Houston Matters

Space Crafty: How the Rockets Landed Superstar Chris Paul

The Houston Rockets pulled off a transaction for the ages on Wednesday in order to acquire superstar Chris Paul from the LA Clippers.

James Harden and Chris Paul(Above: Thanks to some very crafty personnel moves by the Rockets, James Harden and Chris Paul are now teammates. Photo: Sean M. Haffey, Getty Images)


As you might have heard, the Houston Rockets pulled off a transaction for the ages on Wednesday (June 28, 2017) in order to acquire superstar Chris Paul from the LA Clippers. Note we didn't say sign Chris Paul. Technically, they traded for Chris Paul, even though he was due to become a free agent.

The whole thing is rather convoluted — and crafty on the part of the Rockets. Craig Cohen walks us through how the Rockets pulled off the move, in an attempt to stay competitive with the big guns of the NBA — the Warriors and the Cavs.

See if you can follow this: Paul was about to exercise a one year early termination option on his contract to enter free agency. He decided he wanted to play for Houston, and Houston General Manager Daryl Morey decided he wanted Paul to play for the Rockets. Ah, but there was a problem: There was no way, no possible way that the Rockets could sign Paul at the likely free agent maximum contract of $34 million, and still stay under the NBA salary cap. They'd need to move players and contracts nobody else would take on, or that they just couldn't possibly give up. The math just wasn't there.

But, if Paul agreed instead to opt into the final year of his Clippers contract at $24.2 million, accept a reduction in a bonus he was due to receive, and then convince the Clippers to trade him for the right combination of players, there might just be a way it could work under NBA rules, with one proviso: the rules require a team that exceeds the salary cap through a trade to send at least 75% of the cap-bursting contract in player salaries back the other way. Well, that created another problem: while the Rockets were prepared to part with fan favorite Patrick Beverley, as well as Sam Dekker, and Lou Williams (along with a first round draft pick) to acquire Paul, that still didn't get them to 75 percent of CP3's opt-in salary next season. Which is why Morey has been furiously acquiring players with league minimum contracts. Among them, Montrezl Harrell and Kyle Wiltjer, who Morey had already picked up before this all came together, as well as DeAndre Liggins from Dallas and Darrun Hilliard from Detroit, who Morey acquired on Wednesday for cash just to add them to the deal. The Rockets acquired them all, then traded them all, and now if the Clippers don't actually want them, they can waive them all. And Chris Paul is a member of the Houston Rockets.

This bizarre salary cap tap-dance isn't the only one like it in recent years in professional sports. In the National Hockey League, the Chicago Blackhawks manipulated free agency rules to sign a front-loaded, long-term contract with star Marian Hossa. Now that he's at the age in which a player would normally retire, he suddenly has a condition that the team says won't allow him to play, but he won't retire either. He's on long-term injured reserve, which allows Chicago to avoid a large salary cap hit based on the average annual value of his contract, and only pays out a million a year or so to Hossa over the next few seasons. (Money that, if Hossa's contract is insured against injury, the Hawks won't have to actually pay anyway). A similar long-term deal in the NHL led defenseman Chris Pronger, years after his playing days were over, and while he was working full-time for the league office itself, to draw a salary from the Arizona Coyotes, a team he never played for, but who needed to take on his contract in order to meet the NHL payroll minimum. The 42 year old, who hasn't played a game since the 2011-2012 season, but has earned almost 20 million dollars in the last five years simply by not officially retiring, will become an unrestricted free agent tomorrow.

And that's how bizarre salary structures are in professional sports today. The Houston Rockets didn't make the rules that allowed them to acquire Chris Paul this week. They just figured out a way to use them to their advantage. Will they be able to pull off more convoluted deals? Will all this maneuvering be worth it? We'll find out next season.


Michael Hagerty

Michael Hagerty

Senior Producer, Houston Matters

Michael Hagerty is the senior producer for Houston Matters. He's spent more than 20 years in public radio and television and dabbled in minor league baseball, spending four seasons as the public address announcer for the Reno Aces, the Triple-A affiliate of the Arizona Diamondbacks.

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