The Warriors are down, injured, and defeated. The Nuggets are missing another key piece. The Lakers still lack depth. Truth is, the Western Conference has never been so wide-open. Two years ago, the Houston Rockets would have died to take advantage of the opportunity. Now, they are too busy killing each other.
This past season was one of disappointment for the Rockets — who faced the Warriors in the second round only to be eliminated in six games. While their underwhelming performance could be attributed to an aging roster who last some depth, much of it also involved the strained relationship between Chris Paul and James Harden.
The tension between the stars has reached a breaking point, and the Rockets suffered as a result.
Harden is arguably the best isolation player in league history, capable of carrying the Rockets to elite offensive efficiency by going one-on-one over and over again. That style also worked well for Paul during the Rockets’ 65-win campaign in 2017-18, when Paul ranked behind only Harden in isolation efficiency among high-volume players.
But Paul noticeably lost a step last season, as evidenced by analytics and the eye test. Paul pushed for more plays and sets in the Houston offense, more screening and deception, despite Harden being in the process of putting together a historically dominant individual offensive season.”
“Chris wants to coach James,” says a source familiar with the stars’ dynamic. ‘James looks at him like, ‘You can’t even beat your man. Just shut up and watch me.'”
According to sources, Paul was also frustrated by what he perceived as Harden’s tendency to ignore unglamorous details that impact winning — such as moving when he gives up the ball to help spacing — and wasn’t shy about expressing those concerns.
Now, as Macmahon notes, Paul enjoys his time with Harden off the floor more than he does with Harden on it.
It has reached a point, team sources say, where Paul cherishes the chance to play without Harden on the floor. On several occasions, according to team sources, Paul barked at D’Antoni to keep Harden on the bench while he was running the second unit. Harden simultaneously would lobby — or demand — to check back into the game.
Will the injuries to Golden State prompt Paul and Harden to settle their differences? It is hard to say, but they might not have a choice. Despite Daryl Morey’s attempts to make a deal, Paul’s monster contract is a commitment no team in the league is willing to trade for.
So, unless they find a way to co-exist, CP3 and James Harden will have have to suffer in Houston until one of them finds a way out. Things are far worse than we all thought.