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Are We Sure … That the Rockets’ Championship Window Hasn’t Already Closed?

Chris Paul knows a thing or two about missed opportunities—he’s experienced them throughout the course of his career. Given how the West has shaped up, Houston’s place at the top of the conference might not last much longer.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The offseason established a host of new story lines across the NBA that require closer inspection. Throughout August, we’re giving second thoughts to the most intriguing ones.

Not that long ago, there was still hope for Lob City to become a gleaming championship metropolis in the NBA landscape. Just two years ago, the predominant preseason story lines for the Clippers were exactly what you’d remember: Will they ever get out of the second round of the playoffs, and what about that long-promised and elusive title? Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan, and J.J. Redick said all the right things about taking the next step. Chris Paul was closer to defiant about it. After practice one day, I asked him about the narrative surrounding that team and how they might change it. His answer was simple: “By winning. That’s how we change it.”

[Narrator: They didn’t change it.]

Just two short years later, Griffin is playing in Detroit, Jordan is in Dallas, Redick is in Philly (when he isn’t busy doing a podcast for the Blog Boys Network), and Paul is about to begin his second season in Houston. Things can change quickly in the NBA. One moment you have a team loaded with talent that’s primed to compete for a championship, the next that same squad is dismantled and its best parts are scattered around the league.

Paul knows better than most how the window of opportunity can slam shut on you in this league. The Clippers won 50-plus games for five straight seasons—which felt like a good, long time, until it was over and their collective promise went poof. That’s an experience Paul would probably prefer to avoid repeating in Houston; it’s nice to be thought of as a team that’s making the climb toward something great, unless you never reach the intended summit.

Just more than two months ago, CP3 and the Rockets were one win away from defeating the Golden State Warriors in the playoffs and advancing to the NBA Finals. Paul’s hamstring injury late in Game 5 changed the course of the series, which Houston had a 3-2 advantage in. Sidelined for the final two games, Paul was forced to watch the Warriors fight their way back and win the Western Conference once again. That had to be a tough blow—especially because of everything the Rockets achieved up to that point.

Houston won a league-best 65 games last season, led the league in net rating, and saw James Harden finally win his first MVP award. The Rockets also did something some of us were skeptical about: They seamlessly integrated two ball-dominant guards in Harden and Paul on the floor and avoided any public spats off of it. By any measure, it was a wildly successful campaign—with the notable exception of that fourth Western Conference finals win that got away.

Given everything the Rockets accomplished last season, it might seem silly or premature at this point to worry about Houston’s championship window. But when you consider how the offseason went for the Rockets and the rest of the conference, not to mention the league’s ever-shifting hierarchy, it’s fair to wonder how much longer Houston will remain at the front of the pack. The Rockets re-signed Chris Paul to a four-year deal worth $160 million. They also retained the services of Clint Capela, locking him up for five years and $90 million. That’s to general manager Daryl Morey’s credit. They were priorities, and he kept them in the mix.

But because the Rockets are looking at a luxury-tax hit in the neighborhood of $19 million, they were limited in what they could do with the rest of the roster. Swingman Trevor Ariza fled to Phoenix on a one-year deal for $15 million, while Luc Mbah a Moute signed a one-year contract with the Clippers for $4.3 million. Both players were versatile 3-and-D wings that often served as big men in the Rockets system, and both will be missed by head coach Mike D’Antoni, particularly because they were two of the most reliable options on a Houston team that had the sixth-best defensive rating in the league a season ago.

Most championship contenders get knocked for not having enough top-tier stars, but that’s not the Rockets’ problem. Harden and Paul clearly possess the kind of outsized talent to buoy Houston, and Capela is a terrific running mate for them. But part of what made Houston so good last season was the complementary pieces like Ariza and Mbah a Moute, players who knew their roles and were happy to quietly execute them. That might not be the case this season when you consider that their biggest offseason addition has a history of wanting to be treated like the main man even though those days seem to be well behind him.

Carmelo Anthony signed with the Rockets for the veteran’s minimum: one year, $2.4 million. Melo can still score, but there are plenty of questions about his fit in Houston’s system, his history with D’Antoni, and whether he’s willing to come off the bench and accept a lesser role. With Harden, Paul, and Capela locked into long-term deals, the cap sheet will likely continue to make things tricky for Morey moving forward—especially because the Rockets still owe Ryan Anderson more than $41 million over the next two seasons. Ouch.

Beyond that, the Warriors added Boogie Cousins to an already loaded lineup and are barrelling toward becoming the first superteam to start five All-Stars. LeBron James is still the best player in the world, and now he’s in the same conference as the Rockets (even though he’s surrounded by a host of cast-off characters). And then there’s the rest of the West, which might not have the same immediate championship-level aspirations as Houston, but has plenty of top-tier talent ready to impede the Rockets’ postseason path for this season and the foreseeable future. It should be noted that Paul will be 37 years old when his new deal is done. He’s not getting any younger, nor is the conference getting any easier.

There was another thing Paul said two years ago when he was still trying to will the Clippers across the Finals finish line. “I’ve had 11 summers,” he said, “of knowing what it’s like not to win a championship.” Make that 13—and counting.