The 2017 NBA offseason began with a bang when the Rockets traded for Chris Paul, surprising the entire league. The addition of one of the top point guards in the league gives James Harden a much-needed costar to run Mike D’Antoni’s electric offense.
Last year in the playoffs, the Rockets lost to the Spurs in the Western Conference semifinals largely because they over-relied on Harden to create their offense. Harden, who played in all but one game last year, was visibly worn out and exhausted by the end of the series. Additionally, the Rockets’ bench and defense was weaker than the Spurs’, who showed more depth and a wealth of defensive playmakers.
At first glance, Chris Paul seems like the imperfect superstar to pair with James Harden. Last year, James Harden’s switch to point guard unlocked the Rockets’ offense and affirmed D’Antoni’s “seven seconds or less” principles. Adding Paul, a ball-dominant point guard that’s accustomed to dissecting defenses by himself, could disrupt the flow of such an explosive offense. It is a real concern that the whole will never exceed the sum of the parts, so to speak.
But having two elite, unselfish passers in one backcourt could cause unprecedented problems for opposing defenses. Both are strong spot-up shooters as well; Harden thrived in his early years with the Thunder as a long-range threat and cutter and could return that to the role a bit with Paul running the point. Also, the Rockets won’t have to worry about their offense falling apart when they rest one star; the other can run it too.
Take into account Chris Paul’s veteran leadership and stellar defense, and the potential for this duo is high.
There are a few secondary issues to consider: will the serious Paul and laidback Harden clash off the court, and will Paul be able to play fast at D’Antoni’s breakneck pace? But ultimately, this backcourt could be the core of a championship team.
The complementary pieces
The Rockets’ other moves this offseason reflect a focus on defensive versatility. With reigning Sixth Man of the Year Eric Gordon as the principal scorer off the bench, the Rockets traded away the superfluous Lou Williams. They were able to keep Nene, who excelled in a backup center role last year.
By signing P.J. Tucker, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, and Tarik Black, the Rockets invested in defensive specialists who can switch onto multiple positions. Add these to starters Clint Capela and Trevor Ariza, and the Rockets quietly have a bunch of versatile and formidable frontcourt defenders to stymie opposing offenses.
The sore thumb, however, is Ryan Anderson and his huge contract. Though he is a valuable three point shooter, he is a liability on the boards and on defense, with little ability to guard anybody other than traditional power forwards. Paid sixty million dollars over the next three years, he’ll be extremely difficult to move.
There’s reason to believe that GM Daryl Morey is still intent on making moves this summer. The Rockets still hoard a few non-guaranteed contracts from trades earlier this offseason to use as trade bait. However, their recent bid to trade for Carmelo Anthony has stalled, and with Ryan Anderson’s contract being so unattractive, it may be tough for Morey to improve his roster further this season.
How do they match up against the Warriors?
Currently, the Rockets are clearly a step or two behind the Warriors as contenders for the NBA Championship. Though Chris Paul and James Harden might be the second-best duo in the game behind Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant, they don’t have much game-changing talent behind them.
I ran a quick Twitter poll to gauge who fans thought was the third best player on the Rockets.
who is the third best player on the rockets?— Hugo Kitano (@HugoKitano) July 18, 2017
Eric Gordon won the poll, but not even with a majority. The Rockets clearly don’t have “secondary” guys that come close to the level of Draymond Green, Klay Thompson, and Andre Iguodala.
The defensive versatility of the Rockets’ frontcourt options will be an important factor in their matchup against the Warriors, but none of these players are legitimate offensive threats. Over these past few postseasons, opponents have learned that against the Warriors, players must be able to hold their own on both ends to stand a chance against them.
Trevor Ariza can hit threes (P.J. Tucker to a lesser extent), and Clint Capela and Nene can finish near the hoop, but they cannot create shots for themselves or others. Add in guys like Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, who contribute very little to the offensive end, and I’m not sure how little frontcourt scoring the Rockets can afford to have.
Even given their defensive talent, the Rockets will have their hands full with the Warriors’ offensive juggernaut. Can they defend the Curry-Green pick and roll and contain Kevin Durant, who would play lots of power forward and possibly even center in this series?
On the flip side, the Warriors’ issues in this matchup stem mostly from the Paul-Harden backcourt. Can Stephen Curry guard Chris Paul without Klay Thompson’s help? Can defenders stay on three-point shooters without giving drives to the lane or lobs to Clint Capela?
This Rockets roster has outstanding potential if they are able to move Ryan Anderson and his contract for somebody more versatile, and they have quite a few assets on their roster to acquire that coveted third star.
But there’s also the scenario where Chris Paul and James Harden clash, and Chris Paul takes his talents somewhere else next offseason, leaving the Rockets worse off than before. Chris Paul suffering another injury, or taking a step back next season as a result of his advancing age, could also destroy their championship hopes.
But as of right now, the Rockets are solidly a top-three team in the Western Conference and a top-four team league-wide. The Warriors repeatedly owned Chris Paul and James Harden in the past for their respective teams. We’ll see if the Dubs can own them when they’re playing together.