There are no boring days during the NBA offseason, and the number of high-profile player transactions and intriguing subplots around the league is at an all-time high. From Phil Jackson getting fired to Jimmy Butler and Chris Paul being traded, Paul George informing the Pacers he doesn’t intend to re-sign next summer and the Boston Celtics trading away the first pick in the 2017 NBA draft (with an overall strategy that somewhat resembles a Ponzi scheme), there’s crazy stuff happening across the league. So much so that Dwight Howard being traded for what essentially amounts to multiple negative assets barely registers on the scale anymore.
A few reasons as to why the NBA has become, at the very least, an 11-month sport. First, the Warriors have put together a team with an unprecedented amount of talent on the floor, and most of the league is either desperate to catch up by swinging for the fences or building with the express purpose of competing for a championship somewhere in the 2022-range. Secondly, the “game within the game” is being covered and explained to the general NBA fan better, and the intellectual exercise behind front office operations is much more competitive than before.
Paul’s decision to leave Los Angeles and push his way to the Rockets is the perfect example of the type of movement and reaction star players are empowered to make, as James Harden was directly advocating for Paul to join forces in Houston. On the salary cap side, the actual trade with the Clippers was a masterpiece of six-dimensional CBA chess for salary cap dorks to enjoy.
For Paul, the Clippers acquired Patrick Beverley, Lou Williams, Sam Dekker, Montrezl Harrell, Darrun Hilliard, DeAndre Liggins, Kyle Wiltjer and a Top 3 protected 2018 first-round draft pick. To make the deal work, Paul gave up most of his $3.6 million trade kicker too.
The details at work are fantastic. The deal wouldn’t have worked next season under the new CBA agreement that starts on July 1st, since non-guaranteed contracts aren’t counted towards the total salary to make trades work. And if you’re wondering why the Rockets are trading for players you’ve probably never heard of like Shawn Long, it’s to continue snatching up salary that’s not guaranteed for next season for other trades – most likely for Paul George. Another reason the trade wouldn’t have worked later is that teams can carry up to 20 players in the summer, and only 15 during the regular season.
On Paul’s side, as a part of the trade the point guard agreed to exercise his player option for next season and the Rockets receive his full Bird rights, making it possible for Paul to receive a five-year contract next summer for the Designated Player Veteran Extension, worth somewhere around $200 million. Paul holds all the cards here. If, for whatever reason, the match with Harden doesn’t work out, Paul is free to leave in free agency for another team and Houston doesn’t really have a choice but to extend Paul with a gargantuan offer that runs until his age 38 season.
The Rockets also retained their mid-level ($8.4 million) and bi-annual ($3.2 million) exceptions in the trade, and their front office has shown the ability to convert those dollars into valuable production on the floor. Last season, Nenê was signed using the room exception of $2.9 million.
For the Clippers, CP3 leaving represents both the end of the best era in franchise history, and a long run of playoff disappointments. Reportedly, the relationship between Paul and Doc Rivers had soured to the point of no return, and the Clippers’ inability to find the right role players to complement their core with DeAndre Jordan, Blake Griffin and Paul was an ever present frustration. Some of the lowlights of Rivers’ tenure have been atrocious – dumping Jared Dudley’s salary along with a first-round pick, trading another pick for Jeff Green, not being able to develop a single draft pick into a contributor, Wesley Johnson’s new contract before being exiled to the bench etcetera… The list is endless. Every year, the Clippers have had one of the best three- or four-man units in the NBA, but disaster struck every time Paul wasn’t on the court.
CP3 shares some of the blame for the Clippers not advancing past the second round in the playoffs in six years, despite being one of the best point guards in NBA history by every available metric. For their regular season success and run of 50-win seasons, most fans will remember the two turnovers Paul made at the end of Game 5 against the Thunder in 2014, and the complete meltdown the team experienced in Game 6 against the Rockets the next season and blowing a 3-1 lead in the second round.
At age 32, Paul is at the point in his career where playoff success fueled by him will either come soon or not at all, and pairing up with Harden was the best realistic option available. The Rockets’ general manager Daryl Morey notoriously places value on talent figuring out the fit, but fitting two players who are used to having the ball in their hands all the time isn’t without its challenges.
The postseason is a different beast altogether, but during the regular season the Rockets will have a major advantage through 48 minutes by having the option to have either Harden or Paul on the floor as the primary creator for every second. That’s a unique statistical edge no other team has, as most teams tend to have production fall of significantly when the “next best” ballhandler is running the show. Even teams like the Cavaliers without LeBron James and with Kyrie Irving on the floor haven’t fared particularly well.
A real offense built around two primary ballhandlers is a tad atypical in the modern NBA, as most teams focus on spacing around their base pick-and-roll action. Mike D’Antoni hasn’t really had a similar situation where his offense would have to accommodate two players, as both Harden and Steve Nash have had those duties mostly to themselves. Perhaps the only really successful model we see today is Terry Stotts’ Flow Offense with Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. Plays where the first action is the decoy to setup the second attack that’s meant for the score and an open backside, back-to-back pick-and-roll actions and other clever setups will be key in involving the strengths of both Harden and Paul on every play. The type of stuff Quin Snyder likes to run with Gordon Hayward and George Hill, and what the Cavaliers do with James and Irving.
The good part is that Houston’s new backcourt features tons of off-the-ball skills. Per the estimates by Nicholas Sciria of Nylon Calculus, Harden has been shooting the fewest open three-point shots in the league recently and has made 39.1 percent of his catch-and-shoot three-pointers, while Paul has been hovering around the 43 percent mark.
In 2016-17, the Rockets took only 7.1 mid-range attempts per game while every other team shot at least 11.2 and the league average was about 18. Houston avoids the mid-range like the plague, but Paul’s addition should change that equation quite a bit. Paul is one of the greatest mid-range shooters ever and can consistently make 50 percent of his pull-up attempts coming off screens. In the playoffs, opponents can lock in on shooters and do a better job closing out and stopping drives to the basket, the mid-ranger is often the shot that is open. Great offenses and defenses adjust quickly to seeing the same look over and over again, and being able to throw in the mid-ranger as a weapon that defenses don’t prioritize can become a difference maker in a series.
Golden State is the bar Houston measures itself against now, and credit has to be given to the organization in not backing down and going all out to chase the championship. Defensively, Paul’s strength is often overlooked and on switches that toughness makes Paul an even better option than Beverley in some situations. Harden has looked worn down by the end of the playoffs a few times now, and sharing some of the offensive load should boost his defense – if not that then Paul’s constant yelling at him should do the trick.
The Rockets aren’t done making moves, and will be aggressive going after George to fill out a new super team. Ryan Anderson isn’t a perfect fit on the roster since he has no shot of staying on the floor defensively vs. Golden State. Against the barrage that is the Warriors, you need five players who can hang on both ends.
If their first plans with George fall through, Morey always has another move in his backpocket. Expect the blockbuster moves to continue.
You can find Mika Honkasalo on Twitter @mhonkasalo.