Along with Boston and San Antonio, Houston comprised the league’s second (maybe third?) tier. All of these teams have masterful coaches. They also all need a massive talent upgrade in order to have any shot at a title. Houston saw an opportunity and took it, with (possibly) a third superstar on the way. But in landing Paul, Houston haven’t just added a perennial All-Star to a very good team. They’ve acquired the league’s most sublime playmaker this side of LeBron James. Despite CP3’s spotty playoff record, tyrannical personality, and possibly outmoded style of play, he’s a transformative player who—clichés be damned—makes everyone around him better. Chris Paul can manipulate space on the court like few players in history. Bringing him on board has the potential to reinvent the structure of an offense from the ground up.
But for Houston this kind of transformation is far from a no-brainer. In fact, it’s nearly counterintuitive. The Rockets are already built around James Harden, who despite his positional ambiguity carries the responsibilities of a point guard. From the spacing of the offense down through the team’s preferred tempo, Houston’s system is a vehicle for Harden, where the contributions of others are directly tied into exploiting his strengths and masking his weaknesses. Unless you put too much stock in Harden’s shaky performance in the San Antonio series, his MVP season totally justified Mike D’Antoni’s preseason gamble.
The Rockets have such a strong, clear identity that introducing Paul into the equation could (no pun) be beside the point. This team is insufficient in the present-day NBA, but there’s also enough there—the team won 55 games, after all—that starting over would be excessive. Likewise, we all understand what kind of player Paul can be, and presumably using him as anything less would be a waste. Asking a scoring wing (think KD with Golden State) or shooting big (Love in Cleveland) to sublimate his game makes sense. The shift is merely quantitative. We have no idea what less Chris Paul looks like. It’s hard to imagine anything other than a lesser player.
So why did the Rockets trade for Paul when they already have Harden? At first blush, it seems like a problem so complicated that undertaking it would be a step back. You have to assume that D’Antoni, never short on vision, has a plan, one that would incorporate Paul’s game without detracting too much from Harden’s newfound mastery. That means slotting Paul into the existing system rather than radically overhauling what’s already in place. Rather than leaning on Harden to alter things, D’Antoni will presumably want Paul to tone down, if not alter, his game, and we’ve seen scant evidence that this is even possible. He’s ball-dominant, needs a great deal of control and flexibility from one second to the next, and makes highly complex decisions on the fly. It’s actually hard to imagine a version of Chris Paul not afforded these basic freedoms.
Still, Paul wouldn’t be headed to Houston if he weren’t willing and ready to buy into whatever D’Antoni has in store, meaning D’Antoni must have something in mind or else this wouldn’t have happened. It’s pointless to speculate as to what his plan might be—that’s part of the fun here. But this isn’t just an opportunity for D’Antoni. It’s a self-imposed challenge that will test the limits of his genius. D’Antoni’s use of Harden was bold. Putting himself in this position is almost foolhardy. It shows that he’s serious about winning. But it also sets up a boom or bust scenario that, if not fully-realized, would not just set the franchise back—it could deliver a serious blow to D’Antoni’s reputation, only recently repaired by his Houston stint.
This move was both desperate and highly deliberate. Present-day conditions in the NBA lend themselves to panic and the blind acquisition of talent. The Rockets landing Chris Paul could present as even worse than blind: It potentially compromises what they’ve already got while adding an as-of-yet undefined variable. It makes pairing James and Wade in Miami—or going back a ways, Walt Frazier and Earl Monroe with the Knicks—seem downright logical. But faith in D’Antoni—which, at this point, is itself far from blind—dictates the opposite: a chance to improve the team’s outlook by implementing a scheme that’s at once brilliant and, once we see it, wholly self-evident.
Right now, we don’t know why Mike D’Antoni and Chris Paul need each other. If things go right, after next year we might never ask this question again. We could see a two-headed monster with two distinctive attacks at its disposal, leaving room for both Paul’s ruminations and Harden’s strike-first mentality. The Rockets could be one of the league’s deadliest teams, once and for all cementing D’Antoni’s brilliance. If they don’t, this may be a trade that Houston regrets for years to come. Those are currently the stakes and teams have no choices but to take major risks. The offseason will be all the more entertaining for it. Here’s hoping trades like this continue to pay dividends once the 2017-18 season starts.