A blockbuster trade gives the Rockets the NBA's best backcourt, while the Los Angeles Clippers might have set themselves up to compete in the short and long-term.
Gary A. Vasquez - USA TODAY Sports
Given that the Golden State Warriors appear to be closer to the middle than to the end of their current NBA dynasty, the rest of the league's teams have two options: Roll over and build for tomorrow, or load up now and attempt to knock off the champs. Choosing one path over the other isn't an easy decision, though—no matter how unstoppable the Warriors seem, the NBA is a competitive place, and many organizations would rather die trying than tank to live another day.
That said, there are a few organizations—ones run by intelligent front offices who value foresight and flexibility—that can shift between both options. The Houston Rockets are Platinum Advantage Plus members of that class, a respected, successful, highly-aggressive franchise that already boasts one of the league's five best players in his prime.
Of course, one star is not nearly enough in today's climate, and the Rockets know it. General manager Daryl Morey recently revealed that something big was up his sleeve, and with Wednesday's trade for Chris Paul, we now know what he was referring to. Coming off a season in which the franchise won 55 games, finished third in net rating, and spanked the regular-season MVP's team in a five-game first-round series, Houston is closer to a championship than they've ever been in the Morey era. Paul is still that good.
Fit-related questions will pop up, and that's only natural with two ball-dominant players like Paul and James Harden now sharing a backcourt: they finished eighth and second in touches per game last season, per NBA.com. But when the opportunity to combine two top-10 players comes up, you'd be a fool not to pounce—particularly when both guys are as intelligent and capable off the ball as this particular pair is.
This superstar tandem isn't as obvious a combination as Kevin Durant with Steph Curry, but it's also not nearly as awkward as LeBron James and Dwyane Wade initially were on the Miami Heat. Harden and Paul are arguably the two smartest pick-and-roll operators in the entire NBA, and any offense that features both will pose an unanswerable riddle for opponents that now have to defend second, third, and fourth actions.
Harden made 38.9 percent of his catch-and-shoot threes last year, and 40.9 percent the season before that. Paul was even better, knocking down exactly half his threes whenever he didn't have to dribble this year, and 45.7 percent during the 2015-16 season.
They can space the court for each other, make brilliant decisions in the open floor, and eviscerate defenders one-on-one. The days of putting two on the ball whenever they come off a high screen are over.
It's scary to think how much more efficient they'll be when operating at the same time, with leaner usage rates, and cleaner looks at the basket. For those still in doubt, just look at Harden's numbers after the All-Star break, when he shared the court with Lou Williams, another guard who seemingly needs the ball in his hands.
Harden's usage rate dropped from 34.7 to 31.6 percent, while his True Shooting soared up from 57.5 to 67.0 (!!!) percent. He didn't have to worry as much about creating for others, and could instead focus on attacking defenses as a scorer, with even more space provided by Williams' gravity. With Paul, take that effect and multiply it by, say, nine thousand. (Harden also ranked in the 91st percentile in spot-up situations, per Synergy Sports).
Their minutes will recede during the regular season, too, as Houston coach Mike D'Antoni will be able to stagger units to ensure at least one All-NBA playmaker is always conducting his innovative attack. Houston's train will never run off the track.
Even though the Rockets gave up Patrick Beverley, Sam Dekker, and Williams—all helpful role players who fit nicely with Harden—their roster is still deep, flexible, and athletic enough to complement the NBA's new best backcourt, and match up reasonably well against the Warriors.
By opting into his player option, Paul allowed Morey to acquire him via a trade without having to shed Ryan Anderson, Trevor Ariza, and/or Eric Gordon. Losing the former would've likely required Houston to surrender a valuable asset—think picks, or maybe up-and-coming center Clint Capela. This is the preferred route, and the Rockets will be damn good for taking it.
Defending Houston in a playoff series will be borderline impossible now that they have another creator who randomizes their half-court offense without doing any damage on the other end. If the Rockets face San Antonio again, Paul's ninja stars in the mid-range will be a welcome sight. Houston shouldn't be favored in a playoff series against Golden State, but are also well-positioned to strike a deal for Paul George with some of the pieces they still have.
There are no guarantees, but an offer of Gordon (an Indiana native), Ariza, and multiple future first-round picks that will convey after Houston's current run is ostensibly over might be enough to get it done, depending on how free agency unfolds and what other George suitors offer. Regardless, things are looking up for the Rockets.
Now to the Clippers, who somehow managed to lose Paul and potentially still emerge a winner. Assuming this trade incentivizes Blake Griffin to re-sign on a five-year max contract, it's a terrific way for L.A. to avoid a teardown, get younger, and actually improve their ability to match up against the Warriors. That obviously changes if Griffin flees for the Eastern Conference (or is unable to stay healthy), but it now makes a ton of sense for him to stick around.
Without Paul, Griffin will be the Clippers' primary offensive option. His touches, shots, and usage will increase, while the new pieces around him will—arguably—complement his game better than Paul did. The loss of J.J. Redick, who reportedly will sign elsewhere, will hurt their spacing and overall cohesiveness, but within a Beverley, Williams, Austin Rivers, Jamal Crawford guard rotation is an acceptable ratio of offensive punch and defensive tenacity. Meanwhile, Dekker is the exact type of player the Clippers have needed for the past four years, an athletic swingman who can guard multiple positions and credibly space the floor. He'll help, too.
The Clippers just lost the best player their franchise has ever known, but maxing Paul out on a five-year contract was always a one-way trip to middling depression. Instead, they got a few intriguing pieces that won't cripple their cap flexibility.
If DeAndre Jordan and Rivers opt out of their contracts next year—not a guarantee, but more likely than not—Los Angeles can go swimming in next summer's free agent pool with Griffin already locked up. They can stay competitive without bottoming out, and have enough space to afford two more max-level free agents, when LeBron James, George, Russell Westbrook, DeMarcus Cousins, Isaiah Thomas, and others will be available. Free agency is a gamble, but with Jerry West now speaking on their behalf in meetings, it's a lot better than paying a 34-year-old Paul $37.8 million with about a zero percent shot at winning it all.
For those directly involved, there are no losers in this transaction. But other Western Conference contenders, and teams that had their eye on Paul, Griffin, and maybe even George, probably aren't celebrating.