Better Call Paul By Jackie MacMullan
It had been yowling at him for weeks, ever since his implosion in Game 6 of the Western Conference semifinals, when the most efficient offensive player in the NBA had wilted in the most critical game of his life. Most of the communication he'd received was sympathetic. Text messages like "u OK?" or "stay strong," even "praying for u."
Harden had dodged it all by simply not responding, but it was harder to ignore the criticism that had seemingly obliterated his season. Remember his league-leading 15 win shares? Remember how he was the first player in NBA history with 2,000 points, 900 assists and 600 rebounds? All forgotten, reduced to rubble in the wake of his inexplicable collapse.
In that elimination loss on May 11, a 39-point beatdown at home, Harden appeared so discombobulated that speculation mounted that he'd played concussed after an errant Pau Gasol elbow the game before. Harden rejected that notion, assumed full responsibility for the debacle -- including his 2-for-11 shooting, 6 fouls and 6 turnovers -- then retreated to Atlanta for some privacy and reflection. "Sometimes," Harden says, "I want to sit in my little box and be left alone."
Now, on June 25, Harden was dining with friends in LA when his phone lit up. Again. He glanced at his caller ID and excused himself from the table.
"Gotta take this one," he said. When he stepped outside, the name on the screen gleamed back at him: Chris Paul.
"I'm in," Paul said.
"What do you mean you're in?" Harden asked. Harden and Paul were friends, and they had traded texts throughout the season. CP3, he knew, was examining his pending free agent options, and Harden was hopeful Houston was on Paul's short list, but he was in the dark about where Paul was leaning.
"I mean I'm in," Paul repeated. "I want to come to Houston. I want to play with you."
Rockets general manager Daryl Morey had lusted after Paul for more than a decade. He was part of a Celtics staff back in 2005 that tried to deal its star, Paul Pierce, on draft night for the rights to the rookie point guard. As Houston's GM, Morey tried to trade for Paul in December 2011, when he was dealt from New Orleans to the Clippers. In 2013, the last time CP3's contract was up, Morey presented him with a custom-designed Chris Paul and Little Chris bobblehead. The rendition of the point guard and his son didn't land them a face-to-face free agency meeting, but for some reason, even after Paul re-upped with the Clippers, he held on to that bobblehead.
And Morey held on to the dream.
So it was that in Morey's war room this offseason, Houston's 2017 free agency whiteboard was dominated by his "decision tree": a phalanx of available players, myriad numbers, some arrows, formulas, hypotheticals and one name circled in red marker: Chris Paul.