The Z Report

Lance Zierlein: Chris Paul - the hero we needed

The Rockets might be James Harden's team, but Chris Paul (left) stepped up when needed the most. Tim Warren/Getty Images

This past January, I was lucky enough to be invited to a lunch that included Chris Paul. This was a small group of nine people who were basically gathered to act in an advisory role. When it was Paul’s turn to speak, it didn’t take long to recognize how special he was and why he was going to be the reason that this year could be different for the Rockets.

Paul is ball. All ball, all the time. He plays his game that night and then comes home and grabs a quick bite with his wife while watching games he has recorded from that evening. He’s looking for tells and advantages. How quickly does each referee allow players to get the ball so they can in-bound it after out of bounds plays? Which players loaf back on defense that he can exploit with hit-aheads? How do different point guards defend different scenarios offensively? He looks for any advantage he can find so he can exploit it. All he cares about is winning.

Paul works overtime to keep himself in shape and fight off the nagging injuries that come with playing in the league as long as he’s played. I could tell at that luncheon that he understood what his role with the Rockets was going to be and he needed to be as ready as possible to fulfill that role in an attempt to fulfill this team’s potential in the postseason. Paul stepped into a situation where James Harden was the established alpha, but Paul has been able to establish himself as a leader as well without stepping on Harden’s toes.

Altering his role

Paul has been able to acquiesce to Harden for most of the season, but he’s proven to be ready to pick up the slack at a moment’s notice whenever Harden has faltered. That selflessness combined with readiness is an extremely rare trait for a star to possess and it takes a special player who is obsessed with winning to be able to pack and unpack his ego as needed for his team to succeed.

Paul’s performance in eliminating the Jazz from the playoffs was a microcosm of his presence this season. Sure, Harden has had a tremendous  year and should win his first ever MVP, but there was Paul ready to hit the accelerator when needed. In the second half with the game slipping away, all that preparation, all that work to keep his body right, and all that mental toughness manifested themselves in a game to remember.

In a way, he has been the Clyde Drexler to Harden’s Hakeem Olajuwon. Drexler played his role in the background, but when it was time to step up, he could take over different games which helped push the Rockets to a championship in 1994-1995. Chris Paul’s importance as a secondary ball-handler and primary scorer was on display in Game 5, but his preparation, will to win, and leadership ability could end up having a long-lasting impact on James Harden.

Netflix recommendation

One of my favorite things that has happened over the past six years is the proliferation of stand-up comedian specials on Netflix. You guys all know how bossy Netflix is. You can’t open up Netflix without it telling you about five new shows that they are sure you will like. Now I’m not saying that Netflix doesn’t have a feel for what I like because it does. Netflix recommended John Mulaney’s Kid Gorgeous to me and now I’m recommending it to you. I’ve always loved Mulaney’s comedy but this one had me laughing out loud with my headphones on while eating a beef shawarma plate and watching on my ipad. High praise.


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The media has mixed feelings about the James Harden trade. Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

James Harden was 100-percent exactly right earlier this week when he said the Houston Rockets were "just not good enough."

How could they be? Not when their moody superstar scorer, who makes about half a million dollars per game, shows up chubby, looking like a kielbasa about to explode in the microwave. Hey, some people eat when they're unhappy, it's a defense mechanism. In Harden's case, the only defense he's exhibited this season. At least he had a good excuse for missing pre-season training camp and alienating his teammates - he was busy partying with Cinnamon and Cherish in Atlanta and Vegas without a mask. Worst of all, he went into the tank his last four games in a Rockets uniform, standing around, arms folded, scoring fewer than 20 points each time, all Rockets losses. Fans in the front row were asking him to move, he was blocking their view of players who cared about winning. James Harden sabotaged his own team, a team that offered him $50 million a year to stay. Something that crazy could only happen in professional sports these days.

There's a saying that drives the American labor movement: "a fair day's wage for a fair day's work." It's the motto of the American Federation of Labor. The National Basketball Players Association is not a member. Harden's sulking on the court, cheating the Rockets and their fans, was unforgivable.

Harden, sitting out games while somehow being on the court, forced the Rockets to trade him - and quick - to Brooklyn. The trade, when you ignore the fine print and unindicted co-conspirators Cleveland and Indiana, sent Harden to Brooklyn in exchange for Caris LeVert (immediately flipped for Victor Oladipo), Jarrett Allen, three first-round draft picks and four swapped first-rounders. It's true, when you trade a superstar, you never get back equal value. The other team wins.

If it makes Rockets fans feel any better, the media in New York already has problems with their new problem child. I should say newest problem child. Kyrie Irving plays for the Nets.

"They (the Nets) gave up everybody! There's nothing left now. I just want to cry, It's awful," weeped WFAN Radio talk host Evan Roberts. For those who don't subscribe to weekly Arbitron ratings reports, WFAN is the most powerful, top-rated sports talk station in the Apple.

"You're leading down the road of doom. Harden and Durant could be gone in a year and a half. I'm not convinced this gives them a better chance to win a title. I'm living a nightmare again. They better freaking win."

Circle March 3 on your Rockets schedule. That's when the Brooklyn Nets, with their Big 3 of Kevin Durant, James Harden and possibly Kyrie Irving visit Toyota Center. I hear talk radio salivating over the record jeers that will cascade over Harden's name, although I'm not buying it. Fans don't think like the media does. I'm thinking that Rockets fans will welcome Harden back - one night only - with cheers.

Toyota Center public address announcer Matt Thomas: "Usually when former Rockets come to town for the first time since leaving, I give them a positive introduction. It's up to the fans how to react."

James Harden spent eight seasons with the Rockets. He is a spectacular player who watched other NBA players engineer trades so they could compete for a title. Harden didn't think the Rockets were good enough, and he's right. So he wanted out. We've all been there, a job we didn't like for a company we didn't like, for a boss we didn't respect. Harden wanting to be traded is understandable. How he went about it was deplorable. He hurt his co-workers.

Houston will make Harden pay for his disrespectful departure. He has an upscale restaurant set to open here. The name of the steakhouse will be "13." Harden's business partners may want to change that number ... before the restaurant's telephone number is disconnected. There are plenty of other restaurants in Houston. Rich people who can afford steakhouse prices hold grudges.

Rockets fans searching for a silver lining say, "We got two decent players and a whole bunch of precious first-round picks" for a malcontent who would rather be anywhere (except maybe Sacramento) than Houston." Yes, a bunch of first-round picks does bode well for the future. Anywhere, except maybe Houston.

Houston's draft war room isn't the most successful operation in the NBA. Over the past decade prior to 2000, under the direction of general manager Daryl Morey, the Rockets made 16 draft picks. Not one of them is still in a Rockets uniform, many of them have sought employment outside of America, some outside of basketball. Among their first-round whiffs: Nikola Mirotic, Terrence Jones, Sam Dekker - all out of the league. Best of all, Royce White, who played three whole games in his NBA career and finished with a scoring average of 0.00 points per game.

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