On June 28, 2017, the Rockets made one of the biggest trades in franchise history, trading eight players for future Hall-of-Fame point guard Chris Paul.
The trade came with a lot of praise, but a lot of criticism as well.
How will he make it work with James Harden?
He’s never made it to the Conference Finals.
He’s not a playoff performer.
I think it is safe to say that Paul disproved all three of those criticisms this season. Despite missing a good chunk of the first quarter of the season with a hamstring injury, CP3 turned the Rockets from a good team into a great team. Even though he averaged his lowest assist total since his rookie year, CP3 was assisting the team in other ways with his leadership and his ability to slow the tempo down in a game with his iso-ball.
It is not a coincidence that the Rockets won their first 15 games with CP3 on the floor and the Rockets finished 49-9 in the regular season when Paul played and 16-8 when he did not. In the playoffs, the Rockets 11-4 when he played and unfortunately, 0-2 when he did not, thus ending their season.
CP3’s injury suffered in Game 5 will be one of the biggest what-ifs in Rockets history, and it showed, because CP3 was the biggest difference-maker on this year’s team compared to last year’s. Just look at the numbers:
The number that stands out to me the most is the Playoff Opponent ORtg when CP3 is on the court vs. when he is not. Opponents had a 113.7 ORtg when he did not play versus a 105.6 ORtg when he did.
CP3’s attitude towards defense is what changed this team now than what it was a year ago. The Rockets’ defensive rating this season was 103.6, ranking sixth in the league. This was a major jump from a year ago when the Rockets ranked 17th with a 106.4 defensive rating.
With CP3 off the floor in the last two games of the Conference Finals, the Rockets looked more like the team they were last year, living and dying by the three and below average on defense, and that team was nowhere near on the same level as the back-to-back champion Warriors were.
What makes the best players in the league that much better is if he makes the guys around him better, and CP3 definitely did that. His lobs to Clint Capela sometimes mirrored his passes he would complete to DeAndre Jordan in his Clippers days, but more importantly, his presence and leadership allowed James Harden to take that extra step.
Paul’s ability to create offense allowed Harden to not have to exert all his energy on the offensive end, which freed up his defensive game. This season, we saw possibly the greatest defensive season in Harden’s career, at least with Houston. And with his scoring abilities on offense, Harden was also able to create a more well-rounded game on the offensive end as well.
Yes, Harden is the one who will be the MVP, but CP3 deserves a lot of that credit. In most circumstances, the league MVP is the best player on the best team in the league. And this season, the Rockets were the best team in the league, thanks in large part to the major differences Chris Paul made for the team.