Make no mistake about it. The Houston Rockets were built to defeat the Golden State Warriors. Unfortunately, for the second straight year, they’ve failed at this goal. This time, in less games against one of the thinnest versions of the Warriors.
The club may need to take a long look in the mirror and determine if a major change is required to finally punch their ticket to the Finals. One of the first things Daryl Morey & co. should consider is what to do with Chris Paul.
Paul struggled through much of these Western Conference Semifinals. His slower first step was well-documented, as he often opted to shoot over mismatched big men rather than punish them in a quick-dribble torture chamber. Over the first five games, Paul averaged 14.6 points, 6.4 rebounds, and 5.6 assists, on 27.6% shooting from deep.
He was not the same CP3 from last year’s matchup with the defending champions. That Chris Paul put up 19.8, 6.8, and 4.6 on 36.8% shooting from three. His untimely Game 5 injury became one of the biggest what ifs in recent years. There’s no guarantee Paul pushes the Rockets to victory in one of their two remaining games, but he would’ve undoubtedly given them better odds.
Granted, we did finally see a more impactful Paul in Houston’s Game 6 elimination, where he dropped 27 points to go along with 11 rebounds and six assists.
But the Warriors win felt something of destiny. Klay Thompson – now a regular in Game 6 heroics – scored 21 points and nailed five 3-pointers in the first half, and Stephen Curry finished the job with all 33 of his points coming in the second half. Paul’s one signature game will be lost in the shuffle, coming too late.
And the Rockets’ fate with Paul may only grow grimmer.
The 34-year-old is due more than $124-million over the next three years, including a $44.2-million payday in his age 37 season. What’s more, Paul, James Harden, and Clint Capela alone will command $106-million of the team’s 2021-22 cap space. The aging guard is the scariest part of this very expensive future.
When Houston first acquired Paul in June of 2017, Morey said, “Any day you can acquire a Hall of Fame-level player is a good day for the franchise” and mentioned wanting to keep him for “as long as possible.”
The Rockets likely expected to eat the back end of Paul’s contract, but the superstar’s mortality may be showing earlier than they projected.
Paul appeared in just 58 games again this year, while having one of his least productive seasons in recent memory. His points-per-game (15.8) and field goal percentage (41.9%) dropped to the lowest numbers of his career. And though Paul’s elite basketball IQ and high quality defense can get understated when surveying raw statistics, his advanced metrics also fell to new depths. His PER (19.7), win-shares (6.6), box plus-minus (+3.0), and value over replacement player rating (2.4) were all career-lows. These numbers remain solid across the league, but the Rockets aren’t necessarily getting their money’s worth.
For a guy who hasn’t played more than 62 games in three years due to nagging leg injuries, there’s little reason to predict a Chris Paul renaissance going forward. He is slower and perhaps less durable than ever as he enters his mid-30s.
Though he is still a good player, the Rockets may be best suited to explore their options with Paul going forward in the form of a trade. Possibly one that could provide Houston with some much-needed depth and allows them the luxury of a regular season rotation larger than seven-and-a-half players.
But all the reasons to trade Chris Paul are the same ones that diminish his trade value. Is there a club out there willing to give up anything of value to tie such a large percentage of their cap to a good player in decline?
If Paul did become available, teams would be smart to do their due diligence and explore packages for the guard. But only desperate clubs would actually come to the negotiation table.
Maybe an organization like the Orlando Magic takes a swing to reach the next tier of contention, or the New York Knicks talk themselves into it because they’re the Knicks, but doing so would likely halt any club’s momentum like a brick wall. In as short as half a season, a Paul trader could look up and wish they had back all the players and flexibility they gave up for the Hall of Famer.
So, Paul likely stays in Houston. And this might ultimately be the best situation for him. After all, CP3 wanted to play with Harden, he can still fill that staggered guard role to complement Houston’s thin bench, and maybe the franchise has a plan in place to deal with his decline.
The Rockets were absolutely right to acquire Paul when they did. Hindsight-ers will point to the success of the players Houston gave up, namely Montrezl Harrell and Lou Williams, and say the team would’ve been better off sitting on their hands. But those guys would not have given Houston a better chance at a Finals berth last year, or the most open title window out of any franchise not stationed in the Bay Area over the last two.
For the chance at upending the Warriors’ historic run, the price was a huge and seemingly irresponsible contract. But Chris Paul probably doesn’t come to Texas in the first place without the promise of this long term deal.
Sometimes you’re forced to deal with the consequences of a good decision.