As a pure free agent, Chris Paul didn’t like his options and that was understandable. Paul could take the five years to commit to a Los Angeles Clippers’ team that had plateaued and lacked the means to get meaningfully better, or he could sign a four-year deal with a stripped down version of the Houston Rockets or San Antonio Spurs.
In a completely shocking and impressively creative move, Paul instead opted in to the final year of his contract to orchestrate a trade to the Rockets. Paul gets to join a team that is only losing Patrick Beverley, Lou Williams, Sam Dekker, Montrezl Harrell and a 2018 first round pick while also essentially agreeing upon a six-year, $233 million contract. Paul gets $661,000 of his $3.6 million trade bonus along with his $24.27 million for 17-18 and could sign a five-year, $205 million deal in 2018 with the Rockets.
Paul feels like an all or nothing type of player in terms of projecting the remaining seasons of his prime. If Paul is healthy enough to play, he’ll remain one of the game’s best point guards and one of the best players. Paul may become a parody of himself in the final season or two of this contract on some back-to-backs, but he’s an all-time great and those level of players still find their shine.
Paul has been underrated as an athlete at various points of his career, but he is too much of a savant to not figure it out in those first few years when his body begins to slip away from his mind.
Paul ranked second in the entire NBA in Real Plus Minus this past season behind only LeBron James and ahead of Stephen Curry, Draymond Green and Kawhi Leonard. Excluding any Warriors, Paul ranked first in the NBA in Net Rating. Paul was an early MVP candidate last November and would have made that foursome of Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Leonard and James a fivesome if he would have stayed healthy.
The fit feels awkward in some ways with how fast Mike D’Antoni wants to play and how methodical Paul prefers the tempo. The mid-range aspect of Paul’s game, as well as sharing possessions with James Harden, is potentially problematic but could counterintuitively work really well. Harden has consistently worn out in the playoffs and Paul will save him both in regular season and more importantly in the playoffs. Opposing defenses will have to defend the entire halfcourt with Paul coming off pick and rolls instead of simply hedging all the way out to the three-point line or at the rim.
D’Antoni will stagger their minutes to make sure both Paul and Harden have plenty of time to dominate the ball. Houston gets 48 minutes of D’Antoni figuring out how to use two of the best offensive players in the game. The Rockets were already a historically great offense and will be even better in 17-18 while also maintaining themselves defensively with Paul replacing Beverley. With Paul and Harden dictating play, Clint Capela and Ryan Anderson will be even more valuable.
Dating all the way back to Speedy Claxton in those early New Orleans years, Paul has always paired well playing with another point guard. Harden isn't a traditional point guard but he's at the point in his career, in the middle of his prime, where he's ready to sacrifice to win. Paul could also hold Harden accountable on defense in a way we haven't seen before. Harden has the physical capacity to be a good defensive player, but his problems have been due to a lack of focus and the amount of energy he expends on offense. Paul helps tremendously in both ways.
The Warriors still appear to be an immovable, unbreakable force, but the Rockets have taken their high variance three-pointers and layup strategy and plunked Chris Paul down right in the middle of it. Golden State may still sweep them but the Rockets will make this very interesting.
Grade for Rockets: A
Paul is an uncompromising ideologue when it comes to attention for detail and he’s clearly not a fun teammate. This is fine when teams win, but it’s been an exhausting six seasons that makes that Lob City video when Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan found out Paul was being traded to the Clippers a foreboding moment in retrospect.
The Clippers will reflect back on Paul’s time with the franchise as the greatest run in franchise history, yet filled with missed opportunities. There have been the impediments of the Spurs, Thunder, Rockets and Grizzlies, but they’ve never even lost a playoff series to the Warriors, who have annihilated them repeatedly in the regular season. Their paths never crossed during the Warriors' run over the past three seasons and unintentionally let that monster form when they beat them in a seven-game first round series in 2014 that led to the Mark Jackson dismissal.
Beverley and Williams don’t fit especially well into the Clippers likely long-term vision and could be moved down the road. Beverley in particular has immense trade value as he’s signed through 18-19 on one of the NBA’s best value contracts.
The fear for the Clippers was that they would re-sign one of Paul and Griffin, remain stuck and then begin a rebuild several years too late. That’s on top of J.J. Redick, who is surely gone as well. They’ve chosen a course and could have enough cap space in 2018 to sign two supermax free agents if Griffin leaves and they also move DeAndre Jordan.
The Clippers can also let Griffin completely take over the team, dominating the ball from the power forward position that has appeared to be his best destiny.
Grade for Clippers: B
Assuming Paul makes it to the 2018 in one piece to sign his new five-year contract, he’s played this situation extraordinarily well. The financial creativity of the move is as impressively genius as the move was shocking when it was first reported. Paul similarly postponed his free agency by one season when he was traded by New Orleans to the Clippers in 2011 and now he gets to essentially sign a six-year, $230+ million deal, which means he's doing better with this move than he would if he simply re-signed with the Clippers.
Paul improves his chances of competing for a title while extending the prime of his career by playing with another ball dominant player.
The Rockets’ front office has been one of the most creative in terms of identifying role players, which has been one of the issues that limited the upside of the Clippers.
If it doesn't work with the Rockets, Paul has now timed his free agency to coincide with LeBron James in 2018 and that could put any number of scenarios on the table, including the Lakers.
Grade for Chris Paul: B+