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Best Case, Worst Case: Houston Rockets

In any other era, a James Harden–Chris Paul partnership would be enough to make the Rockets championship favorites. But can they win one with the Warriors still around?

Getty Images/Ringer Illustration

NBA back! To prepare for a new season, we’re breaking down one team per day, each day, until tipoff on October 17.

Team: Houston Rockets

Coach: Mike D’Antoni (second season)

Last Season: 55-27 (third place in the Western Conference)

Notable Additions: Chris Paul (trade), P.J. Tucker (free agency), Luc Richard Mbah A Moute (free agency), Tarik Black (free agency)

Notable Subtractions: Patrick Beverley (trade), Lou Williams (trade), Sam Dekker (trade), Montrezl Harrell (trade)

Vegas Over/Under: 55.5 wins

Best-Case Scenario: Injuries in Golden State create an opening for Chris Paul and James Harden to win a championship together.

The Rockets started the offseason arms race with a bang. They convinced Paul to opt into the final year of his contract, and then traded most of their perimeter depth from last season for him. The resulting experiment will be one of the most fascinating stories in the NBA. Harden just finished second in the MVP race after moving to point guard. How will he fare next to one of the greatest point guards of all time? How will the two share the ball? How good will an offense with either Paul or Harden on the floor for 48 minutes be?

Adding Paul made Houston a free-agent destination. A year after the Rockets had to give Ryan Anderson $80 million to come, they signed two elite perimeter defenders in P.J. Tucker and Luc Richard Mbah A Moute on the cheap. With Tucker, Mbah A Moute, reigning Sixth Man of Year Eric Gordon, and Nene coming off their bench — as well as intriguing young players like Troy Williams, Zhou Qi, and Cam Oliver — the Rockets have depth and versatility to go with their stars. They have all the pieces to win a title in a normal season.

The problem is that the Warriors are not normal defending champions. It’s hard to see anyone beating them if they are healthy. Of course, that’s a big if. Kevin Durant missed the playoffs three years ago with a broken foot. Steph Curry hobbled through them two years ago on a bad knee. Who knows? Draymond Green may start another running feud with the refs and get suspended again in a crucial moment in the playoffs. Klay Thompson may decide to give up basketball, walk the earth, and get into adventures, à la Samuel L. Jackson at the end of Pulp Fiction. The NBA season is a long and brutal grind where anything can happen. Houston is hoping its moves have narrowed the gap with Golden State, enough to where they'll be able to take advantage of any entropy the league has in store for the season.

Worst-Case Scenario: The marriage between Paul and Harden cracks under pressure and Paul teams up with LeBron James in the offseason.

Beverley was the perfect backcourt partner for Harden. He locked up the opposing point guard on defense, was happy to take a backseat on offense, and was the emotional leader of the team. Harden has previously struggled when paired with a ball-dominant point guard like Ty Lawson two years ago, and Lawson is nowhere near as domineering as Paul. Houston’s starting backcourt became friends on Team USA, but that experience is pretty different from sharing a locker room for nine months. Paul’s micromanagement wore out the Clippers, and Harden is one of the most laid-back stars in the league. It won’t be easy for Paul to live with the times when Harden forces shots and turns the ball over. What other NBA star would take a Drew League game this seriously?

Houston has many hurdles just to make it to a matchup with Golden State. Oklahoma City added Paul George and beat them out for Carmelo Anthony, while San Antonio is always a threat under Gregg Popovich, who has had Mike D’Antoni’s number for over a decade. Even a first-round series with up-and-coming teams like Minnesota and Denver or longtime rivals like Memphis and the Clippers wouldn’t be easy. Both Harden and Paul have imploded in the playoffs before, something their jury-rigged partnership might not survive. CP3’s impending free agency looms over everything. If LeBron signs with the Lakers next summer, Paul would have to consider joining him. Trading for a guy in the last year of his contract is always a gamble.

TL; DR: The trio of Harden, Paul, and D’Antoni will be regular-season killers. Whether they can exorcise their playoff demons together is another story.