When Chris Paul threw up an errant, pointless half-court heave at the buzzer of the Houston Rockets' latest season-ending defeat at the hands of the Golden State Warriors, no one could have predicted the carnage that would follow.
For both sides.
It was Warriors 118, Rockets 113 in Game 6 of the Western Conference semifinals, marking the second straight time Golden State had ousted the team that was built specifically to crack its diabolical basketball code.
Paul, James Harden and Co. filed into the tunnel at Toyota Center, and into a dark and very uncertain offseason. The Warriors rolled onward toward what seemed like a foregone conclusion: their third consecutive championship and fourth in five years.
Kevin Durant had strained his right calf in Game 5 against the Rockets, and so that cloud of uncertainty was hanging over the defending champs heading into the Finals against the Toronto Raptors. Then Durant ruptured his Achilles in Game 5 of the series, Klay Thompson tore his ACL in Game 6, and the basketball world was turned upside down.
With the Warriors decimated—and facing the massive uncertainty of free-agent decisions for both players on top of it—the keys to Western Conference supremacy seemed there for the taking for the Rockets. Right?
The Rockets are falling apart, too, in even more spectacular fashion.
Two weeks ago, Paul's agent, Leon Rose, met with Rockets GM Daryl Morey and requested a trade, a person with knowledge of the situation told Bleacher Report. Morey has denied that Paul made a trade request, one that was first reported Tuesday by Vinnie Goodwill of Yahoo Sports. The reason cited for Paul wanting out was that his relationship with Harden has been deemed "unsalvageable," according to Goodwill.
Given their often cold and sometimes contentious on-court interactions, that seems obvious. The real question, though, is this: Are the Rockets salvageable?
"It's the culture of me, instead of the culture of we," a person with knowledge of the inner workings of the team told B/R. "Look at how the Raptors played; it was a culture of we. Look at the Warriors. Despite everything, they maintained their dignity to the end. These guys (the Rockets), in the most important game of their season, all they cared about was, 'I've got to have it.' 'No, I've got to have it.' It's so stupid."
Buffoonery, is what it is.
Paul, a nine-time All-Star, has long been one of the most headstrong players in the league. His feistiness and unwillingness to back down from challenges have helped shape him into one of the great point guards of the modern era.
Now 34 and no longer in his prime, his confrontational leadership style and method of motivating teammates has begun to wear on everyone around him.
"Part of the problem is, Chris won't shut up because he thinks he's leading and teaching," the person familiar with the team's dynamics said. "What he's really doing is berating. He thinks he's smarter than the coaches."
At the heart of the friction between Paul and Harden, as reported by Goodwill, is Paul's frustration with Harden's ball-dominant ways, which brought coach Mike D'Antoni's historically free-flowing offense to a standstill. The notion that D'Antoni's offense can best be described by the catch phrase "Seven Seconds Or Less" is a misnomer. "The ball finds energy" actually is the more appropriate calling card.
Harden not only led the league in scoring (36.1 points per game) but also usage rate (40.5)—just as he did in 2017-18 (36.1). In other words, the ball is only finding energy in one place: Harden's hands.
Paul's production has fallen off to the point where he shot a career low this past season from the field (41.9 percent). But to be fair, Paul isn't the only one to blame here.
"It's both of them," the person familiar with the team's dynamics said.
Also included in the Yahoo Sports report was a note that Harden gave Morey a "him or me" ultimatum after the postseason loss to the Warriors. If that sounds like a rerun from Paul's past, it is.
"Everywhere he's been, it's ended badly," a Western Conference executive said.
From forcing his way out of New Orleans in 2011 (first in an aborted trade to the Lakers and ultimately to the Clippers), to forcing his way out of L.A. in a trade to the Rockets in 2017, Paul's exit strategy from every team he's played for has been nothing short of scorched earth.
This, however, may be the first time when Paul will be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to trade. He has three years and $124.1 million left on his contract, including $44.2 million in the last year of the deal, when Paul will be 36.
"Who the hell is going to take $124 million with Chris Paul?" a prominent agent told B/R. "It's 'Mission: Impossible.' Tom Cruise is going to be playing that role."
And while Morey may be flattered by the comparison, no one in the league envies the job of trying to unload that onerous contract.
As B/R reported on June 5, Phoenix is one of the few teams that may be willing to take a chance on Paul, given their endless thirst for a playoff appearance. While Paul isn't at a level where he can dominate anymore, as one Western Conference executive put it, "He's good enough to get you to the playoffs."
But one person familiar with the Suns' offseason plans told B/R that the Kyrie Irving domino effect could push the Suns out of the picture. If Irving signs a max deal with the Nets, as the growing belief among rival front offices would suggest, then D'Angelo Russell could be Phoenix-bound as a restricted free agent, the person said. If Brooklyn secures Irving as its starting point guard, the Nets may be inclined to let Russell walk, which would free up enough cap room to add a second max player alongside Irving.
Where will Paul be standing when all the dominoes fall? It's one of the many fascinating questions of an NBA offseason that has gotten off to a ferocious head start. Yet if there's anything we know about Paul's history, it's this: Whether he stays or goes, he won't do it quietly.
Ken Berger covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @KBergNBA.
Chris Mannix of Sports Illustrated joins Hoard Beck to discuss what the Anthony Davis trade means for the Lakers, what Kyrie Irving's potential departure means for the Celtics and what the future holds for superteams in the NBA. All on The Full 48.