Three months before the start of the 2017–18 NBA season, Houston Rockets fans had hope. Maybe hope is too strong a word. Hope implies that there was a bad period, with the expectation of a good period to come. Hurricane Harvey was a situation that called for hope. This wasn't so much hope as it was hunger, a craving for more. Houston's NBA fans had a collective bad taste in their mouths and needed to get rid of it—and fast.
Their most recent memory was the infamous Game 6—a night that deprived the city of a Western Conference Finals berth and a championship run, all at the hands of the Kawhi Leonard-less San Antonio Spurs. That Rockets team, with MVP runner-up James Harden, Coach of the Year Mike D'Antoni and Sixth Man of the Year Eric Gordon, bowed out in embarrassing fashion, suffering a 39-point home loss. The mere mention of that game has Voldemort-esque implications. It's best left alone.
So on that hot July afternoon, dubbed "CP3 Day," Rockets fans lined up outside the Toyota Center by the thousands to witness history. Soaking up the atmosphere, it felt like Coachella. Or Lollapalooza. Complete with live streaming, entertainment performances and prize giveaways, all waiting for the headliner.
Tucked away in a room adjacent to the visitors locker room were about three dozen or so media members—waiting anxiously for the man of the hour. Ten minutes to the scheduled 2 p.m. press conference, Tracey Hughes, the director of media and player relations, popped in to give the "he's coming" look.
Thirteen minutes later, Paul entered. Immediately behind him were his wife, Jada, his brother, C.J., his two children and his team of friends and advisers. Paul, seated at the high table in between D'Antoni and general manager Daryl Morey, first expressed gratitude to the Brotherhood Crusade and LA's Best—two organizations working with inner-city kids he had been heavily involved with during his six-year tenure with the Clippers. There was a twinkle in his eye as he thanked the city of Los Angeles and the Clippers for the hospitality, acceptance and love they had shown him and his family since 2011.
Watching Paul speak, two things became clear: just how relieved he was that this was over and how much of a toll this whole process had taken. It was a huge step and a chance for a fresh start. His relationship with the Clippers, once fruitful and full of promise, had hit some bumps toward the end. Whether it was the subtle jabs—Blake Griffin wanting more of an offensive role, head coach Doc Rivers wanting more ball movement and less CP3 dribbling—or the five straight playoff exits despite having held a series lead in all five, there just always seemed to be something.
But free agency was no easy decision. Choosing between Boston, San Antonio and Houston was no flip of the coin. In L.A., Jada said the family felt settled for the first time. His children, Camryn and Lil' Chris, had developed strong relationships with their peers and were getting used to West Coast living. The only thing that could keep Chris in L.A. was his life away from the basketball court. In an ESPN documentary on Paul, Jay-Z told him: "You get $150 [million]. You get $200 [million]. It's the same thing. If you not gonna be happy...your happiness is worth everything."
Ten months later, part of what made him ultimately choose Houston was just that. Happiness. "Culture is everything!" a beaming Paul told Bleacher Report. "It's the way, I don't really know, it's just sort of a feel."
In Los Angeles, it seemed like there was more of a coworker-type relationship within the team. Not to say everyone hated each other, but something was missing. C.J. said during the Paul documentary that "it was the most frustrated I've ever seen Chris, basketball-wise." Things that came naturally to Paul, like spending time off the court with his teammates, seemed like a chore.
His time in Houston has been anything but that. From the countless Instagram videos, Snapchats and time spent in and around the facilities, the Rockets are one big goofy family. There's genuine love shared among teammates, and he's been able to recreate some of that special 2007-08 New Orleans Hornets magic that he cherishes. That team, featuring players like Tyson Chandler, Bonzi Wells and Morris Peterson, was an especially tight bunch.
Of this Rockets team, Paul said: "Absolutely. I think we did a great job, and it all started this past summer. Spending real time together, on the road, going out to eat, hanging out and all that stuff. With our team, we got a lot of new faces, so it's been a lot of fun building it. Like the expectations and what we expect from each other."
Initial doubt surrounding the pairing of Paul and Harden stemmed from individual playing styles and whether the two could coexist in an uptempo D'Antoni-style offense. Anything that seems daunting will always have naysayers. When first asked about the concerns during the press conference, CP3 joked to the crowd, "It was a basketball in the room, and we were fighting over it."
The basketball world was well-aware of Paul's approach to the game, and some viewed him as this Army vet-type, no-nonsense guy juxtaposed to the Cali-raised, fun-loving Harden. They saw the pairing as a ticking time bomb. But like he said, Paul just wants to play basketball.
