injury exists with every player, Paul has become an injury-prone player late in seasons. In each of the last four postseasons, he either wasn’t able to finish the postseason, or missed games due to injury. This was highlighted last season, as Paul’s wayward health cost the Rockets a chance at winning the NBA Finals.
In the fourth quarter of Game 5 of the conference finals, Paul went down with a hamstring injury that ended his season. Even though the Rockets were able to hold on to take a 3-2 series lead, the balloon felt deflated. Sure, they held a double-digit lead at halftime in Games 6 and 7, but the inability to match, or come close to matching the likes of Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, and Klay Thompson caught up to the Rockets in the second half of both games, as they went on to lose the series.
Here we are: same situation, same core, and the same big question surrounding the Rockets point guard. And if he can’t stay healthy, the Warriors may very well walk their way to the NBA Finals.
The Denver Nuggets have been one of the biggest stories in the NBA this season, as they’re the two seed in the West, but the Warriors are a horrible matchup for the Nuggets, from a rotation standpoint, based on them not having a true elite scorer; the Portland Trail Blazers are without center Jusuf Nurkic due to a leg injury; the Utah Jazz are a defensive-savvy team, but don’t have the offensive firepower to hang with the Warriors; Russell Westbrook and Paul George are a lethal star duo, but the Thunder have been wildly inconsistent over the last two months; the San Antonio Spurs have a respectable roster, but don’t pose a threat to the top of the conference; the Los Angeles Clippers have been a great story this season, but are likely a first-round playoff exit.
That leaves one team: the Rockets.
Chris Paul has endured a Hall of Fame, yet bizarre career. He’s one of the greatest point guards in NBA history, a crafty playmaker, a go-to scorer, and can lead a team to the playoffs. Of course, he doesn’t have an NBA championship, or Finals appearance, on his resume. That was mostly due to the New Orleans Hornets never being a true conference threat, though they sported many playoff and/or competitive teams.
Then, after six seasons, he wanted out of NOLA and was dealt to the Clippers where he never appeared in the conference finals alongside Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan. Paul was supposedly a big reason for Vinny Del Negro being fired — and Doc Rivers, who replaced Del Negro, was a vital reason for him wanting out of L.A. four years later. Meanwhile, he supposedly had some beef with Jordan and, at times, Griffin towards the end of his Clippers’ tenure.
But now Paul is in the perfect situation. He has an offensive-minded head coach in D’Antoni, a superstar who he plays well with in Harden, a team that’s built to compete with the best in the West. There’s no drama, and they’re a team that no one wants to face in the playoffs — including the Warriors. At some point, it won’t be perfect anymore. The Rockets will lose players to free agency given the near-$100 million they invest in Harden, Paul, and Capela per season. Perhaps if they don’t ever win the West, general manager Daryl Morey gives D’Antoni the boot; if you keep hitting a playoff wall, something will eventually change.
If Chris Paul stays healthy, the Rockets can beat anyone in the NBA. If he breaks down, the Rockets don’t stand a chance at escaping the West. They’re the only team in the West who, at full force, can take the Warriors to seven games.