May 10, 2019 marked the last time Chris Paul departed the court of the Toyota Center as a member of the Houston Rockets. His near triple-double performance (27 Pts, 11 Rebs, and 6 Ast) was not enough to keep the Rockets from falling to the Kevin-Durant-less Golden State Warriors in a 118-113 Game 6 loss. At the conclusion of the six-game series during the Western Conference Semifinals, a somber Paul took the podium with no explanation of how the Rockets can improve from their most recent failure when asked by a local reporter.
To endure the pain of having their season end once again at the hands of the Warriors was a tough pill to swallow, but the agony of failure in 2019 took on a different tone as Paul reflected on the events that transpired over the past 24 months. In fact, the high-water mark was a season before. How did we get there?
After winning 55 games in 2017, the Rockets entered the offseason with the sense they had established the foundational piece to a championship-contending team. Under the stewardship of Coach of the Year winner Mike D’Antoni, Houston greatly exceeded the low expectations of the previous season (41 wins in 2016).
Despite their renewed success, Rockets’ management made a major change to their roster in the summer of 2017 by acquiring Chris Paul from the Los Angeles Clippers in exchange for Patrick Beverley, Sam Dekker, Montrezl Harrell, Darrun Hilliard, DeAndre Liggins, Lou Williams, Kyle Wiltjer, a future first-round pick, and cash considerations. In what could have been a one-year rental given his pending free agency, the trade was a tremendous risk for Houston and raised several concerns about Paul’s and James Harden’s ability to share the court as two dominant ball handlers.
In their first season, Harden and Paul thrived together as teammates to establish themselves as the best dynamic duo in the league. The Rockets finished the 2018 season with a franchise-best 65 wins and received homecourt advantage throughout the postseason with the league’s best record.
Harden finally obtained his long-awaited MVP award, averaging a then-career-high 30.4 points and 8.8 assists — while shooting 44.9% from the field, 36.7% from behind the arc. Injuries hindered Paul to 58 games — averaging 18.6 points — but the Rockets’ success went beyond their All-Star tandem. With contributions coming from Eric Gordon (18.0 ppg), Trevor Ariza (11.7 ppg) and P.J. Tucker (37.1% 3PT), Houston possessed the league’s top offense and the sixth-best defense in 2018. Clint Capela took another step forward in his development, finishing second for Most Improved Player honors, averaging 14.0 points, 10.8 rebounds, and 1.9 blocks.
After a record-setting season, the Rockets breezed through the first two rounds of the playoffs, eliminating the Timberwolves (4-1) and the Jazz (4-1) en route to their second Western Conference Finals appearance in three years. Once again, standing in Houston’s path to the NBA Finals was their arch-nemesis Golden State Warriors.
One season removed from capturing their second title in three years, Golden State took a small step back in their regular-season dominance compared to years prior. They finished the season with the second-best record in the West, standing at 58-24, but they annihilated their playoff opponents (Spurs and Pelicans) — entering the Conference Finals with an 8-2 post-season record.
Unlike their previous two playoff matches, the Rockets entered the series with a slight mental advantage after defeating the Warriors in two of their regular-season outings. Both ball clubs split the first four games of the series to set up a pivotal Game 5 back on the Rockets’ home court.
Behind a heroic act from Paul, the future Hall of Famer proved why the Rockets took a chance on the aging star. Paul scored 20 of the Rockets’ 53 second-half points to lead Houston to a 98-94 victory over the Warriors to take a 3-2 series lead. The highlight of the night came when Paul connected on a fade-away 3-point field in the face of Stephen Curry as the shot clock expired. While running down the court due to a change of possession, Paul mocked Curry using his signature Shimmy Dance after hitting the ridiculous 3-point basket.
The celebration inside the Toyota Center quickly turned into despair even in a win. In the closing seconds of Game 5, Paul suffered a Grade 2 hamstring strain — which caused him to miss Game 6 and 7 of the Conference Finals. With Paul sidelined, the Rockets dropped back-to-back games and were eliminated from the playoffs in a 101-92 Game 7 loss. Even with Paul sidelined, it took a historically horrific shooting night — missing 27 straight 3-pointers — and some equally horrific officiating to prevent the Rockets from advancing to the Finals for the first time since 1995.
Had Paul not injured his hamstring after Game 5, the 2018 season very well could have ended with a championship title. Houston had all the momentum and confidence to close out the Warriors in six, and the Cleveland Cavaliers didn’t have the depth to be a challenge — even with LeBron James playing the best of his career.
Instead of holding the Larry O’Brien trophy in June, the 2018 season marked the most notable missed opportunity in Rockets’ franchise history. And after an embarrassing loss to the Warriors one year later, a somber Paul was left speechless as he reflected on the events that transpired over the past 24 months. In July of 2019, the Rockets parted ways with Paul in a deal to the Thunder exchange for Russell Westbrook.
To vote the 2018 Rockets as the best team who fell short of winning a title, please visit SB Nation’s, “The quest to find the best NBA team to never win a championship,” by Mike Prada.