Nine-time All-Star Chris Paul getting traded to the Houston Rockets was one of the biggest storylines of this past offseason.
Creating perhaps the most dangerous backcourt duo in the entire NBA, Paul’s playmaking ability was added to one of the best preexisting offensive attacks in the league, lead by MVP runner-up James Harden under coach Mike D’Antoni’s system.
“We talked about the ultimate goal, and that's winning [it all]. Neither one of us have had the opportunity to do that,” Paul said of Harden at his introductory press conference. “We talked about how good that would feel. That's probably what I'm most excited about, is to be on this journey with somebody else who wants it as bad as I do.”
After just one game, the team revealed that Paul would be out for a few weeks after suffering an injury that was vaguely labeled as a left knee issue.
In his absence, the Rockets have gone 7-3, and at 8-3 overall, they’re in first place in the Western Conference. Therefore, they don’t exactly need to rush Paul back before he's at full health. Not only has James Harden continued to do his thing, but shockingly, Eric Gordon has emerged as a top 10 scorer, averaging 23.1 points per game.
Naturally, there are a few questions about Paul’s return. What happens with Gordon, who is on an absolute tear? How will the ball-handling duties be split between him, Gordon and Harden? Will he start or come off the bench? How many minutes will he play? Rotationally, what makes sense?
“It's going to set us back - no doubt about it,” D’Antoni told Sam Amick of USA TODAY Sports by phone over the weekend. “There's going to be a learning curve.”
Set to return sometime within the next two weeks, Paul said “Um, he's probably right,” regarding his coach’s prediction.
“Now he's getting back on the floor, where he's now shooting foul shots, shooting a little bit. He's been working his butt off,” D’Antoni said. “He's been boxing all the time, and doing stuff with water, running in the water...and treading water and all that. He's going to be in shape, and he's trying to take his anxiety and frustration out on working out. But it's normal stuff...It's (only) unique because he just got here, and we have all this going on.”
Although he’s been limited to the weight room and the pool, CP3 has still been an active member of the team.
“We won't know really what we look like until I get back out there,” Paul said. “(But) man, I'm learning so much - so much. …I think the biggest thing that we talk about as a team is communication, so we're trying to make sure we continue to get better and better at that - especially on the defensive end.”
While the Rockets have been a dominant offensive team under D’Antoni, their deficiency has been on the defensive side of the ball. Paul seems to be aware of that and thinks he can help the situation as one of the best perimeter defenders at the point guard position.
“Coming from a different team, you talk about what was the perception of this team when you were at another team," Paul explained. "People a lot of times don't think about that. You want to know, so you try to make sure that you can try to correct those things…We want to play up-tempo and all that different type of stuff, but it's no secret that the NBA champions (for) the past six, seven years have all been top 10 in defense.”
D’Antoni seems to value his veteran point guard’s input. Echoing Paul’s words about open communication, he made it a point to mention that he and Paul are a cohesive unit.
“He's seeing things where we can get better, what we need to do,” D’Antoni noted. “A lot of (his feedback) is personnel driven. He knows the league really well, and what works with guys. We talk about plays. We talk about everything.”
If the Rockets can figure out how to best utilize Paul over the course of the long, 82-game regular season, they should remain a viable contender in the Western Conference and could potentially challenge the Golden State Warriors down the stretch. As the team’s prized addition in the offseason, Paul will have a major role in determining their ceiling.