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Houston Rockets' Kevin Porter Jr. #3 drives the ball ahead of Phoenix Suns' Chris Paul #3 during the second half at Toyota Center on December 13, 2022 in Houston.

Houston Rockets’ Kevin Porter Jr. #3 drives the ball ahead of Phoenix Suns’ Chris Paul #3 during the second half at Toyota Center on December 13, 2022 in Houston.

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Harden could be enticed to stay in Philadelphia with Joel Embiid under a new coach and a new $250 million contract. He will be joined by Devin Booker and two-time former teammate Kevin Durant in Phoenix serving as a homecoming for the Arizona State product. Harden is said to be the Rockets’ top target as free agency approaches. That doesn’t mean Houston’s Nas Harden won’t be ready to hit free agency without pulling out.

The above scenario creates one way for a non-Harden guard to land on the Rockets. Coming into the desert, Harden would effectively fill the starting point guard duties in Phoenix, and the same could be said for Kyrie Irving. Forming the league’s new Big 3 would make Chris Paul an unnecessary piece, and the Suns could restock their depth by trading for a future Hall of Famer.

Should the Rockets be in the market for Paul if he’s available this summer? Let’s explore the potential for inclusion.

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James Harden #13 of the Houston Rockets draws offense from Chris Paul #3 of the Oklahoma City Thunder during the second quarter of Game 4 of the Western Conference First Round of the 2020 NBA Playoffs at Adven Health Arena at the ESPN Wide World Sports Complex on August 24, 2020 in Lake Bona Vista, Florida.

James Harden #13 of the Houston Rockets draws offense from Chris Paul #3 of the Oklahoma City Thunder during the second quarter of Game 4 of the Western Conference First Round of the 2020 NBA Playoffs at Adven Health Arena at the ESPN Wide World Sports Complex on August 24, 2020 in Lake Bona Vista, Florida.

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You could also argue that bringing in Paul Harden would provide a similar solution for a player in the late stages of his career without a major contract commitment. Paulus continues to be a prolific all-arounder as he enters his 19th year in 2023-24, with at least 114 players among 11 players having at least 500 assists this season. Paul is a perfect steward for the offense at best. For a Rockets offense that largely lacked consistent structure last season, perhaps Paul is the perfect solution.

However, I fear that the true version of Paul, who lifted Oklahoma City’s collection of young talent to a surprising playoff berth in 2019-20, may be a thing of the past, with recent production suggesting a cliff looms. This is not to disparage Paul, who is one of the top five or so point guards in NBA history. But look beyond Paul’s impressive assist-to-turnover ratio, and the extent of his potential impact may come into question.

This past season mirrored Paul’s last year in Houston to an impressive degree, with Paul shooting a career-worst 41.9 percent from the field in the 2018-19 campaign and a slump in scoring. Compared to his 65-win 2017-18 season, Paul’s explosiveness seems to have diminished from previous seasons, and in a Game 6 loss to Golden State in the Western Conference semifinals, Paul’s postseason shooting percentage is 27 percent. 3.4 turnovers per game from three to an ugly 5.5 assists. Paul’s fate in Houston seemed sealed when Harden walked off the stage postgame.

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Paul got his revenge in Oklahoma City’s lone season after being traded for Russell Westbrook by the Rockets in a once-promising-but-ultimately-wrong trade, retooling his body for a successful revenge campaign. Are we really sure he can pull off a career revival? Paul’s poor 2022-23 shooting percentage lined up against the eye test, creating little separation on defenders with a weakened burst. The trio of Paul, Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton averaged 114.6 points per 100 possessions in 2022-23, down from the previous two seasons. Paul is a proven pro with one of the game’s all-time great half-court drills. Whether he can spark a 10-plus-win surge from 2022-23 is a plausible proposition.

If Harden chooses to stay in Philadelphia this summer, it will be hard to criticize the Rockets for getting Paul. Paul is effectively under contract in 2023-24 with a non-guaranteed contract through the 2024-25 season, and the Rockets could easily part with their trade position (a non-lottery draft pick and/or some combination of KJ Martin, Jacen Tate or another non-core rotation player). Adding Paul will help ease the development process for new coach Ime Udoka as well as Jalen Green, the current face of the franchise will definitely benefit from Paul’s arrival to some extent.

While adding Paul might be a helpful step, God will sell the franchise’s potential for the next half-decade in favor of Harden. Harden—unlike Paul—is still an All-NBA talent, still capable of leading the NBA in assists and dropping 40 points in the playoffs. The Rockets are desperate to at least compete for a playoff spot next season, and as he enters his second NBA contract with the franchise, make it a priority to get Green meaningful playoff reps. Adding Paul did not necessarily accomplish such a mission. With Harden, the goal is more attainable.

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