30 Teams in 30 Days: Houston Rockets hope title chances get boost with addition of Chris Paul
A year after putting ball in James Harden's hands, franchise hopes backcourt starters can mesh quickly
Since the Warriors downed the Cavs to take the 2017 NBA title back on June 12, NBA teams have undergone a number of changes over the long summer offseason.
NBA.com’s Shaun Powell will evaluate the state of each franchise — from the team with the worst regular-season record in 2016-17 to the team with the best regular-season record — as we look at 30 teams in 30 days.
Today’s team: Houston Rockets
2016-17 Record: 55-27
Who’s new: Chris Paul (trade), Luc Mbah a Moute (free agency), PJ Tucker (free agency).
Who’s gone: Patrick Beverley, Lou Williams, Sam Dekker, Montrezl Harrell.
The Lowdown: Boosted by an MVP-like effort from James Harden, the Rockets won 55 games but only reached the second round.
After the season ended, the Rockets headed into the offseason looking to get more help for Harden. It’s not easy to add a franchise-type player, but when you have the chance to pair him with your own, you go for it. Yes, there could be chemistry issues, and maybe an initial adjustment, and perhaps the new guy will be tough to keep beyond one year … and, so what?
Paul and Harden on the same team. What possibly could go wrong?
The Rockets and GM Daryl Morey decided to roll with any potential downside when they swung a deal with the Clippers for Paul, one of the best point guards of his generation. Paul checks all the boxes; he’s a solid shooter, defender, first-rate leader and passer, and can be counted on to take big shots. Those are the pluses.
He also has never reached the conference finals and is on the wrong side of 30 and he’ll be looking for big money next summer. By trading for him without a parachute, the Rockets have ceded most leverage in the upcoming contract talks to Paul, because if he leaves, they’ll have nothing to show for the deal except broken dreams.
But that’s a story for next summer. Right now, Harden has a mighty co-star and a fair chance to raise the Rockets among the two or three very best teams in the NBA.
It all depends on how he and Paul mesh. Harden played point guard last season in a system that new coach Mike D’Antoni designed for him, and the transition went well enough to make the MVP race with eventual winner Russell Westbrook an interesting one. D’Antoni discovered what everyone already knew, that Harden is ball-dominant and flourishes when he’s at the controls of the offense.
The recurring scene was Harden dribbling upcourt, then dribbling around the perimeter, then either launching a step-back three-pointer or driving to the rim or dishing to one of four teammates standing on the three-point circle. He’s so difficult to guard one-on-one, given his ability to break down a defense, which made the Rockets tough to stop especially when the shots fell.
But with Paul around, he and Harden must take turns playing off the ball. Paul has the ability to do that; his shooting, especially at mid-range, is solid enough. But does Harden have the mentality to become a catch-and-shooter? That’s a tougher call, simply because he seldom did so in this system.
Harden was not an easy teammate if you were a Rockets’ point guard, unless, like Beverley, you surrendered the ball and in essence became a smallish two-guard. Whenever Houston needed a basket, Harden would clap his hands, signaling for the ball, and the point guard obediently gave it up then ran and stood on a spot around the floor.
That probably isn’t necessary with Paul around, and you’d think Harden will show more respect and often some deference to a future Hall of Famer.
Again, the two can cause matchup hell for other teams if they click, and much of this will fall on the clipboard of D’Antoni. As coach, it’s his job to carve out a system that maximizes both players and keeps them happy.
Harden and Paul got a jump start on their relationship by playing summer pickup ball in and around Los Angeles, which was a good sign. Still, the true test comes during the season, and during tough times, when egos must be flexible enough to do what’s right for the team.
The Rockets gave Morey a four-year contract extension this summer and it’s easy to see why. He’s one of the more creative GMs around, willing to take risks and doing whatever’s necessary to keep the Rockets in contention. Not only did he get Paul, but he didn’t surrender Eric Gordon or Clint Capela in the process.
He did, however, overpay Ryan Anderson in 2016, and this became a big issue when Carmelo Anthony told the Knicks he’d waive his trade veto if sent to Houston. The Knicks want no part of Anderson’s contract, which has three years and $60 million remaining, so if a deal is made, a third team must become involved.
To fill the holes left behind by the players sent to the Clippers in the Paul deal, Morey signed a pair of useful veterans at reasonable rates: Tucker and Mbah a Moute. Tucker is a tough guy and willing defender who’ll come in handy against teams such as the Warriors. Mbah a Moute played very well for the Clippers in the playoffs last spring after Blake Griffin pulled up lame.
One other summertime note: Houston owner Leslie Alexander announced a sale of the team. Alexander had a great run, winning two titles early in his ownership, hiring Morey and spending when necessary. The Rockets would be so lucky to get the same level of excellence from the next ownership.
Coming Next: San Antonio Spurs
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