The Rockets have been walking a fine line all season. The team, currently the West’s 3-seed, needs to keep Chris Paul fresh for the playoffs, but its top-heavy roster leaves no margin for error without him in the regular season. Houston has needed a historic performance from James Harden to make up for the decline of his costar. The dynamic between Harden and Paul is starting to resemble the one between LeBron James and Dwyane Wade in their final seasons together in Miami. What was supposed to be a partnership of equals has turned into a younger star carrying an older one. Harden, like LeBron, isn’t going to want to do it forever.
Paul was going to fall off at some point during the four-year, $160 million extension he signed last July. He’s an undersized point guard (6-foot and 175 pounds) in his 14th season in the NBA, and he turns 34 in May. There aren’t many active players with more miles on their body: Paul is no. 13 in career minutes (32,925), and almost all of the names ahead of him already have one foot out of the league. The few still contributing to relevant teams, like Andre Iguodala, have moved into smaller roles coming off the bench. LeBron is the only one who is still a primary option in his team’s offense.
Of course, that same logic could have applied last season. Paul meshed perfectly with Harden in their first season together, moving into a smaller role when Harden was on the floor and then running the show when he was on the bench. Paul, one of the savviest players in NBA history, made up for any decline in athleticism by taking more 3s (6.5 per game) than ever before, which created more room for him to attack off the dribble. There was no reason to think he couldn’t stave off the aging process indefinitely, as long as he stayed healthy.
Most great players can adjust their games to play at a high level deep into their 30s. The issue is their bodies have a hard time holding up over an 82-game regular season and a deep playoff run. Paul strained his hamstring in Game 5 of the Western Conference finals last season, an injury that he has never seemed to fully recover from. It has been one issue after another over the past nine months. He dealt with elbow tendinitis and a sore left leg at the start of the season, and he missed almost a month with another hamstring injury. Paul has played in 44 of 67 games this season, which could end up as the fourth consecutive season in which he has played in fewer games than the one before.
Paul has had to pick and choose his spots when he has been on the floor this season. He is averaging the fewest points (15.3) and lowest field goal percentage (41.1) of his NBA career. The Rockets built their offense last season around spreading the floor with 3-point shooters so that Harden and Paul could run pick-and-rolls in space. That strategy hasn’t been nearly as successful this season because Paul can no longer create as much separation off the dribble. His game has always been based on winning on the margins, and those margins are shrinking. The difference in his effectiveness across individual play types is jarring:
Chris Paul’s Offensive Decline (Leaguewide Percentile)
|Pick-and-roll ball handler||91st||36th|
|Finishing around the rim||76th||20th|
Paul has still found ways to be effective. He has moved back into more of a distributor role, averaging slightly more assists per game (8.3) than last season (7.9) while taking the fewest number of field goal attempts (12.2 per game) in six seasons. He has always been more comfortable controlling tempo and setting up his teammates rather than hunting for his own shot. His career high in points per game is 22.8, which was set a full decade ago; he has averaged more than 20 points only twice in his career. His lack of athleticism is less of an issue when he’s passing. Paul can anticipate what the defense will do and pass his teammates open before he even finishes his move. The Rockets haven’t missed a beat when he has been running the offense: They have a net rating of plus-10.6 in 578 minutes this season with Paul and without Harden.
The downside of Paul being less aggressive is what happens when he plays with Harden. Houston doesn’t need Paul to set the table in those lineups. Harden is such a dominant offensive force that he warps the defense as soon as he crosses half court. He needs teammates who can knock down the open 3s that he creates for them and take advantage of the gaps that he creates in the defense by getting to the rim. The best version of Harden and Paul together is when the former is running point and the latter is playing like a shooting guard. The two have been more redundant than they were last season. The Rockets have a better net rating when Harden is playing without Paul (plus-4.3 in 1,493 minutes) than with him (plus-1.2 in 855 minutes).
The hope is that Paul can start picking up steam as they move closer to the playoffs. The upside to all his injuries is that he has played only 1,432 minutes this season. Even if he maintains his season average (32.5 per game) and plays out the rest of the season, he will still log fewer than 2,000 minutes for only the fourth time in his career. It could all work out for the best. An older player at this stage in his career has only so much gas in the tank. The Rockets need Paul at his best in May and June, not November and December.
