Rockets fans may remember the 2011 offseason with some disdain, as a blockbuster trade that would have sent Chris Paul from New Orleans to the Lakers, and Pau Gasol to the Rockets, was vetoed by then-commissioner David Stern. Paul eventually was traded to the Clippers, and in hindsight, the deal worked out pretty well for Houston, as they were able to execute an even better trade for James Harden the next year.
Sometimes things have a funny way of coming full circle.
On Wednesday, the NBA announced a blockbuster Rockets-Clippers trade: Chris Paul will opt into the final year of his contract so that the Clippers can trade him to the Rockets, in exchange for a large player package that includes Patrick Beverley, Lou Williams, and a 2018 first-round pick.
While the trade strips the Rockets of depth and youth—former first-rounder Sam Dekker and backup center Montrezl Harrell were the other major players in the deal—adding a second star of Paul’s caliber gives the team potentially a higher ceiling than it’s ever had, the best one-two duo since the heyday of Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady (yes, better than the ill-fated Harden-Dwight Howard team-up of 2013-16).
To be sure, there are risks involved. Both Paul and Harden are ball-dominant players who function best as their team’s primary ballhandler. (Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni finally took advantage of this by making Harden the primary ballhandler and thus essentially the team’s point guard, rather than the shooting guard position he’s played his whole career.) The biggest worry critics of the deal have expressed is that there simply won’t be enough plays to go around for both of them, that their skill sets overlap in a way to prevent each of them from maximizing their potential.
But when you have two players of this caliber who are committed to doing whatever it takes to win, you find a way to get the most out of them and make it work. (One of the most heavily reported rumors surrounding Dwight Howard’s time in Houston is that he wanted more post-up touches for himself, even though they were less efficient possessions than the Harden-Howard pick-and-roll.) Mike D’Antoni said it himself: “If we can’t figure it out, we are in a lot of trouble.”
By keeping Sixth Man of the Year Eric Gordon, the Rockets also give themselves backcourt flexibility such that they never have to play without at least one of Paul or Harden. With Gordon at shooting guard, Harden can shift to point guard when Paul sits, where he proved this year he could thrive in a ball-dominant role.
Such an elemental change to the composition of a 55-win team, along with Paul’s age (he’s 32 now; assuming the Rockets offer him a max contract next offseason, they’d have him until he was 38) is certainly risky. But one thing Daryl Morey frequently talked about in offseason interviews was the need to increase the team’s “risk profile." He didn’t believe the Warriors were untouchable, and he was going to take some chances to turn this year’s team into an even better team, a team that could legitimately win a championship.
It should not be overlooked what a tremendous job Morey has done in getting the Rockets to this point. His goal since becoming Rockets GM in 2007 has been to acquire superstars by any means necessary. For most teams, this can only be done by bottoming out and drafting one with a top draft pick (the approach Philadelphia has taken), or by clearing enough cap space to sign a superstar or two (like the Miami Heat of 2010-14). Morey now has two legitimate superstars, both arguably top-10 players in the league, and he did it through trades, without ever bottoming out. (The 2015-16 team’s 41-41 record was their worst finish under Morey; they’ve not had a losing record in 11 years.)
And for all the risk and concerns about overlap, the truth is this: True stars are hard to come by. Houston will have a much easier time replacing or approximating the production of the traded players than they would acquiring a player of Paul’s talent through other means. This trade raises Houston’s ceiling in both the short- and long-term. If rumors are to be believed, they aren’t finished chasing stars: The team is reportedly making a serious push for Indiana’s Paul George as well. If they pull that off as well, we’ll have to start looking at the Rockets as legitimate championship contenders. They may even already be there.