There would be the pickup games out in Las Vegas during summer league. There was King Magnet High School, aka home of the Drew League, where Harden and Paul wowed the crowd with their two-man game for Team LAUNFD. Then there was JH-Town Weekend at Tudor Fieldhouse, where the pair, along with other NBA stars DeMar DeRozan and John Wall, put on a show for Houstonians as a thank you to the city and a celebration of Harden's mega-extension. Yes, there was always going to be some sort of sacrifice. But Paul embraces that. "The biggest thing is communication and being able to talk when different situations come up," he said.
Irv Roland, a player development coach for the Rockets who's worked with Paul for over a decade, has seen him embrace the city, the team and its culture.
"It's been great. You look at Chris and the places he's been. This is the most fun he's had playing basketball since he's been a pro!" Roland said. "Things here are so loose because we have a veteran group that knows how to police themselves. Everyone for the most part is married with kids and responsible, so Coach doesn't have to give them that leash."
On the court, the fit has been nothing short of awesome. During the summer, CP3 stressed to his inner circle that he was tired of being so ball-dominant in an offense. He wanted a chance to get out and run, spot up on the wings. D'Antoni's wide-open system has brought Paul's game to the forefront, a tad different from pounding the rock possession after possession in the pick-and-roll-heavy offense Rivers and the Clippers ran for six years. The individual abilities of Harden and Paul are a huge reason Houston's offense is the best in the league, but he doesn't look that far into the numbers. "I don't think that deep into it, man. I just hoop. I just play," Paul said.
In January, when people around the league first started taking notice of the Rockets' record when Paul, Harden and center Clint Capela all played, it might have given the impression of stat cherry-picking. That was before it became 40-3, a sample size worth over half of a season. With so much time missed between Harden and Paul, it poses the question: Could Houston have reached the Warriors' all-time regular-season record of 73-9, health permitting?
According to D'Antoni, Capela, the third member of the Big Three, is the biggest reason why the Rockets have been so successful. His progress allows Houston to switch defensively, and his potential seems unlimited. Capela is one of the reasons Paul was so interested in joining the Rockets. Not just because of the obvious comparisons to DeAndre Jordan but also the potential at his fingertips.
"That's what got me so excited. Cause Clint is just, I mean...he's so raw and ready to work and do whatever. Screen, roll, defend, whatever. I'm excited for me to not only help him get better but for him to help me as well."
At the mention of Paul's name, a bright smile comes to Capela's face. "He's like a leader. Everyone knows that. But he leads by example, comes in early, doing stretches, lifting, and seeing him do that helps me learn from him and what he does," Capela said. "He talks about eating and the importance of being healthy, having a chef around the house. Because of him, I made the adjustment and now have a chef at home to cook for me!"
Ryan Anderson, a backup stretch 4, sees Paul's success a bit differently. "He knows the game and sees it so well. He's found a way to blend in this system effortlessly," Anderson said. "That's what great players and leaders do. They know how to lead and build on something rather than make it about them. He's had success in this league so much so that he could have made it about him, but he's selfless. He just wants to win."
Roland attributes Paul's success to his dedication to and love for the game. "You look at guys in this league. Guys are bigger, stronger, more athletic than Chris. But he's a student of the game," Roland said. "I feel like he watches more film than most assistant coaches. He knows the other team's sets and everything. He'll play possum. Next thing you know he's sneaking a steal. He knows what's coming, and it sets him apart from everyone else."
Part of the irony about Chris' first season in Houston is that a return to Los Angeles in mid-January was what strengthened his ties to the Rockets. In a blowout road loss for Houston at Staples Center in which tempers flared, Blake Griffin of the Clippers and Rockets forward Trevor Ariza were ejected. Fines and suspensions were dished out to Ariza and Houston teammate Gerald Green, and things could have gone south. But the bonds were actually tightened.
"It's good when you see one of your teammates being ridiculed and the rest of your team comes to have your back," said Mike James, a former Rocket and current player development intern. "It just shows you the camaraderie and how the team is for one another. They'll always have each other's back. That's a beautiful sign."
Away from basketball, Paul is all about giving back to the community. Hurricane Harvey brought a lot of destruction to the city of Houston, and while a lot of progress has been achieved, there's always work to be done.
"With the hurricane happening just after the trade, I'm just trying to get into the community and help those in need," Chris said. "When catastrophic events like that happen, it's on the news every day for a week or two, then goes away. But for the people there, it's still real. All of us on the team are still doing things in the community cause those are the fans we go out for and play every night."
The people of Houston still need the hope. The hunger is for the Rockets and their fans.