The honeymoon didn’t last long.
On Tuesday, less than two weeks before free agency begins, Yahoo Sports’ Vincent Goodwill reported that Chris Paul is seeking a trade due to an “unsalvageable” relationship with co-star James Harden.
Paul had barely gotten settled in Houston following a trade two years ago from the Los Angeles Clippers. The trade was largely at the behest of Paul, as the nine-time All-Star believed that a superstar backcourt pairing could win a title in Houston under the coaching of Mike D’Antoni.
It almost happened. In year one, the Rockets won a league-best 65 games, and took a 3-2 series lead over the Warriors in the Western Conference Finals. But they squandered double-digit leads in Games 6 and 7.
In the summer of 2018, Paul re-upped with Houston, signing a massive contract: four years, $160 million. The Rockets struggled out of the gates, but caught fire towards the end of the season. Still, they again fell to the Warriors, this time in round two, and in only six games.
Then came the reports.
First came the news that General Manager Daryl Morey would do any and everything to make the Rockets competitive, including listen to offers on Paul and center Clint Capela. Then came the news that extension negotiations with D’Antoni had stalled, and been abandoned.
And then details started to trickle in about the unsteady relationship between Houston’s two-headed monster, which combined to average 51.7 points, 11.2 rebounds, and 15.7 assists per game this year.
A report from ESPN’s Tim McMahon depicted the foundation of the conflict:
The roots of the issues between Harden and Paul, according to team sources, are differences in preferred playing styles and personality. . .
. . . Paul noticeably lost a step last season, as evidenced by analytics and the eye test. Paul pushed for more plays and sets in the Houston offense, more screening and deception, despite Harden being in the process of putting together a historically dominant individual offensive season.
”Chris wants to coach James,” says a source familiar with the stars’ dynamic. “James looks at him like, ‘You can’t even beat your man. Just shut up and watch me.’”
According to sources, Paul was also frustrated by what he perceived as Harden’s tendency to ignore unglamorous details that impact winning -- such as moving when he gives up the ball to help spacing -- and wasn’t shy about expressing those concerns.
Still, the report quoted Rockets staffers as being optimistic about the relationship going forward, and suggesting that any tension was natural for two stars.
Apparently not so much.
According to Goodwill’s report, the breakup is mutual, with both sides agreeing that nothing can be done:
Paul went to Rockets management and demanded a trade, and Harden issued a “him or me” edict following the Rockets’ second-round loss to the Golden State Warriors, sources said.
The backcourt mates went nearly two months without speaking to each other during the season, sources said, creating a tenuous environment for teammates and everyone involved with the franchise.
Harden hasn’t returned Paul’s repeated attempts at communicating this offseason, sources said, after a year in which the pair repeatedly got under each other’s skin with petty acts in practices and games.
With three years and $125 million remaining on his contract, the 34-year old Paul won’t be easy to trade. The Rockets are unlikely to want to receive much salary back in exchange for the veteran point guard, meaning they’ll probably have to trade him to one of the teams that has the salary to absorb his full contract (salaries do not need to match in trades if the teams are able to stay under the cap).
There aren’t many teams with the space for Paul (hilariously, the Clippers are one of them). All signs point to the New York Knicks, the one team with the cap space, the poor management, and the likeliness to strike out in free agency that would create the perfect storm for the addition of Paul.
The irony, of course, is that much of the Rockets’ frustration stems from an inability to beat the Warriors. Now that Klay Thompson and Kevin Durant are out for most, if not all of 2019-20, it might have been the Rockets time, if only they could have lasted one more year.
Of course, it’s worth noting that reports often conflict with other reports. Every leak is leaked on purpose, and it only took a few minutes of Goodwill’s report being up before Paul himself publicly refuted it.
Chris Paul reacts to the reports that his and Harden’s relationship is unsalvageable pic.twitter.com/BywQNZKXiU— NBA Unwrapped (@NBAunwrapped) June 18, 2019
We’ll have to wait a while to see how this all plays out. Either way, we’re less than a week into the summer and already being reminded that the NBA offseason is unlike anything else.
While you wait for more news, I highly suggest watching some State Farm commercials.