Red94 Mailbag: Chris Paul’s decline and more trade discussions

Welcome back to this week’s installment of the Red94 Mailbag! The Rockets have turned things around ever so slightly, winning four straight games to sit at 15-14, good for 10th in the Western Conference. Of course, the questions you all have sent in each week have continued to be great, so let’s get right to this week’s set of questions!

Surely the Rockets are prepared to make a trade in the near future. The season is in full swing and the team’s issues are clear as day now that there is a sufficient number of games to go by. The Rockets need another capable body on the wing, one that can hit 3-pointers and play solid defense. The names mentioned in the above tweet certainly fit that description and are very likely the players that the Rockets have at the top of their trade board.

Bazemore has been the best defensive player among that group, but has struggled to hit his 3-pointers this season (down to just 31.3%). Lee is still getting back into playing shape after missing the majority of the season due to injury, while Carroll and KCP are solid, consistent options that wouldn’t really impact the bottom line for the Rockets. Carroll is the only player big enough to truly guard wings and small-ball fours, but the others can get by in most match-ups.

In any trade, the Rockets will likely use a first round pick attached to Brandon Knight’s contract, but it would likely be very hard to convince teams with 2019 cap space aspirations (i.e. Nets, Knicks and Lakers) to take on Knight’s deal. This makes me think that working a deal with the Hawks is the most logical outcome, unless a mystery wing player becomes available closer to the trade deadline. The Rockets could also use another solidifying presence in the backcourt, if only to soak up some regular season minutes to give more rest to James Harden, Chris Paul and Eric Gordon.

As for the Rockets’ playoff seed, I can certainly see the Rockets getting all the way up to the 4th seed but not higher than that with the inconsistency that has plagued them so far this season. Currently, Houston is just 2 games back of the 4th seed, while they are 5 1/2 games behind the top spot in the Conference. The Rockets should have no issues climbing up the standings to the 4-6 seed range, but getting higher than 4th come playoff time may prove tricky given the team’s propensity for lackadaisical effort and injuries.

This would be a shocking outcome to this season and I’m approximately 90% sure it would never happen, but it does deserve to be mentioned considering the contract Paul just signed this summer and his play so far this season.

There’s no way to dance around this: Chris Paul is currently in the midst of the worst season of his career. Paul is posting career lows across the board, especially in his advanced metrics. Oh and he’s just in the first year of his four-year deal that will pay him up to $160 million. When you factor in his play with the contract, it’s clear he’s not worth that kind of money this season, let alone moving forward. The Rockets are all tied up financially, with Paul’s deal playing a key role in that lack of flexibility.

The Rockets didn’t have a choice when it came to Paul’s free agency this past summer. After Paul opted in to his player option to facilitate the trade to the Rockets, it’s clear there was a mutual understanding that they would give him the lucrative extension this year. Perhaps this is an extended slump from Paul, who has been dealing with nagging injuries throughout the season. But it’s clear that this start to the season is likely a sign of things to come, with Paul struggling to create separation in isolation or finish around the rim.

Getting a team to take on Paul’s contract would also be a tough ask. Such a time would have financial flexibility moving forward and be desperate for a point guard, one that is 33 years old and clearly on the decline. The most logical path moving forward is that the Rockets hope Paul can turn things around a bit and contribute in spots alongside Harden, while filling in subsequent rosters around them with cheap contracts.

With all that being said, it is tough to figure out exactly how much of this slow start is natural decline due to age/injury and how much is simply an extended slump. Paul’s finishing around the rim is down nearly 7% and he is struggling on those short mid-rangers he likes to work to out of the pick-and-roll (he’s hit just 37 percent of shots from with 3 and 10 feet of the rim this season, down from a 48.5% for his career). Additionally, Paul continues to struggle on wide open threes, knocking down just 33.3% of such shots this season.

The most troubling sign of Paul’s offensive play this season has been his inability to create space when isolating on big men. He has struggled to create enough separation for a quality look, whether it is in the mid-range, beyond the arc or even around the rim. Again, it’s hard to truly know if injuries are holding him back a bit or if it is indeed natural decline.

Meanwhile, Paul hasn’t been anywhere near the defender we’ve been accustomed to seeing in recent seasons. He has been beaten back door for wide open layups and has struggled to provide consistent effort, perhaps a clear indication that this is a start of his decline. Paul’s -0.6 defensive box plus-minus is the worst of his career, while his defensive real plus-minus has taken a hit from last season.

With the Rockets fighting for every win at this point, it’s unlikely that the team can afford to sit Paul for a couple of games to get him completely healthy. Perhaps this is simply an extended slump on the offensive end, but the clear signs of decline are apparent on defense, meaning that we have likely seen the last of prime Chris Paul.

About the author: Eric has previously covered the Rockets for The Dream Shake and Hoops Habit, and is also the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of The 94. Favorite Rockets include Patrick Beverley and Omer Asik!

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