Contract Aside, Chris Paul Is Thinking Long-Term in Houston

On paper, Chris Paul is only bound to the Rockets through June 2018. That’s because it was a trade that sent him to Houston, rather than as an outright signing in free agency. 

Listen to him speak, though — or better yet, pay attention to the context of the many other moves made by GM Daryl Morey this summer — and it’s clear that timeline is a mere technicality.

That’s why Friday’s #CP3Day event at Toyota Center, including Paul’s first press conference with the media and his ensuing introduction to adoring fans, wasn’t about recruitment. Rather, it was a celebration of a decision already made.

"I haven’t been this excited about basketball in a long time,” said Paul, who averaged 18.1 points and 9.2 assists in 31.5 minutes per game as the point guard of the Los Angeles Clippers last season, including a lofty Player Efficiency Rating (PER) of 26.2 and a selection to the NBA's All-Defensive First Team. 

“To be here now at this point in my career, it's all about winning,” added Paul, who had a large contingent of extended family with him at Friday’s event. Many plan to move to Houston, reflecting the stability of his decision.

“There hasn’t been a day that's gone [since the trade] by that James [Harden] and I haven't talked,” Paul said. “It’ll definitely be an adjustment, but I'm truly excited. When you want to win, you'll do whatever it takes.”

Since the deal was first announced on June 28, one of the more frustrating narratives pushed by some fans and national writers is that the Rockets must “convince” their newest superstar to stay, or else he might leave when his contract expires next summer.

The reality, however, is that Paul already chose the Rockets long-term. He’s here specifically because he informed the Clippers that he was signing what would have been a four-year, max or near-max deal in free agency in Houston. In response, Los Angeles opted to trade their future Hall of Famer beforehand to recoup some value, and the Rockets were fine with Paul opting into the final year of his prior contract and executing the trade early because it allowed them to stay over the cap entering free agency. That sequencing preserved Houston’s full Mid-Level Exception, used to sign P.J. Tucker and Zhou Qi.

Additionally, the $24M cap figure that Paul will occupy in 2017-18 is ~$11M below what he would’ve taken up as a max signing in free agency. Besides the MLE, that $11M gave the Rockets even more wiggle room to pursue other big moves — including their ongoing dance with Carmelo Anthony in on-again, off-again trade discussions with the New York Knicks.

"Anything to help make this team better right now, that’s what we wanted to do,” Paul said of his choice to opt in. “It helped out both teams.”

“Nobody has ever left here because they wanted to leave,” owner Les Alexander said when asked about re-signing Paul in 2018.

The Rockets and Paul can’t publicly disclose it, but I have little doubt that both sides have already given their verbal commitment on the next contract. Other than James Harden, Paul is easily the second most important player on the roster. 

If Morey had concerns about his long-term willingness to stay in Houston, all he had to do was wait until July 1 and sign Paul to a four-year contract. Instead, based on the trust each side has in the other, they found a unique opportunity to sequence his inevitable max extension in such a way that allows the Rockets to build a better team around Paul before putting that max number on Houston’s books.

It’s also worth remembering that Houston isn’t the only one taking a leap of faith. Paul is 32 years old, and next summer he’ll be 33. While Paul has shown little, if any, signs of decline, many executives are hesitant to offer a long-term max contract to anyone at that age based on the league’s longstanding demographic trends. 

So for Paul to turn down a max deal this summer — potentially 5 years, over $200M with the Clippers, or 4 years, ~$150M in Houston, San Antonio, or elsewhere — to opt into essentially a 1-year, $24M contract wasn’t easy.

Nonetheless, that course of action gave the Rockets the best chance to build a winner around him. Just as importantly, the Rockets under Alexander have a sterling reputation around the league for treating their stars well — and just as the Rockets have reason to believe in Paul’s long-term commitment, Paul is choosing to trust the franchise just as much.

Technically, if things went catastrophically wrong, could Paul leave — since a deal isn’t signed? In theory, sure. Similarly, anyone could die in a car crash on a daily commute. But the risk is so small that it’s probably not worth significant consideration or worry. Even if by some remote chance Paul doesn’t click whatsoever, my guess is most Rockets fans would actually prefer him to leave so that they could take his massive projected cap figure and reallocate it elsewhere, rather than keeping a 33-year-old player making almost $40M per season for four years who isn’t working out.

Nonetheless, given the close friendship and stated commitment from both Paul and Harden, that’s an almost unfathomable doomsday scenario.

That’s not to say there won’t be any growing pains. As talented as they are, both Paul and Harden are ball-dominant players. Adjustments will need to be made, and the transition might even take more than a season. Remember, even the original “super team” of LeBron James’ Miami Heat fell short of a title in their first year together. And with Golden State Warriors setting the bar for a championship at a historically high level, both guards know it could take multiple seasons to develop the requisite chemistry to truly take them down. But they’re committed to that process.

“That's what I'm most excited about, to be on this journey with someone that wants it as bad as I do,” Paul said of Harden.

Other than Golden State, which won’t have any cap room, there’s no basketball situation that could offer Paul any real incentive to leave. Remember, Paul already chose Houston over San Antonio, and that came even before Harden signed an extension to stay through the 2022-23 season. The “sales pitch” from the Rockets is more money (Paul’s Bird rights transferred to Houston through the trade, allowing them to offer a fifth year that no other team can), the presence of a locked-in Harden at only 28 years old, a proven coach in Mike D’Antoni known for a point guard-friendly offense, and very possibly the presence of Anthony, Paul’s close friend. Unless you’re the Warriors, good luck matching that.

"No one’s ever put together two players this smart, this complementary and two of the best passers in NBA history,” Morey said of the Paul-Harden pairing.

So for Rockets fans, the excitement shouldn’t be tempered by the technicality of Paul’s contract. His choice to “opt in” wasn’t about keeping options open. Instead, it’s because Paul believes so strongly in the Rockets as his best chance to win that he delayed his inevitable payday by 12 months just to enable Morey to put the best team possible around him.

Point guards are often looked at as leaders, and in this case, that’s exactly what Paul — a no-doubt Hall of Famer in the years ahead — is doing. Consider it his first of many assists in Houston.

For further updates on the Rockets, including the rumored pursuit of Carmelo Anthony, stay tuned throughout the offseason on your home for the Houston Rockets, SportsTalk790!

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