ROCKET SCIENCE

Rockets: The case to keep Chris Paul

Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Since it was signed in the summer of 2018, there's been a load uproar about the size and length of Rockets' guard Chris Paul's contract. A lot of it is justified; Paul will be earning $44.2 million as a 36-year-old point guard and history has not been particularly favorable to point guards of his size aging down the stretch of their career. Paul also took a noticeable step back last season after a fantastic 2017-18 campaign with the Rockets. His struggles really reared their ugly heads in the playoffs - where Paul has traditionally excelled.

Chris Paul 2017-18 season:

18.6 PPG, 7.9 APG, 5.4 RPG, and 1.7 STL / 60.4% True Shooting / 24.4 PER

Chris Paul 2018-19 season:

15.6 PPG, 8.2 APG, 4.6 RPG, and 2.0 STL / 56.0% True Shooting / 19.7 PER

However, the discourse surrounding Paul has become muddled. As the Rockets enter a complicated offseason in which all options are being evaluated, it seems as though all anyone wants to talk about is how Houston could possibly move Paul's contract or how leveraged the Rockets are because of Paul's contract. Paul is now talked about as exclusively a burden to the Rockets rather than a very good basketball player who happens to be on a less than ideal contract. In a rush to fantasy ship him out to any suitor who will take him, the question of "Will a Chris Paul trade improve Houston's championship odds?" is being completely ignored.

And the answer to that question? Probably not.

If the Rockets were to trade Paul tomorrow, it's unlikely they get the kind of return that would help their immediate title odds with a soon-to-be 30-year-old James Harden. We have probably arrived at the point where Paul's value to Houston is probably being undervalued by the general public. Paul may not be the same player he was four years ago, but that doesn't mean his contract has suddenly become so toxic the Rockets have to dump him.

To start, some of the best value Paul brings Houston that often gets neglected is on the defensive side of the ball. It may have gone under-the-radar this season with Houston tailing off defensively and the late push to get P.J. Tucker into an All-Defense team, but Paul, at age 34, had a sneaky case for All-Defense himself.

Houston Rockets Defensive RTG:

Chris Paul ON the floor: 103.2

Chris Paul OFF the floor: 111.2

Paul may not be as quick laterally as he once was, but his IQ and awareness as a defender off the ball is off the charts good. His ability to anticipate where a pass is going and when it's going to be made can only be matched by a handful of players, as evidenced by his two steals per game.

If you're even a slightly below average ball handler, Paul is just going to take the ball away from you.

Although the Rockets didn't switch as much last year as they did the year before, Paul's physicality made it harder for even bigger offensive players to gain an advantage.

For all the talk of Paul's offensive numbers taking a dip this year, Paul's defense hardly slipped. That being said, Paul still provided a ton of offensive value for Houston despite the slip in efficiency. Much like his defense, Paul's passing has yet to take a significant dip.

Paul's ability to find roll men at the basket, particularly in pick and roll, is really valuable for Houston when Harden is on the bench. The Rockets are already accustomed to running spread pick and roll when Harden is on the floor and Paul provides a clean outlet to keep that flow going.

His ability to find open shooters is even more impressive, particularly on the break. Contrary to what you might think, Paul is someone who likes to push the pace whenever possible while Harden would rather grind it down. Because of this, the transition offense is typically a lot crisper when orchestrated by Paul

Houston Rockets pace:

With Harden: 98.47

With Paul: 101.35

One of the bigger and more unusual drop-offs in Paul's game this season was his shooting. Paul has historically been an excellent three-point shooter (37.0% for his career), so it was quite bizarre to see his percentage drop down to 35.8% this season from 38.0% the prior season. The same was the case for his mid-range shooting, which fell to 47.6% from where it was a year ago (53.9%). Upon further analysis, it looks like a big reason for this decline ha been his drop-off as an isolation scorer as a whole from the previous year.

In 2017-18, Paul scored 1.10 points per possession in isolation (90.8 percentile) on a staggering 5.1 attempts per game. In 2018-19, that number dropped to 0.92 points per possession (63.3 percentile) on 4.7 attempts per game. Paul's off-the-dribble three-pointers just weren't sinking at the same rate they were a year ago.