Houston is in a good position considering how little it has gotten from its second-best player. While the Rockets have taken a step back from last season, when they cruised to the no. 1 seed with a 65-17 record, they are one game ahead of the Thunder and the Blazers for the no. 3 seed with a 42-25 record and a net rating of plus-2.9. The West is wide open behind the Warriors. None of the other contenders play a more postseason-friendly style than the Rockets, who have a mobile center (Clint Capela) who can hold up in space on defense as well as the small-ball personnel to spread out more traditional interior players.
Getting to this point has come at a cost, though. Houston has pushed Harden even harder than in 2016-17 (when he was second in MVP voting) and 2017-18 (when he won the award). His numbers are absurd: 36.2 points on 43.6 percent shooting, 7.5 assists, 6.5 rebounds, and 2.1 steals per game. The only players to have posted a higher scoring average in a season are Wilt Chamberlain and Michael Jordan. Harden is in rare company when it comes to being a one-man offense. He has the second-highest usage rate in NBA history (40.4) behind only Russell Westbrook in 2016-17, and he is averaging the most field goal attempts (24.6 per game) since Kobe Bryant in 2005-06.
Running that much offense through one player isn’t sustainable. Westbrook lost in the first round in 2016-17, as did Kobe in 2005-06, and Jordan in the one season (1986-87) in which he scored more than Harden. Even if Paul can step up in the playoffs, the damage may have already been done. Harden is no. 2 in the league in minutes (37.3 per game) this season. The strain of being a one-man offense for nine months has seemed to wear on him in the past few postseasons. Harden collapsed at the end of their second-round loss to the Spurs in 2017, and ran out of steam over the course of their losses to the Warriors in the 2015 and 2018 Western Conference finals. He even told Steph Curry at the All-Star Game that he doesn’t want to play this way anymore.
The problem is the structure of the Rockets roster doesn’t give them any other options if Paul is going to take a step back. They are committing 66 percent of their payroll this season to Harden, Paul, and Capela alone, and Capela is an offensively limited big man who needs someone to set him up. Paul is being paid to be a workhorse even though he is at the stage of his career where his minutes need to be managed carefully. Houston should have him on a rest plan similar to the one Tim Duncan was on in his final seasons in San Antonio, but Duncan wasn’t making $40 million a season at that point. He took less money so the Spurs could put a deeper roster around him.
The Rockets don’t have much room to maneuver under the salary cap, and they have been more focused on getting under the luxury tax than filling out the roster in their first season under new owner Tilman Fertitta. The result is a team that has been relying on two players who have been bought out this season (Austin Rivers and Kenneth Faried) as well as a rotating cast of characters from the G League to stay afloat. It will only get worse in the years to come: Harden, Paul, and Capela will go from making $81.4 million combined this season to $92.7 million in 2019-20 to $99.7 million in 2020-21. They won’t have many salaries to move in trades, or room under the cap to sign free agents, and they already dealt their first-round pick in this year’s draft. The odds are that Houston will need even more from Harden in the years to come, not less.
The parallels between LeBron and Wade in Miami and Harden and Paul in Houston are striking. Wade and Paul were near the end of their primes when they teamed up with their younger costars, and both had only one more great regular season before their bodies broke down and their teams began managing their minutes. LeBron picked up the slack and won consecutive MVPs in his age-27 and -28 seasons, a feat Harden could match in his age-28 and -29 seasons. The difference is that the Rockets will need a lot more from Paul than Miami needed from Wade. Harden doesn’t have the size to carry as much of a workload as LeBron in the playoffs, while Chris Bosh was far more capable than Capela of stepping up as the third member of the Big Three.
Harden isn’t going anywhere: He is signed to a contract that will pay him $152.9 million through 2021-22, with a $46.9 million player option for the 2022-23 season. But that doesn’t mean he will be happy carrying Paul on his shoulders through the rest of his prime. Harden will be only 32 in the summer of 2022, and he will likely want to play with younger stars who can carry him as he moves deeper into his 30s. The best chance for Houston to avoid the same fate as Miami is to restructure the team around Harden at some point before then. The problem is the Rockets won’t have any flexibility as long as Paul is taking up such a huge percentage of their salary cap, and his contract will be almost impossible to move. There is only so long the Rockets can balance keeping Paul fresh and paying him max money before it blows up in their face.