- If Chris Paul is really trying to force his way out of Houston after two years, does he have the right idea? The Crossover analyzes why CP3 must find a way to make it work with James Harden and Co. before he forces a break up that might haunt both parties.
By most indications, Chris Paul no longer wants to play with James Harden—and the feeling for Harden is probably mutual. Yahoo’s Vincent Goodwill reported the relationship was “unsalvageable” and that Paul wants out, while ESPN’s Ryen Russillo simply stated Paul “doesn’t want to play there” anymore. Rockets GM Daryl Morey tried to suffocate the flames by telling multiple reporters Paul hasn’t demanded a trade, though he’s been rumored to have been shopping Paul (and other players) for much of the summer. If CP3 is really trying to force his way out of Houston after two years, does he have the right idea?
The Paul-Harden combo was met with skepticism by many when it first formed two summers ago. How would two ball-dominant guards work together in one backcourt, particularly in such different stages of their careers? For all the fretting, Mike D’Antoni found away for the two to play in harmony, especially in their first season together. While a big part of Houston’s success during the Harden-Paul era came from how well each player performed in their solo minutes, they also formed a valuable partnership while on the floor together. In their second year together, Paul was less effective at the start of the season due to injuries, but the two ultimately still played well together. The Rockets had a 7.6 net rating with Paul and Harden sharing the floor in the regular season, and 4.2 net rating in the playoffs.
While Paul has thrived in the minutes he runs the offense with Harden on the bench, recreating those factors elsewhere could be difficult. A lot of CP3’s solo minutes come against other backups, which gives him a little more of a safety net when he doesn’t have Harden on the floor. Another major concern for Paul moving forward is his health. He’s played in only 58 games in each of the last two seasons, and only 61 in 2017. He hasn’t played in more than 70 games since 2016. Paul probably shouldn’t be playing more than 70 games at all at this point in his career, but there’s a difference between rest and nagging injuries. At 34 years old, the smartest route for Paul moving forward may be to figure out a way to make things work in Houston.
Where can Paul go at this point in his career where he can enjoy the same level of success? Contenders aren’t going to want to hamstring themselves to Paul’s contract. His life will get more difficult if he doesn’t have a second superstar to rely on. If CP3 is really intent on forcing his way out, it wouldn’t be surprising if he found himself in a small market, on a team desperate to make a splash by trading for the type of player who typically won’t sign with them in free agency.
Let’s forget for a second that the Rockets are reportedly having a hard time finding anyone who wants to take the remaining three years, $120-plus million left on Paul’s deal. Should they really want to get rid of him? Putting CP on a proper rest schedule and maintaining his body could help him get through the playoffs. And that’s where the Rockets have had some success the last two years. Houston is the last team to beat Golden State when the Warriors had Kevin Durant in the starting lineup. For all the concerns about their fit, for all of the glares and angry timeouts between Harden and Paul, they came incredibly close to their goal—beating the Warriors—two years in a row. The last two games of their most recent series arguably came down to a few shots. Even with Paul clearly on the downside of his career, is he worth giving up on as the landscape of the West shifts dramatically?
The onus, though, is on Paul to make this work with Harden. While Harden may not be the easiest person to collaborate with, he’s a perennial MVP candidate and unstoppable force who is in the middle of his prime. Paul is none of those things, and now this is shaping up to be a critical summer for his legacy. It’s no secret that Paul is one of the most competitive players in the league. I can’t imagine he wants anything less than to compete for a championship at this point in his career. And if that’s the case, he has to put his ego aside and find a way to make his game work around Harden’s. That’s certainly much easier written than done. (When has CP ever put his ego aside? That’s how we’re here now.) But if Paul blows up this situation, he risks being remembered as someone who consistently let his own attitude get in the way of winning for multiple teams. Maybe that’s unfair. And maybe Chris Paul doesn’t give a s--- about how he’s remembered.
But I just have a really hard time believing that. Paul seems to want to win more than anything else. And if that’s truly the case, the Rockets are still his best option. An aging point guard on a huge contract isn’t going to find a better situation than this one. If Houston finds a taker for Paul’s contract and decides to ship him out, it should be by their own accord, not by Paul’s demand. If CP3 really wants to contend for a championship next season, he’ll commit to hashing out his differences with Harden. The longer those two play together, the better chance Paul has at achieving the goal that’s driven him for his entire career. A breakup may be a setback for all the parties—who’ve come tantalizingly close to accomplishing what brought them together in the first place.