NBA Teams
Zach Lowe, ESPN Senior Writer 168d

CP3-Harden Rockets coming for Warriors juggernaut

NBA, LA Clippers, Houston Rockets

Let's start production right now on the 30 for 30 about the 2015 conference semifinals between the Houston Rockets and the LA Clippers -- the series in which the Clips blew a 3-1 lead before blowing 3-1 leads was cool, and barfed away a 19-point cushion in the last 15 minutes of Game 6 at home.

That was the Clippers' chance, and they were never the same again. The players are still grappling with it. Two years later, they cannot explain what happened to them -- how they collapsed in Game 6 under a hail of Josh Smith 3-pointers, and then melted down in Game 7. It damaged their psyche.

They would have been underdogs against the 67-win Warriors in the next round, but Golden State hadn't achieved complete humiliating ownership of the Clippers yet. The Clips at least should have broken through to the NBA's final four -- uncharted territory for both a pathetic sad-sack franchise, and its superstar point guard. Instead, they sputtered, injuries submarined the next two seasons, and now that point guard -- the Point God, Chris Paul, a top-10 overall player -- is headed to Houston in a blockbuster deal, busting up an elite core four that had run its course.

The Clippers were right to keep their group together, despite the déjà vu postseason flameouts. Building 55-win teams is hard. Any group that good is a break or two from the NBA Finals. Blow it up early, and there is no guarantee you sniff that lofty territory ever again.

But that crumbling against Houston crystallized some of the issues that always dogged them: A thin, top-heavy team relying on creaky veteran role players (Matt Barnes), the coach's son, and classic Doc Rivers Boston-era retreads (including an embarrassingly out-of-shape Glen Davis) ran out of gas.

Yeah, filling out a roster with three max-level players is hard. Welcome to the first-world problems of competing for championships. Luc Richard Mbah a Moute was the closest thing GM Doc got to maximizing one of those fringe salary slots. They spent most of them on players who were good in the Eastern Conference in 2009. They traded one draft pick to Milwaukee because they didn't know the rules. They traded another for Jeff Green, because Rivers knew who he was.

They used the midlevel exception on Spencer Hawes and Wesley Johnson; the Warriors used theirs on Shaun Livingston. They waived Joe Ingles, which hilariously came back to haunt them in their first-round loss to Utah. They never found a James Johnson, or a draft pick who could contribute. Now Paul is gone, J.J. Redick is next, and the greatest era in Clippers history -- a "thinnest kid in fat camp" designation, to be sure -- is over even if Blake Griffin returns.

(The teams set to court Griffin -- especially Boston and Miami -- may end up losers here. Only one team can sign Gordon Hayward, and the Clippers will refocus now on locking up the Hayward consolation prize. Look for them to roll out a five-year offer, despite Griffin's injury history. Boston also owns a 2019 lottery-protected Clippers pick that converts into a second-rounder in 2020 --- a pick that is a little harder to appraise today. San Antonio had its eyes on Paul, but will flip to Plans B and C.)

This was a fun team that played gorgeous, precise basketball. It is gone.

At some point, a team stops believing it can win. Players get tired of each other, and yearn to try new things. The culture had eroded. Insiders complained about a lack of accountability -- about practices and shootarounds starting late, and Austin Rivers carrying himself like an anointed superstar. (This appears to have gotten better over the past year-plus, and Rivers has clearly earned his keep as a plus reserve.)

The relationship between Paul and Doc Rivers frayed, sources say. The Clippers may push the idea that they were hesitant to offer Paul a fifth season on the back of his deal, and they surely were. No team is thrilled about earmarking $40 million-plus for a 37-year-old. But they probably would have gone there to keep Paul. Bereft of draft picks, they are not set up well to rebuild. The alternative may be despair.

They did well to snag one pick and four rotation players, including two interesting young frontcourt guys in Sam Dekker and Montrezl Harrell, for a free agent who was about to leave anyway. Houston would have shed some of the players to clear cap space for Paul in free agency, so they were losing a chunk of their rotation either way.

Unloading Ryan Anderson to sign Paul outright would have helped Houston keep one of their outgoing guards, but the market for the three years and $60 million left on Anderson's deal was frigid. Not even the Kings wanted him for free. At least two teams would have demanded two Houston first-round picks in exchange for absorbing Anderson, according to several league sources.

Trading for Paul now, using a bunch of non-guaranteed deals Daryl Morey gathered like a squirrel hoarding acorns, allows Houston to start free agency over the cap -- and maintain access to the full midlevel and biannual exceptions, worth more than $8 million and $3 million respectively, in luring veterans to fill the roster.

Good for the Rockets: They are trying to win. The "Why even try competing with the Warriors?" chilling effect is real, but it may be limited to Boston and a few bad teams keeping their powder dry. San Antonio wants a true shot against Golden State. Denver is chasing Kevin Love. Minnesota, stuck in a decade-plus playoff drought, just robbed Chicago of Jimmy Butler. Washington, with so much losing in the rearview, is pursuing Paul George, sources say. The league isn't giving up in the face of the Warriors juggernaut.

This is a worthy, fascinating gamble for Houston that will force Morey and Mike D'Antoni to reimagine a go-go, 3s-and-rim-only attack in which James Harden served as alpha and omega. Paul likes to play slow, pound the ball, bark out orders in over-choreographed half-court sets, and jack midrange shots. Every bit of that runs counter to how Houston played last season.

And that's OK. Harden and Paul can share, and be better for it. Almost every championship team in history meshed two ball-dominant stars who learned to play off of each other. A lot of those duos and trios didn't bring the combined outside shooting of Harden and Paul. Both are useful away from the ball. Paul has hit 40 percent from deep in two of his past three seasons. Harden has shot much better than his blah overall mark from deep on open catch-and-shoot 3-pointers -- the kind of looks he should see more alongside Paul.

