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When all is said and done in the weeks following Wednesday’s trade, which pairs Paul with James Harden on a Rockets team that won 55 games last season, almost every playoff team in the West could feel its effects in more ways than just, “Holy hell, how do we stop this ridiculous backcourt tandem?”
So, let’s take a look at what the Paul deal means for every team at the top of the Western Conference.
They’re cool. After adding Kevin Durant to a team that won 73 games the year before, the Warriors just enjoyed arguably the greatest single season in NBA history. That’s a scary thought, considering Durant (the reigning Finals MVP), Stephen Curry (two-time regular-season MVP), Draymond Green (reigning Defensive Player of the Year) and Klay Thompson (three-time All-Star) are all squarely in their primes.
However, adding a nine-time All-Star and seven-time All-Defensive First Team selection to a team that nearly matched Golden State’s offensive prowess last season might closes the gap. Should Houston succeed in landing a third star (i.e., Paul George), that gap could get even tighter. And should Andre Iguodala leave the Warriors in free agency, well, suddenly a budding dynasty has a worthy challenger.
San Antonio Spurs
San Antonio blew Houston’s doors off in the second round of the playoffs and looked to be a legitimate foe for the Warriors, before Kawhi Leonard injured his ankle and Golden State went on to sweep the conference finals. Reported mutual interest between CP3 and the Spurs fueled rumors that they could be the ones narrowing the divide this summer, and Pau Gasol opting out of his $16.2 million salary in favor of a pay cut in 2017-18 suggested San Antonio was planning to make its move.
Now, the Spurs find themselves chasing their Texas neighbors in this wild West arms race, all while reports persist that they are looking to dump LaMarcus Aldridge’s max contract. Wednesday’s trade is undoubtedly a blow to the Spurs, at least until Gregg Popovich pulls the next rabbit out of his hat.
Well, they have Chris Paul now. As our own Dan Devine pointed out, the Rockets added one of the game’s greatest ever mid-range shooters to a team that San Antonio’s defense solved by daring them to take long jumpers, while also taking the usage load off Harden, who faded fast down the stretch.
None of this is to say the Rockets are adding Paul without risk. They dealt Patrick Beverley, Sam Dekker, Lou Williams, Montrezl Harrell and a protected 2018 first-round pick, raiding their depth chart. Barring a trade for George or another third star, Houston enters free agency with a starting lineup of Paul, Harden, Trevor Ariza, Ryan Anderson and Clint Capela. Sixth Man of the Year Eric Gordon will come off the bench, and Nene remains a free agent. Beyond that, there’s a lot of unproven talent.
Paul is picking up his 2017-18 option in the deal and is now eligible for a five-year, $201 million super-max extension from the Rockets that could keep him in Houston past his 38th birthday. Should Houston’s experiment with two ball-dominant point guards — both of whom can play off the ball, no doubt — fail in Years 1 and 2, what becomes of a Rockets team paying CP3 $40 million in his mid-30s?
And what if Paul turns down the extension to become a free agent next summer, when Banana Boat brethren LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Dwyane Wade will also presumably be on the market? That would leave the Rockets scrambling to pick up the pieces with Harden, flotsam and jetsam.
With CP3, Houston is an attractive landing spot for high-priced stars and value role players alike.
Without him, well, they’re just another team watching the Warriors rule the West until 2022.
Los Angeles Clippers
The Clippers answered half the question of whether they can retain Paul and Blake Griffin in free agency. The front office reportedly remains confident they can re-sign Griffin, but LA is a much less attractive roster today than it was yesterday, and opponents are already licking their chops for Griffin.
Even with the oft-injured Griffin, the Clippers will take a step back from the ever-enticing 50-win team they’ve been for the past five years. J.J. Redick is likely a goner, and that leaves some combination of Beverley, Williams, Austin Rivers and Jamal Crawford as the starting backcourt, which is not great.
Without Griffin, they are DeAndre Jordan and a bunch of role players, which is much worse than not great. Granted, they would have enough cap space to chase a pair of max-contract players in 2018 under this scenario, but by then the Clips might have second billing behind the Lakers in LA again.
Instead of just chasing the Warriors for the next few years, the Jazz now have a Harden-Paul nightmare to worry about in Houston. That’s before George Hill entertains what will likely be several high-end offers in free agency. So, does fellow free agent Gordon Hayward see the writing on the West wall?
Hayward is expected to start by meeting with both the Boston Celtics and Miami Heat come July 1. The West was already a difficult road with the Warriors at the end, and now Houston’s hopes of forming another super-team create a logjam along the way. Even with LeBron James still in control, the East presents an easier Finals path for someone like Hayward, especially if LeBron isn’t long for Cleveland.
If Hayward leaves, the Jazz are building around a core that includes Rudy Gobert, Derrick Favors and Rodney Hood — not horrible, but nowhere near the up-and-coming 50-win team they were in 2016-17.
Oklahoma City Thunder
Super-teams are all the rage these days in the NBA, and nobody rages against the machine quite like Russell Westbrook. He might be stubborn enough to think he can compete with the Warriors and Rockets for the next few years, but he’s also not blind to the fact that ex-Thunder teammates Durant and Harden are building alliances against him. As I laid out yesterday, the league’s MVP has all of a few days to decide whether to sign a super-max deal that could keep him in OKC through 2022-23 or follow the NBA’s winds of change. But, again, he made a “some run, some make runways” commercial.
Still, Westbrook has made it clear that a championship is his ultimate goal, and his road to a title just got that much harder. By turning down an extension, he would force Thunder GM Sam Presti to trade him or risk losing a third perennial MVP candidate in a span of six years. Trade or not, Russ could also become a free agent in 2018, and the league might just retract into a handful of super-teams by then.
Or the Thunder’s pursuit of Oklahoma native Blake Griffin just got that much easier as a result of the Paul trade. OKC would have to get awfully creative in clearing max space or work a trade for Griffin akin to the one the Rockets just pulled off for Paul, but that would make for another frisky West team.
Meanwhile, the Minnesota Timberwolves just added Jimmy Butler to a young core, and that’s a beast lurking in the near future — not a bad position to be in with Paul opening a short window in Houston.
Bottom-rung West teams like the Lakers, Phoenix Suns and Sacramento Kings should continue to build for the end of Golden State’s run. The Paul trade makes Magic Johnson’s pursuit of George a more complicated proposition, especially if Houston or Boston adds him to a win-now super-team.
The Memphis Grizzlies, Portland Trail Blazers, Denver Nuggets and New Orleans Pelicans can only shake their heads as the separation between the middle and the top of the West just widened.
As for the Dallas Mavericks, they might have it the worst of all. It was Paul who helped convince DeAndre Jordan to renege on his deal to join the Mavs in free agency two years ago, only to force his way to the rival Rockets by threatening to leave as a free agent this week. That began Dallas’ slow fade into the lottery. So, yeah, the Chris Paul trade altered the Western Conference landscape a bit.
All that said, the Warriors are still a heavy favorite to win the conference, most likely making the West finals a dead-end proposition for all involved, even if the road there looks a little different.
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