Chris Paul trade proves the Rockets had no choice but to respond to the NBA’s arms race

In the wake of the Houston Rocketsstunning trade for Chris Paul on Wednesday, one thing is clear: The Rockets realized they brought pistols to a machine gun fight for the title last season. The NBA’s arms race for stars had never been more serious.

The deal involved players off the Rockets’ roster — Patrick Beverley, Lou Williams, Sam Dekker, Montrezl Harrell, and Kyle Wiltjer. It also involved a virtual army of non-guaranteed players, whose contracts were acquired in a flurry of moves and cash considerations in a several-hour span on Wednesday.

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Free agency hasn’t even started yet. The next domino that could fall is Paul George through trade or Carmelo Anthony if he is bought out. The Rockets also have both the mid-level exception and bi-annual exception at their disposal, valued at $8.4 million and $3.2 million, respectively. They still have a couple non-guaranteed contracts left over from the players acquired and sent to Los Angeles, though George and Anthony may be out of reach for different reasons.

But the most important move has already been made: The league’s best playmaker of this generation is now sharing the backcourt with this season’s runner-up to MVP.

It doesn’t matter that the Rockets had the third-best record in the NBA last year. This is the new reality of the NBA, and general manager Daryl Morey isn’t done yet.

This is the environment that Golden State has created.

If the Rockets had stood pat or limited their offseason to smaller transactions, they would have been successful again. They may have won 55 games or maybe even pushed for 60.

Houston also didn’t need to trade for Lou Williams at last season’s deadline, though. Success is a sliding scale and the Rockets haven’t suffered through a losing season in 11 years. In 2015, they made it all the way to the Western Conference Finals. While another 55-win season would be exciting, it stands no chance against the increasingly top-heavy league. The team’s second-round exit proved that much.

Last seasons, the Rockets launched one of the bolder experiments we’ve seen in the past decade. They rallied around a single superstar, Harden, allowing him to dominate the offense in almost unprecedented ways. They hired Mike D’Antoni, signed players to fit his run-and-gun-and-gun-some-more offense, and launched hundreds of three-pointers. It worked.

But the one-superstar approach ultimately wasn’t a philosophical transformation for Morey. It was a necessity to revive the cache of the franchise. Throughout Morey’s decade in Houston, he has almost always had multiple stars: Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming; Harden and Dwight Howard; an attempt to sign Chris Bosh in 2014 to join Harden and Howard that fell through. Faced with a league whose contenders are rushing to acquire superstars — and an embarrassing Game 6 loss to San Antonio with Kawhi Leonard out — the Rockets always had to find their way back to multiple stars.

Chris Paul does just that.

Now the biggest question is whether Paul can coexist with Harden.

This should work. Hell, this should do more than work. It’s not two centers trying to coexist in a crowded paint, but two ball-handlers surrounded by shooters in an offense that generated the third-most possessions in the league last year. Harden thrived playing off the ball more often back when he was a sixth man in Oklahoma City. Paul only managed to shoot 1.1 catch-and-shoot three-pointers per game last season, but he hit them at a dazzling rate of 49 percent.

Both will have to embrace touching the ball less than they did last season, but it seems like Paul is already desiring to do just that. In D’Antoni’s offense, and for the sake of Harden not wearing down like we saw him do in the playoffs, the on-court fit should be both complementary and devastating. As their coach has already said:

It will take some readjusting for both players, especially Paul, who has played slow most of his career. But if anyone can do it, Paul seems capable. This team could — and really, should — compete with the Warriors for the best offensive rating in the league.

Harden was often asked to carry weaker five-man units last year so D’Antoni could group his best players together in a bench mob that made up for the lack of a true point guard. (Houston roasted the Thunder in the first round this way.) As long as D’Antoni staggers the rotations right (and he will), that won’t be necessary again. One of either Harden and Paul will always be on the floor, always providing an elite floor general for D’Antoni’s downhill attack. If any of Paul’s defense prowess can rub off on Houston’s squad … whew, that’s dangerous.

Houston isn’t the “Seven Second Or Less” Suns, perhaps the most-famed offenses since the century started. When I spent time in Houston last March, D’Antoni told me he only wanted the team to “play at James’ speed,” not pick up the pace even quicker. Now this is Harden and Paul’s team — even if a George or an Anthony comes — and it’s what they make of it. With two players like that, we’re all expecting great things.

Even mostly watching the team from afar, I was fond of those 2016-17 Rockets. They were a fun batch who stretched the bounds of modern basketball and believed analytics even to a fault. (The Rockets will still shoot threes by the dozen, but Paul’s mid-range game might be the change of pace they need, especially in the playoffs.) I would have happily watched them for another season, even if their playoff ceiling had a cap.

But pragmatism always wins out. This is an arms race, and the Rockets weren’t going to be left behind. This is just the opening salvo proving that Houston has no intention of backing down.

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