The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

James Harden is the Rockets’ MVP, but their playoff hopes hinge on Chris Paul

Houston Rockets guard Chris Paul is back on the court and looms as the Western Conference's biggest X-factor with the postseason approaching. (Eric Christian Smith/AP)
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HOUSTON — Halfway through a stone-faced media scrum after Sunday’s practice, Chris Paul was suddenly gripped by a pang of nostalgia. A slight smile appeared as he explained that Dirk Nowitzki was his favorite player back in his high school days, that he had carefully studied the Big German’s shooting and landing mechanics. Within moments, the warm riff gave way to lament.

“It’s crazy the way this league goes,” the Houston Rockets guard said. “Some people [only] remember this Dirk. For those of us who played in this league then, the [2011] championship run that they had, that’s what I remember.”

Left unsaid? The same forces that lead some observers to forget Nowitzki’s peak power and influence as a revolutionary stretch forward are coming for Paul, too. Life for mid-30s NBA superstars is an unforgiving and endless series of comparisons to past heights. Look no further than Paul’s Banana Boat cohorts: Carmelo Anthony has been inactive since a 10-game stint with the Rockets, Dwyane Wade has launched a jersey-swapping retirement tour and even the indestructible LeBron James has appeared mortal.

Meanwhile, the 33-year-old Paul has been limited by a hamstring strain, posting career-lows in scoring, shooting percentage and Player Efficiency Rating. Regarded as the NBA’s best point guard for nearly a decade, Paul has missed significant chunks of the last three seasons and has been eclipsed by Stephen Curry in playoff success, Russell Westbrook in statistical achievements, Kyrie Irving in sneaker sales and Damian Lillard in all-star votes.

He’s entered a wistful stage, where major milestones, like passing Gary Payton for eighth on the NBA’s all-time assists chart, make him think first about missed opportunities.

“When I came into this league, I thought I was going to catch John Stockton in assists and steals,” Paul said after a 120-104 win over the Dallas Mavericks at Toyota Center on Monday night. “Every time I move up, I get reminded of how many games I’ve missed.”

During Paul’s latest absence, Houston regressed from being a serious contender that won 65 games and made the 2018 West finals to a wobbly platform for James Harden’s outrageous scoring feats. One sportsbook has dropped the Rockets’ title odds from 7/2 last summer to 13/1 this week, out of respect to shiny new objects like the Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers.

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The Rockets aren’t ready to be dismissed just yet, and Paul is a major source of their confidence. His recent play has been encouraging, with a near triple-double against the Oklahoma City Thunder on Saturday followed by 17 points, 11 assists and no turnovers in the win over Dallas.

“Our goal is to win a title and I think we can,” Coach Mike D’Antoni said. “Nothing has changed, not even close. We can beat anybody, anywhere, at any time.”

D’Antoni’s optimism is pure, but not foolish. There are plenty of extenuating circumstances to explain Houston’s step backward: Trevor Ariza’s summer departure dealt a sharp blow, Anthony went bust and one batch of imported role players (Brandon Knight, Marquese Chriss and Michael Carter-Williams) has already given way to a second (Austin Rivers, Kenneth Faried and Iman Shumpert).

Most importantly, injuries to Paul and center Clint Capela squeezed Harden from both directions. Houston’s three stars have appeared together in just 23 games this season, forcing Harden to take on a chunk of Paul’s playmaking duties while robbing the Rockets’ defense of its trusty backbone.

Harden has responded valiantly to the rotating faces around him, leading the league in points, minutes played and possessions used while scurrying to the top of the 2019 MVP ladder. The burden is taking its toll. After the exhausting loss to the Thunder, he was wrapped like a half-mummy, with gigantic ice packs covering his left shoulder and lower back. He merely nodded and muttered when asked about his health, his mind already fixed on playing through bumps and bruises.

“No one could be more valuable to a team than James is to us,” D’Antoni said. “He’s probably doing too much, but what else would you like us to do? We want to win. His scoring average is up. He got his body more in shape and committed to getting better on defense, understanding that it’s the last piece that could get him the championship. How many wins is he worth to us? Well, how many do we got?”

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Yet the Rockets (33-23) eye the upcoming all-star break as a turning point, when Harden’s one-man act will transition back into a three-ring circus. Paul has been working his way back for a few weeks, and Capela will soon return to stabilize the Rockets’ woeful defensive rebounding, which ranks 28th. With their major conference opponents staying silent at the trade deadline, Paul and Capela should provide a noticeable late-season boost for the No. 5 seed in the West.

“We are farther below our maximum potential than any other team in the West,” Rockets GM Daryl Morey said. “We need all of our guys to win a championship. We don’t have the luxury of Golden State, where they could lose a guy and still win.”

Once his core trio is back intact, D’Antoni plans to “mimic and duplicate” last year’s approach, staggering Harden and Paul so that one is always on the court. Houston has been plagued by inconsistent stretches within games, a bugaboo that can be partially explained by weaker play when Harden rests. While Paul guided the Rockets to a plus-6 net rating when Harden was on the bench in 2017-18, that mark has dropped to minus-1 this year.

Although Paul is in the first year of a four-year, $160 million contract, the Rockets don’t have buyer’s remorse, with D’Antoni claiming that his point guard can play for “four more years, no problem.” Houston stills view the Harden/Paul partnership as stabilizing and worthwhile, providing a clear offensive identity, aiding with recruiting low-cost free agents and keeping the Rockets among the Warriors’ top challengers.

“Having elite guys who get injured is vastly superior to having very good players who don’t get hurt,” Morey said. “To win the title, you have to have a lot of things go your way, from health to matchups to how well your guys play. But if you don’t have at least two elite players, you’re almost certainly not going to win the title.”

The balance of Houston’s season will be defined by Paul’s ability to consistently reach that elite level. If Harden guarantees that the Rockets will always be good, Paul is their path back to greatness.

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