On the precipice of NBA free agency beginning this weekend, we've already had one major trade (the Jimmy Butler to Minnesota deal on draft night) but this morning saw some major news as the Los Angeles Clippers sent their star point guard Chris Paul to the Houston Rockets for Lou Williams, Patrick Beverley, Sam Dekker, DeAndre Liggins, Darrun Hilliard, Montrezl Harrell, Kyle Wiltjer, a first round draft pick + $661K. Some of these things might change but the major moving pieces going to LA for Paul are Williams, Beverley, Dekker, and Harrell. While the Clippers radically alter their team and head into an offseason full of great potential and change, the Rockets add an elite player to a roster with MVP runner-up James Harden, 2017 NBA Sixth Man of the Year Eric Gordon, and Ryan Anderson and put together talent that can compete with the world champion Golden State Warriors. The biggest knock on this trade and why it has some questioning its logic is that Harden and Paul are both "ball dominant" players. The both orchestrate their respective offenses, though obviously in different ways and by exhibiting different skills and traits. Both players rank in the top 10 of touches per game, with Harden at 99.2 and Paul at 86.2. Both players also keep the ball for about the same amount of time with each player averaging around 5 seconds per touch. These are both players who want the ball, control the ball for much of the time of possession, and who play best when they have the ball in their hands/are ball dominant.
This is not to say that I think this won't work for Houston. Paul's prowess as a passer and facilitator should, in Mike D'Antoni's fast pace offense, fit in nicely even if Paul isn't scoring as much. Also Paul's a pretty strong defender, possessing a good defensive rating and the second best net rating amongst guards, so you shore up the defensive qualities to your backcourt if you are Houston. Both players are pretty good catch-and-shoot players, which is something they will need to develop sharing the Rockets backcourt.
What I do think is that the ways in which Paul and Harden's games overlap means you are taking away one of the things that they do well. If you're letting Paul really control the ball and using Harden more off the ball, you're taking away some of the things that make him special. Now he can still do things better than many of the shooting guards in the league, but you've taken away something from his game. It might be small, but it's still going to have an impact especially at the highest echelons of basketball play. The same goes for Paul's game as well as he is still a very good player if he's not as central to the offense but he's not the great player he would be otherwise.
I also do wonder how Paul, who is not a young player anymore and has had his fair share of injuries, holds up in Mike D'Antoni's more fast-paced offense and how the movement involved goes with Paul's more focused and deliberate style of play. These things, coupled with the loss of depth (Beverley, Williams, and Dekker were all interesting or important pieces to this Rockets team last year and I do wonder if Paul's game makes up for all that) gives me pause when I consider this trade. The Rockets certainly got a great player and will be better next year but whether it makes them better to the point where they're on the Warriors level/are an elite team remains to be seen and I think there are some issues that make me think this won't be the case.
Now, to address the issue of depth on their roster, the Rockets have been looking to add another player whether it be Paul George or Carmelo Anthony. George would move the Rockets closer to the Warriors (though it seems unlikely/do the Rockets have the assets to make that trade happen) while acquiring Anthony if he were bought out by the Knicks does not seem like a move in team building but rather in talent acquisition. Anthony is a player that is a "ball stopper" as well and if he's stopping the ball you're keeping it out of the hands of two other elite players and thus not maximizing your resources. Acquiring Paul feels a bit like this as well, as though the lesson of the Warriors and Kevin Durant is simply "get a great player." Durant is not just a top-flight talent but he represents the ideal small forward in the Warriors system. Now Durant would be perfect in many systems but with the things the Warriors want to do on both sides of the ball, a player with the particular skills and attributes of Durant is what is needed to reach the ideal and perfected vision of this team. Putting in a player that mirrors Durant's numbers and production but does not possess his style and features would not yield the conclusions that we saw this season. If you think the Warriors just added another MVP and that's why they won this year then you've missed the point of this whole thing and why the signing of Durant made so much sense.
Signing Durant, in addition to bringing in more talent and someone who can help share the load with Stephen Curry, was about acquiring a perfect player for the way the Warriors want to play. The Rockets acquiring Chris Paul, however, does not feel like that and instead feels like it's about the acquisition of more talent alone, redundancies be damned. There were elements of this in the Wade-LeBron pairing in Miami and why Chris Bosh was such an interesting player for that team. It will have a positive effect on the Rockets and I think they will be better and stronger than last year but I also think we must distinguish between acquiring talent and acquiring talent that fits within a system that enables a team to play at the highest level possible.