Chris Paul couldn't help the Houston Rockets get to the NBA Finals, but he will be vital in determining whether they should keep their crew intact after it nearly knocked off the Golden State Warriors without him, or if they should spend all their money on tickets for the LeBron James Sweepstakes.
"If you have the chance to get him, you get him," said one Western Conference general manager. "They'll know pretty early because of Chris and LeBron's relationship if (James' interest in the Rockets) is real. If it's real, you do anything to get it done."
Houston has one minor bit of housekeeping to take care of before going after LeBron: re-signing Paul, who is an unrestricted free agent as of July 1. League sources consider it a mere formality that he re-ups with the Rockets, though, and one executive suggested the two sides have probably already settled on the general terms of a new deal.
James, of course, has to forgo his player option for next season with the Cavs before the Rockets or anyone else can pursue him as a free agent, but that's also believed to be a formality. (James could opt into his final year and have the Cavs trade him to the team of his choice, but the Rockets would almost assuredly have to involve a third or fourth team.)
Acquiring LeBron via free agency would be just as complicated. The Rockets would have cap holds on or have to renounce a variety of soon-to-be free agents who were instrumental in helping them to a league-best 65 wins and pushing the Warriors to a full seven games in the Western Conference Finals. They include Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute. They most likely would have to move a couple of players already under contract as well.
"The cap gymnastics are really tough," said the Western Conference GM. "[Eric] Gordon and Ryan [Anderson] would have to be gone."
Finding a taker for Gordon would not be difficult after his performance before and after he stepped in as a starter in place of Paul, who missed Games 6 and 7 against the Warriors with what the official Game 6 box score listed as a "sore hamstring."
Gordon, 30, has two years remaining on his contract for $27.6 million, which is highly attractive for a solid defender and an 18-point-per-game scorer with an inside-outside game who is willing to come off the bench.
Anderson is another story. The Rockets, league sources say, tried to move him last summer when it became clear he didn't fit coach Mike D'Antoni's system as a stretch 4. The 30-year-old also has two years left on his deal but has nearly $42 million still coming to him. Houston, the Western Conference GM said, was offering two first-round picks as enticement and got no takers.
With or without LeBron, Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta is facing a hefty price tag to keep his team in title contention.
Clint Capela proved himself to be the ideal rim protector and lob finisher for Houston's dribble-drive, perimeter-heavy style, and he is a restricted free agent. At 24, he is expected to receive an offer sheet for the maximum this summer, with the Phoenix Suns tagged by one league executive as the most likely suitor.
Rockets GM Daryl Morey already has been quoted as saying (by Tim MacMahon of ESPN.com) that Capela "couldn't price himself out" of Houston's willingness to keep him, meaning they would match any offer he receives.
Depending on where the salary cap is set for next season, that offer could be as high as $106 million for four years, a league source said.
"It's all about moving Ryan Anderson's contract," said one former assistant GM. "Otherwise, they're looking at a $75 million tax bill and everybody in the league knows it."
If these playoffs have shown anything, it's that teams top-heavy in stars without a versatile bench can be susceptible.
The Oklahoma City Thunder didn't make it out of the first round, despite having Russell Westbrook, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony. The Boston Celtics took the Cleveland Cavaliers to seven games, despite not having their top two stars—Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward—for a good part of the season. The Warriors, despite having four All-Stars, were nearly eliminated by the Rockets, even with Paul's absence, because they couldn't count on consistent contributions from any reserves.
"Just through the battle of attrition, you have to think Golden State is going to lose eventually," said the Western Conference GM. "If you're Houston, you could make a pretty strong argument for keeping together what you have, addressing a few needs and taking another crack at it."
Then again, LeBron is practically a walking guarantee that whatever team he's on will be in the Finals. If he likes the idea of paying no state income tax in Texas and joining a fellow Banana Boat member, there's little chance the Rockets don't make his wish come true.
"It could happen," the GM said. "But with LeBron, who knows?"
The Rockets are hoping Paul does, so they can plan accordingly.