Hot takes we might actually believe: These Rockets already reached their peak

Yahoo Sports
The <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nba/teams/hou" data-ylk="slk:Houston Rockets">Houston Rockets</a> got all they could out of James Harden and <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nba/players/3930/" data-ylk="slk:Chris Paul">Chris Paul</a> last season, but they need more. (Getty Images)
The Houston Rockets got all they could out of James Harden and Chris Paul last season, but they need more. (Getty Images)

The NBA season is almost upon us, but Hot Take SZN is here, and at the end of another eventful summer we will see how close to the sun we can fly and still stand the swelter of these viewpoints. 

• Hot take we might actually believe: LeBron’s Lakers won’t make the NBA playoffs
• Hot take we might actually believe: The Celtics will win the NBA championship

The strained right hamstring that kept Chris Paul out of Games 6 and 7 in the Western Conference finals and all but ended any hope the Houston Rockets had of upsetting the Golden State Warriors was a bitter finish to an otherwise delectable season, but it shouldn’t have come as a huge surprise.

While playing for the Los Angeles Clippers, Paul missed the first two games of an eventual conference semifinals loss to the Rockets with a strained left hamstring in 2015. He missed the final two games of an opening-round playoff series loss to the Portland Trail Blazers with a fractured right hand in 2016. And while he made it through a seven-game loss to the Utah Jazz in 2017, Clips coach Doc Rivers conceded the nine-time All-Star “got a little tired” by the end of a 40-minute win-or-go-home outing.

Last year’s postseason news came after injuries to Paul’s knee, adductor, groin, left hamstring and hip cost him a combined 24 games during the regular season. He missed a second straight All-Star bid as a result of those injuries. He’s played more than 70 games just once since leaving New Orleans in 2011 — the 82-game season that culminated in the hamstring injury against the Rockets three years ago.

Yet, the Rockets rewarded him with a fat four-year, $160 million contract that will take him past his 37th birthday, locking in his superstar backcourt pairing with James Harden for the foreseeable future.

The Rockets are essentially banking on catching lightning in a bottle again — recreating the storm that led to Harden’s MVP campaign, 65 wins, a No. 1 seed and a 3-2 advantage in the conference finals — with the very notable exception that Paul’s lengthy injury history cannot repeat itself into his mid-30s.

In other words … there’s a decent chance these Rockets have already reached their peak, right?

Paul’s contract, along with a $90 million deal for springy center Clint Capela, may have precluded Houston from retaining Trevor Ariza and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, two role-playing cornerstones of the gritty defense that transformed the Rockets from one-dimensional also-ran to balanced contender capable of both scoring with the Warriors and wreaking havoc on their star-studded wings. Ariza and LRMAM signed contracts elsewhere that would have cost the salary cap-strapped Rockets exponentially. In their place is James Ennis, who might mask one of their departures, but not both.

Houston also sent the two years and $41 million remaining on Ryan Anderson’s contract to the Phoenix Suns in exchange for Brandon Knight, who is already injured again, and Marquese Chriss, an interesting reclamation project whose original team was willing to dump him two years after drafting him eighth overall. That trade also carved out more playing time for Carmelo Anthony, the aging future Hall of Famer whose experiment as a third wheel on the Oklahoma City Thunder went bust, mostly because he wasn’t willing to accept a diminished role and can’t stop anyone on defense.

It’ll be interesting to see if the Rockets get more out of Melo than they did Anderson, another turnstile defender who averaged 12 points on 40 percent shooting from distance over two seasons in Houston.

The Rockets will still roll out a lineup of Harden, Paul, Capela, Eric Gordon and P.J. Tucker that can score with anybody and switch defensively. They will still win a ton of games. And they will still be the second-best team in the West, barring injury or a significant step forward from an Oklahoma City Thunder team that added some interesting pieces and might feel lighter on their feet without Melo.

But Houston also lost three guys who combined to shoot 37.4 percent on nearly 1,000 3-point attempts last season, one of whom was their most important defender against Kevin Durant. (Mbah a Moute would’ve been another, but he suffered a late-season shoulder injury that limited his effectiveness.) They replaced them with Ennis, Anthony and Chriss — a trio of players who combined to shoot 33.8 percent on 827 3-point tries in 2017-18. Only Ennis could even try to defend Durant at this point.

If it weren’t Rockets general manager Daryl Morey making these decisions, Houston would have made everybody’s list of biggest offseason losers. Even still, they managed to make most reasonable lists.

Maybe Harden and Paul create enough open looks for their new teammates to fill the percentage gaps, but even one fewer 3-pointer per game, a couple percentage points dropped on their jumpers, an extra basket or two allowed on the defensive end — any one of those things could close Houston’s net rating advantage over Golden State during the regular season and further the divide between them in the playoffs. The margin for error against the Warriors is minuscule, Houston’s championship window was even thinner, and they both might be voided by Golden State adding DeMarcus Cousins.

The tide could shift again if rumors of Houston’s pursuit of four-time All-Star Jimmy Butler bears fruit. The Rockets balked at including Tucker to a package centered around Gordon, according to ESPN’s Stefano Fusaro, which should tell you how stretched thin Morey believes his roster to be — or how little general managers around the league think of Butler’s potential fit on a star-studded roster.

You can bet Morey will be active on the trade and buyout markets throughout this season, but the chasm between the Warriors and their biggest threat last season widened over the summer. There’s a team out East that may have already surpassed the Rockets as the NBA’s top challenger, and Paul isn’t getting any getting younger. Morey’s plan this summer to piece his brainchild together included a 34-year-old Melo and the ghost of former Rookie of the Year Michael Carter-Williams, who could be thrust into additional action if either of Houston’s future Hall of Fame guards meets with an injury.

The Rockets still have a chance to reach the mountaintop, which is more than most teams can claim, but their sherpa is running low on oxygen, they’ve run out of reinforcements, and their fall from grace could be a steep one. At least that’s what I would say if I were plying my trade in the hot-take industry.

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Ben Rohrbach is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at rohrbach_ben@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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