2017-18 Chris Paul 3-PT shooting:

Catch and shoot: 41.1%

Pull-up: 38.1%

2018-19: Chris Paul 3-PT shooting:

Catch and shoot: 43.1%

Pull-up 34.5%

The easy conclusion for one to draw here is age-related decline. However, if you look back to the 2015-16 season, you'll find another random blip where Paul declined radically as a shooter.

Chris Paul pull-up 3-PT shooting:

2014-15: 37.7%

2015-16: 33.3%

Chris Paul mid-range shooting:

2014-15: 49.5%

2015-16: 45.7%

Paul also only 0.91 points per possession in isolation (71.8 percentile) in 2015-16. So, was it age-related regression then too when Paul was still only 30 years old? The better conclusion to draw might be that Paul had another career blip shooting season. That's not to say Paul didn't decline last season, but rather it's more likely Chris Paul gets back closer to where he was in 2017-18 as a shooter next season than he was last season.

Where you see Paul's decline most prevalent is his first step and finishing at the rim. In 2017-18, Paul drove to the basket 11.7 times per game and finished 49.4% of the time. In 2018-19, Paul finished 44.3% of the time on 12.1 drives per game. Paul isn't as explosive as he once was and this makes much more sense with what we know about aging as a basketball player compared to three-point percentage. As an older player, Paul's not going to be the same driver he once was, but that was expected when Daryl Morey offered him his contract in 2018.

Saying Chris Paul is not the same player he was a few years ago is a totally reasonable conclusion to draw. However, it's also reasonable to say that he's still a highly impactful basketball player and that his decline may have been greatly exaggerated by a poor career shooting year. It's true that Paul likely isn't going to provide Houston with All-NBA level play in the fourth year of his deal. It's also true that he has the capability to provide one or two more awesome years before it gets to that point.

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Composite image by Brandon Strange.

Even though the Astros have been in the last five postseasons and made it to the World Series in three of those, they still have some new faces on the roster this year that will be participating in their first playoff games. Three of them, in particular, could have impactful enough parts to play that they shape the entire fortune of the team in these playoffs.

Trey Mancini

Although Baltimore was in the hunt until the last weeks of the season in 2022, it took getting traded to the Astros for Trey Mancini to finally get his first taste of playoff baseball. Mancini debuted in 2016, and while his numbers have been frustrating since joining his new team, he is still a powerful slugger whom the Astros should use at times in the ALDS and beyond.

Whether they need to spell Yuli Gurriel at first or use him in the outfield, Mancini will be a good weapon for the Astros, especially if he can break out of his recent funk and string together some good at-bats. Before the trade, he was batting .268, a number much more in line with his career numbers than the low .176 he had with the Astros. With the time off between the final regular season game and his first plate appearance in the playoffs, I'd expect he'll have found a way to put the slump behind him and come through with some key hits.

Hunter Brown

One of the most pleasant surprises the Astros had this year was seeing the quality they could get out of Hunter Brown from day one in the majors. After being touted as the next Justin Verlander after his six-inning shutout start in his debut, Brown made another quality start before transitioning to the bullpen.

Now, the big caveat here is that Brown actually makes the ALDS roster, which, with Houston's depth, puts a good but challenging task in front of them to assemble the proper ratio of position players to pitchers, and within the pitchers, starters to relievers. Assuming Brown makes the cut, he could be a big difference-maker.

Brown has only allowed two hits and three walks in his last three appearances, most recently logging 2.1 innings of scoreless work to lower his ERA to 0.89. He has electric stuff and would be a great asset to have in a game where maybe one of Houston's starters can't make it past a few innings, and the Astros need someone to gap between them and the other relievers.

Jeremy Peña

One first-timer that we don't have to speculate about making the roster or getting plenty of playing time is Jeremy Peña. He'll be at shortstop and probably batting second behind Jose Altuve in the lineup. Entering the year with high expectations to take over for Carlos Correa, Peña put together an outstanding rookie campaign, including launching 22 home runs, matching Correa's rookie number, and coming in first amongst AL shortstops in defensive runs saved.

One area it may take him and others combined to replace Correa is going to the plate with the game on the line and coming through in the clutch. If Peña can come up with one of those "it's my time" moments in the 2022 postseason, he'll have completed the total takeover. In any case, it will be fun to see how the rookie does his first time on the biggest stage.

One of the most well-rounded teams in the league this year, and now in the playoffs, Houston has plenty of veteran experience that will make them a tough out in any series. Add in these three players, and it shows why the Astros are coming out ahead in most people's predictions.

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