Chris Paul deserved better. I just can’t manage to shake the feeling that we did him wrong. I know that there are those who will say that he has $160 million to help him get over it. But money isn’t everything. (Not to mention the fact that that contract was a promise repaid for Paul opting into the last year of his deal with the Clippers.) Paul chose Houston–this wasteland spurned annually, most recently by Jimmy Butler–leaving behind the bright lights of Los Angeles in search of a title. He thought our team could get him there.
While nothing has yet come out, at the moment of writing, I’ll be comforted only if further news breaks that Paul himself wanted out of Houston. Hopefully he can land somewhere to end out his career with the dignity a point guard of his stature deserves. I don’t want to see Chris Paul playing out the final days of whatever physical ability he has left wasting away in a rebuilding project like Oklahoma City.
Paul was my most favorite player in the league even before he joined the Rockets. But when the rumors first broke that he could be had, I didn’t want him. I just didn’t see how he and Harden could co-exist both being ball dominant future Hall of Fame point guards. In the end, I guess I was sort of right. They couldn’t. It’s just that what everybody expected to happen in Year 1 happened in Year 2. Year 1 ended up being the most magical Rockets season outside of the title years of 1994. The 65 win Rockets were actually one of the best teams of the decade. They would have won the title in most non-Warriors seasons.
I’ve never been embarrassed to admit that my favorite parts of Rockets games these past two seasons were the second quarter stints when Paul ran the second unit while Harden was on the bench. It was poetry in motion watching him weave his way around picks at creative angles, picking out shooters and cutters, and controlling every aspect of the game’s tempo through well-timed mid-range jumpers that couldn’t, by design, lead to long rebounds. In Year 1, we got to see Paul do something he had only done in spots throughout his career and which we didn’t know he was capable of to such a degree and that was destroying people off the dribble in isolation. After Harden, Paul had the league’s best efficiency in those situations, leading to highlight reels of him leaving unsuspecting big men in the dust or falling backwards with a pull-up dagger falling through the net.
Paul was magnificent in the 2017-2018 postseason. That’s easy to forget now because of the drop-off this last year. I’ve maintained that I don’t think Houston gets past Utah in 2018 without Paul. They needed every one of his 40 points to survive the close-out game. And it was Paul who went berserk in Game 5 against Golden State, hitting numerous threes in the second half, to put the Rockets up 3-2. When he limped off the court in the closing seconds of that game, we didn’t realize that was actually the real end of the CP3 era in Houston.
Its still amazing to me the degree to which Paul sacrificed his game after coming to the Rockets. There were not fights over the ball or questions as to the hierarchy on the team as so many predicted would occur. If Paul and Harden were both on the court, there was no question that Harden was the first option. I had noted that I didn’t even recall seeing an instance where Paul angrily called for a pass, something I considered absolutely astonishing. He completely relinquished the role he had played his entire career to take a backseat to Harden. The two players’ disagreements came in a different form.
This trade would not have happened had Paul not declined as drastically as he did last season. He simply could not get around his man in isolation any longer. The drop-off physically between Year 1 and Year 2 was jarring, maybe unlike anything I’ve seen before from a Rockets superstar in my 24 years watching this team. By the time the playoffs rolled around, Paul’s only chance to score one-on-one became that sidestep three point shot, but you’ll notice he had to alter even that move, looking completely in the direction of the pass because the defender wasn’t honoring the drive. When Paul actually did try to drive, most notably against the Warriors, he racked up offensive fouls and turnovers because his defender routinely beat him to the spot.
But Paul is still a very good player, even if no longer a superstar. He quickly became underrated this summer due to the perception surrounding his contract. People talked about him like he was this dead weight salary, but he was still destroying second units last season when Harden was on the bench, even with his physical decline, and I still expected him to do that again this year. Even as the body declines, the shooting and intelligence will always be there. By some advanced metrics, Paul was still a better player than Westbrook last season. And I still thought he was the superior player at present for next season, when rumors came out regarding Houston’s interest in Russ.
My stance was that Paul was being asked to do something that few players are asked to do in this system’s requirement of primary ballhandlers to beat their man in isolation. To not be able to do that shouldn’t be taken as an absolute indictment on one’s abilities. How often are Steph Curry and Klay Thompson facing their defenders up and driving by? Paul could still be highly effective if the Rockets tweaked their offense to include more motion and pick and roll and less isolations. It shouldn’t need to be an isolation on every play.
To that end, I sided with Paul in his alleged fallout with Harden. Harden was undermining Paul in his refusal to move off the ball whenever the latter had it. Harden’s not helping the team on those possessions when he doesn’t have it when he’s just standing there and resting. And just because Paul isn’t anywhere near as good as Harden shouldn’t serve to diminish the merit in what Paul was saying. My hope for this season was that D’Antoni could finally get through to Harden and get his stars to get along by making changes to the offense. Before the trade, I still thought Houston was the favorite in the West. I thought we had as good a chance as anyone in the league with just a few tweaks to the offense and some minor upgrades to our depth.
But Chris Paul is gone now and its all a moot point. Russell Westbrook is a Houston Rocket. While I remain highly skeptical of the fit, I’ve since come around on the trade, partly because I have no choice but to hope it works. I’m looking for reasons to believe. While Paul was still effective, he came up small in the moments the team needed him the most. Setting aside the semifinals loss to the Warriors, the regular season loss to Milwaukee is a great example. Houston needed Paul to be able to take over when Harden got bottled up and he wasn’t capable. Russ raises this team’s ceiling while lowering its floor. They’ll win games they couldn’t have last season but also lose some they would have won under Paul’s steady hand.
I think it could have worked with Paul. I think the Rockets could have won the title this season. And if I had to put down money, I think if Daryl Morey was the sole decision maker in this deal, he possibly would not have made it. We often try to fit some new definition of efficiency when evaluating a move by Morey that we don’t understand. The simpler explanation might just be that the buck doesn’t stop with him.
Chris Paul is gone. He deserved a lot better. I hope he’s able to land somewhere where he can continue to compete. Wherever it is, I’ll be watching on League Pass, savoring the last one or two years of his genius. As I tweeted just moments after the trade, “The Rockets just traded my most favorite player in the league for my least favorite.” I hope Russ works out. But watching CP3 play point guard for my team was one of my greatest joys as a lifelong basketball fan.