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Harden helped sell Paul on Rockets

Ariza, Brown also were in their friend and former teammate’s ear

It was the eve of last week’s NBA draft when Chris Paul sat on a couch quietly while appearing deep in thought as he looked down on an active dance floor at the Marquee New York nightclub.

Paul made the stop to support the SEED Project charity event held to raise money for more than 2,000 students in Senegal, Gambia and America. The NBA world was focused on Paul George, Carmelo Anthony, Kristaps Porzingis, Phil Jackson, LeBron James, Markelle Fultz, Lonzo Ball and LaVar Ball. Meanwhile, Paul was perhaps thinking about his undercover plan to take off with the Houston Rockets.

“There is nothing going on with my situation,” Paul said with a poker face during the June 21 event.

Per request of the face of their franchise, the Los Angeles Clippers agreed to the stunning move Wednesday, dealing Paul to the Rockets to join fellow All-Star guard James Harden in the backcourt. Paul opted in to the final year of his contract with the Clippers, allowing him to be traded.

The Clippers received guards Patrick Beverley and 2017 Sixth Man of the Year finalist Lou Williams, young forwards Sam Dekker and Montrezl Harrell, guards DeAndre Liggins and Darrun Hilliard, forward Kyle Wiltjer, a top-three protected 2018 first-round pick, and $661,000. Meanwhile, the San Antonio Spurs’ hopes of landing Paul died.

So why Houston?

Why would Paul go to a team where the backcourt includes two superstars who want the ball in their hands?

Why not go to the Spurs, where coach Gregg Popovich has won five titles and has an NBA MVP candidate in Kawhi Leonard and a former All-Star in LaMarcus Aldridge? Houston hasn’t won an NBA title since 1995.

One reason is the Rockets had three great recruiters who were in Paul’s ear to come to Houston: Harden, starting small forward Trevor Ariza and reserve point guard Bobby Brown. There are levels to this stuff, as Harden and Paul are members of the NBA elite world and have been friends for a while. Who knows what they have been talking about behind the scenes? Ariza and Brown are also former New Orleans Hornets teammates of Paul’s, and they remain close friends.

Paul was seriously interested in playing for the Spurs, according to a source. But with Aldridge’s status with the Spurs up in the air, it made the situation less attractive. It probably would have been awkward for Paul to take the starting role over longtime Spurs point guard, respected foe and friend Tony Parker.

After the Utah Jazz eliminated the Clippers in the first round of last season’s playoffs, a source close to Paul told The Undefeated that a key to Paul’s return was playing for a winning team. The Clippers had been eliminated from the playoffs in the first round two years in a row, keeping Paul from getting to his first conference finals. The NBA champion Golden State Warriors have owned the Clippers since losing to them in the first round of the playoffs in 2014. While Paul was open to returning to the Clippers, they appeared more likely to regress than progress in a very tough West (with or without Paul) unless a surprise move was made.

With Clippers forward Blake Griffin opting out to become a free agent last week, there was no guarantee that the Clippers would retain the high flier. Moreover, ESPN’s Michael Eaves has reported that Paul had become frustrated with coach and team president Doc Rivers on several fronts.

While hurting now, the Clippers didn’t lose Paul for nothing, acquiring one of the NBA’s most intimidating shooters and scorers in Williams, a pesky point guard in Beverley and young talent in Dekker and Harrell.

“Unbelievable amount of emotions right now,” Paul said on Twitter. “I don’t even know what to say. Lots of love and tears.”

The biggest question is how will Paul and Harden make it work with one basketball?

Harden was given the point guard keys and led the league in assists under 2017 NBA Coach of the Year Mike D’Antoni’s high-octane offense last season. A source close to Paul said the veteran point guard has no problem playing off the ball and would enjoy doing that a lot more. Harden and Paul can now share point guard duties, which would be natural for Harden since he has played primarily at shooting guard in his career. The fact that Harden recruited Paul to Houston also showed that he is willing to share the rock. Keep in mind that the Rockets were a third seed in the West without Paul, a nine-time All-Star who can share the big shot and game pressure with Harden.

“It’s great for Houston,” former Rockets guard Mario Elie told The Undefeated. “That dude [Paul] is an outstanding player. One of the best point guards in the league. He can reel in James a little bit. Chris also knows and is OK with James being ‘the guy’ in Houston. I think they will be fantastic together.”

An argument could be made that a Paul and Harden backcourt surpasses Warriors All-Stars Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson as the best in the NBA. But it’s going to take a lot more than Paul and Harden to beat the best team in the NBA in the champion Warriors.

With Paul in a Rockets uniform days before free agency begins, Houston has an opportunity to sell playing with beloved guys to prospective free agents, and perhaps even Indiana Pacers All-Star Paul George too. And if it goes badly for Paul in Houston next season, he has the ability to depart as a free agent in 2018.

Yes, Paul was very quiet in his quest to join Harden and the Rockets. The Rockets, however, will be far from quiet in the NBA now with these two backcourt stars together.

“Chris believes that Houston gives him the best chance to win now,” a source close to Paul said.

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for Andscape. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.