Life after James Harden and Chris Paul

By Taylor Pate on October 14, 2018.

It’s no question that the aging roster for the Houston Rockets will eventually be a problem that general manager Daryl Morey will need to solve. Of the eight youngest players on the roster, only Marquese Chriss and Clint Capela have played significant minutes in the NBA. Chriss, entering his third season, was the 8th pick in the 2016 draft and was traded from Sacramento to Phoenix for a Kings (!) ransom. His short NBA career has been, speaking kindly, underwhelming so far. Clint Capela is an emerging young center, anchoring the Rockets’ defense on one end, catching lobs from Chris Paul and James Harden on the other. But neither of these players will carry a franchise which begs the question; where will the next generation of Rockets talent make its entrance?

Daryl Morey has a propensity for collecting role players in the second round of the NBA Draft who outperform their draft position. You can find Morey's fingerprints on numerous teams throughout the league. Robert Covington, Chandler Parsons, and Montrezl Harrell have all contributed to their respective teams in a big way and all were second round picks by Morey. The first round has not been so kind. Since Morey took the title of GM, his first round picks are as follows: Aaron Brooks, Nicolas Batum, Patrick Patterson, Marcus Morris, Nikola Mirotic, Jeremy Lamb, Royce White, Terrence Jones, Clint Capela, and Sam Dekker. There has certainly been more bust than boom in the first round for Morey, but it's important to realize how the Rockets came to their current position. Contention did not come overnight, nor did it come without a price.

The 2011-12 season marked the end of an era with beloved Rockets familiars like Yao Ming, Shane Battier, and Luis Scola all departing in this way or that. Houston had just signed Jeremy Lin, fresh out of New York on the heels of “Linsanity”. They were in full on rebuild mode. That is, until James Harden arrived. Daryl Morey took a risk trading for a sixth man, unproven as a leader and awaiting his chance at stardom, but Harden changed the landscape for the Rockets, and more importantly gave Morey the first puzzle piece that he'd had been searching for. But Morey wouldn’t stop there. His evergreen thirst for a championship, namely trying to catch the Golden State Warriors, led him to leverage future draft picks, younger players, and now over $40 million annually for superstar point guard Chris Paul. Morey’s venture has already proven fruitful, as James Harden won the MVP award, the Rockets obtained the first playoff seed and took the eventual champion Warriors to seven games in the Western Conference Finals. If not for an unfortunately timed injury and a poor shooting stretch, the Rockets may have paid back Morey’s vigilance in year one with a ring.

But Chris Paul is aging. Already 33, Paul signed a four-year, $160 million contract with the Rockets. Given that Chris Paul is able to play out this newly-signed contract at a moderately high level, the Rockets are probably looking at four years of definite contention. At the end of Paul’s contract, James Harden will be 33 years old and probably coming to the apex of his prime the way Paul is now. The question then becomes whether or not Daryl Morey chooses to get a return for the last years of Chris Paul or James Harden’s contracts, tanks for a lottery pick, or attempts to couple picks and players for a younger star.

It’s highly unlikely that the Rockets would be willing to part with James Harden at any point, even in his final years. James Harden is poised to retire as a member of the Houston Rockets. Chris Paul, on the other hand, may find it appealing to spend his twilight years in Los Angeles with his pal, LeBron James. In a (strictly hypothetical) situation like that, the Rockets could receive one of the promising young prospects from the Lakers, perhaps even a budding star at that point, in exchange for future picks and Paul’s contract. Much like the James Harden trade, Daryl Morey would be banking on a player taking a huge leap from one team to the next.

Sure, it’s possible to obtain a younger star via trade, but in many cases there is a glaring reason teams are willing to rid themselves of a franchise-caliber player. In recent memory, there’s Kawhi Leonard’s relationship with the Spurs falling through and Toronto, with no guarantees, risking its future to attempt to retain him. There’s the current Jimmy Butler-Minnesota Thib-serwolves saga, though Butler’s attitude has been a question mark as of late. Blake Griffin, oft-injured and aging quickly, was shipped to Detroit. DeMarcus Cousins, Isaiah Thomas, the list goes on and on. Teams simply don't want to give up on a star player unless there's an obvious negative to keeping that player around.

Tanking is not an option for the Rockets. As long as James Harden and Daryl Morey are around, the Rockets won't tank. Morey prefers to have more control over situations than leaving something like the future of a franchise up to a draft lottery, with ever-shrinking odds for teams willing to tank.

The immediate future of the Houston Rockets is in no danger of uncertainty. They will continue to be a title contender as long as James Harden and Chris Paul are around. In the years beyond Paul’s contract, the road to a championship becomes more cloudy. The Rockets will be looking to Daryl Morey to strike the same magic he did in 2012 and in the ever-changing scape of the NBA, there are no guarantees.

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