When the Golden State Warriors lost Kevin Durant to a calf injury, the door was wide open for the Houston Rockets to beat them in the second round and be the favorite to go the NBA Finals out of the West.
But a second straight disappointing playoff exit at the hands of the Warriors, this time with everyone on their side healthy, invites concern the Rockets will never get over that particular hump as currently constructed.
Shams Charania of The Athletic has offered a look at some of the Rockets’ turmoil, within that Game 6 season-ending loss to Golden State and possibly looking forward.
Charania passed along indications of “tense moments” between James Harden and Chris Paul during that Game 6.
But Harden and Paul had tense moments with one another throughout Game 6, culminating in a verbal back-and-forth postgame that went into the locker room, sources with knowledge of the situation told The Athletic. Sources said the verbal exchange between Harden and Paul was regarding the ball distribution throughout Game 6. By the time the remainder of the locker room was ready to talk, Paul and Harden had gone their separate ways, with Paul swiftly making his way to the postgame podium.
Harden defines the term “ball dominant guard”, and due in part to injuries around him for a stretch he led the league in usage rate this past season (40.5 percent).
So when the Rockets acquired Paul, who similarly needs the ball in his hands to be most effective, it seemed to be a strained fit. It seems it took one season for issues to surface.
There was something of a clash of styles brewing throughout the Rockets season, with members of the team — most notably Paul — having spirited discussions with Mike D’Antoni about the offense and pushing for more movement, league sources told The Athletic. That type of fast-paced, ball-moving offense is what D’Antoni thrived with in Phoenix, and to the two-time Coach of the Year’s credit, he has adapted it in Houston to allow Harden to succeed in his game.
The Rockets don’t have the space to sign a significant free agent this summer, and the 34-year old Paul is owed just over $124 million over the next three seasons
Guard Eric Gordon, who is in line for a contract extension, suggested a change in style may be in order for the Rockets
“Sharing the ball, getting up and down and attacking. “We’re not doing that anymore.” “We’re just not using some guys the right way.”
Paul is coming off a down year, and he’s clearly in decline. He averaged a career-low 15.6 points per game while shooting a career-low 41.9 percent from the floor during the regular season this year, as he also played just 58 games for the second time in as many seasons with the Rockets.
His usage rate also dropped to 22.5 percent, continuing a downward trend since his second-to-last-season with the Clippers.
It’s truly a grind to watch Harden dribble incessantly during Rockets’ possessions. But that doesn’t mean he should directly defer to Paul, who delivered, in summary of what was read on Twitter at one point, “mid-level exception production with a max salary” this past season.
Their big contracts guarantee that Harden and Paul are stuck together for the next three seasons.
The Rockets are married to the playoff underachieving Harden-Paul duo through thick and thin. Even with emotions surely high within the team after a playoff loss, a surprising thin period may be coming if Harden and Paul can’t get on the same page.