Houston can stagger minutes so that one is always on the floor, and each gets ample time to run solo. Paul is one of the best crunch-time shot-makers of his generation, but he has too often been asked to take every late-game shot -- a heavy burden for a 6-foot-nothing guard peeking over and around elite wing defenders. He has never teamed with a perimeter playmaker like Harden.

Doing everything for Houston took its toll on Harden, too. The Rockets' season effectively ended with Harden settling for lazy step-back 3s in an overtime loss to the Spurs in Game 5 of the conference semifinals.

Even Houston's cruel and efficient offense can use a dose of unpredictability in the playoffs. Stingy postseason defenses have held Houston below its regular-season scoring mark two years in a row, and the gap got bigger this season. The Spurs exposed the formula: Encourage Harden to drive, plant a tall guy near the rim, stick close to shooters, and concede midrange jumpers Houston will never take.

It worked. Houston's scoring fell off. It exchanged a bunch of catch-and-shoot triples for much harder off-the-bounce attempts.

Paul is one of the greatest midrange shooters ever. The Rockets should let him take those shots. They are good looks for Paul, and they will loosen up better looks for teammates. If opponents suddenly have to defend the midrange, other spaces will open.

Paul is a feisty post-up player who can run pick-and-rolls from weird angles. He is an even better defender than Patrick Beverley.

The deal leaves Houston thin -- for now. The Rockets need bigs to back up both Ryan Anderson and Clint Capela. Houston cannot rely on Anderson for 30 minutes a night in the playoffs; he is too much of a liability on defense.

They still have the same structural problems against Golden State: too many unmotivated defenders, some guys who struggle switching positions, and a big guy (Capela) the Warriors will ignore to at least some degree when the Rockets have the ball. They lose a little of the microwave factor with Lou Williams leaving, but Golden State would eat the poor guy alive.

Good news: The Rockets have all their exceptions. They coaxed Nene Hilario for less than $3 million last season; would the biannual exception, worth about $3.3 million, do the trick this time around? They can find someone useful with the $8.4 million midlevel. It might not be enough for Patrick Patterson or JaMychal Green -- a restricted free agent -- but it could net Mike Muscala, P.J. Tucker, Zaza Pachulia, Kyle Korver, or a combination of cheaper guys. The tax benefits of playing in Texas are real; just ask Paul.

Houston is not done star-chasing, either. The Rockets will beat down Indiana's door for Paul George, though they may not have enough -- either on their own, or in conjunction with a third team. Boston, Cleveland, and the Lakers should be able to beat an offer of Eric Gordon, salary filler, and a top-three protected Houston future first-round pick. (The salary filler probably can't be Trevor Ariza, by the way. Ariza and Paul are close after years together in New Orleans, and playing with Ariza factored at least a little into Paul's decision, per league sources. The Clippers had tried to trade for him in prior seasons, sources say. Ariza is also still good at a coveted position, and his Bird rights will be valuable to a capped-out Rockets team next summer.)

Carmelo Anthony is a different matter. If the Knicks buy him out -- and they shouldn't, but we are talking about the Kazoos -- he could soak up a lot of power forward minutes in working as Team USA Melo, spotting up around stud ball-handlers. He would also be an interesting, borderline switch-proof pick-and-roll partner for both Harden and Paul, but we are getting ahead of ourselves.

There is major downside risk for Houston. If the Rockets really re-sign Paul to his five-year max after this season -- a gift in exchange for Paul opting in and costing himself a bit of cash -- the back-end of that deal will be painful. It will take time for Harden and Paul to mesh, and there is always the possibility it doesn't work as well as the Rockets hope -- that they won't be more than the sum of their parts. Paul is a domineering personality who has always wanted to play his way. He must adapt.

But if you have a superstar in his prime, as Houston does with Harden, you might as well try like hell to win. There is no time to waste, not even with Golden State lording over the league. Injuries happen, and it's unclear if the Warriors will swallow unprecedented payroll bills approaching $400 million once Klay Thompson's new deal kicks in for the 2019-20 season.

Last season's Houston team approached its ceiling. This version has a higher one.

For the Clippers, this is about as well as they could do in crisis-response mode. They even got a pick to restock the cupboard Rivers raided in ill-fated deal after ill-fated deal. Beverley is a beast on a ridiculous contract that runs two more seasons. He helps on the court, and as a trade asset. Sam Dekker and Harrell are worth a look. The Clips won't have any cap room after July 1 unless Griffin leaves, and they won't have any next summer if both Griffin and DeAndre Jordan remain on the books. (Today's move would appear to detonate the pipe dream of LeBron James ever signing here, by the way.)

Teams called about Jordan last week, perhaps anticipating the Clippers pivoting into a rebuild, sources say. The Clippers listened. They may listen harder now. The floor was always cramped with Griffin and Jordan, even though Griffin finally flashed a real 3-point shot last season. They compensated with Redick's outside shooting, and the combined passing brilliance of Paul and Griffin. Without an all-time point guard, the Griffin-Jordan fit will be a little more awkward.

Jordan will be an unrestricted free agent after next season if he so chooses. The last time he hit free agency, the Clippers had to sequester him in a house and lock out Mark Cuban. With Paul gone, they should examine every option -- including swapping Jordan for future assets.

The Clippers' and D'Antoni's offenses represented two of the league's most known, certain commodities. Close your eyes, and you could see how each played out on the court. In one move, both transform into wild-card unknowns. The NBA's crazy summer has already started.

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