The 2019-20 season was a strange one for the Houston Rockets, for several reasons. For starters, the franchise made the bold decision to trade Chris Paul, who nearly lifted the team to the NBA Finals in his first season in Houston, for Russell Westbrook, who was a life-long friend of James Harden.
The move drew a bevy of skepticism, as Westbrook didn't fit into Rockets coach Mike D'Antoni's style of play. D'Antoni's Rockets fell in love with the 3-point shot, which was far from a strength for Westbrook, who had made just 29% of his long-range attempts during the prior season with the Oklahoma City Thunder.
To make up for Westbrook's long-range shooting deficiency, the Rockets opted for a small ball lineup, with the primary goal being to maximize the spacing so that Westbrook could thrive in the paint and attack opposing big men. The Rockets traded Clint Capela to make this possible, which also allowed them to get off of Capela's remaining $66.1 million.
Although the trade brought back Robert Covington, who played the role of the Rockets' rim protector, the move forced P.J. Tucker to play full-time center, which wasn't optimal with Tucker standing just 6-foot-5. In addition, the lack of a lob threat really affected James Harden, as he was great at drawing a second defender in the restricted area, making it unstoppable to prevent the lob pass over the top.
But the Rockets' small ball experiment wasn't supposed to look like that, as the Rockets tried to make a deadline deal for Nerlens Noel, who was a member of the Oklahoma City Thunder at the time and had experience playing alongside Westbrook, as explained by Tim MacMahon, who covers the Rockets for ESPN.
“They obviously went all in on micro-ball but they thought at the time that they could find a bargain big man. If Clint Capela was a full-service Marriott, they thought they could find a Courtyard by Marriott type of big man to at least be in the rotation.
For example, they had discussions before the trade deadline and were optimistic and thought that they could get a deal done to bring in Nerlens Noel.”
The Rockets also reportedly tried to sign Noel in free agency during the summer of 2019, which made sense, as the trade winds had started to swirl around Clint Capela in 2018-19. The Rockets ended up making a trade for Bruno Caboclo, who didn't get any playing time, as he simply wasn't ready to be a major contributor for the team.
Houston Rockets involved in Nerlens Noel lawsuit against LeBron James' agent Rich Paul
So why is all of this important now, you ask? Well, Noel filed a lawsuit against Klutch Sports, who is ran by LeBron James' super-agent Rich Paul, alleging that Paul prevented Noel from coming to Houston, in addition to misrepresenting him as a client. Noel states that Paul interfered with the Rockets' attempts to acquire him.
But why would Klutch Sports do that? The implied answer is that they didn't want Noel to go to any team that LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers would have had to run into. Although this may sound silly, it makes sense considering the fact that Noel alleges that the LA Clippers were also stonewalled by Klutch Sports.
Not to mention the fact that Noel ended up signing with the New York Knicks, in an entirely different conference. The common responses on Twitter in light of Noel's lawsuit against Paul was that Noel isn't a superstar player and/or that he wouldn't have made a difference.
But for the small ball Rockets, Noel's rebounding ability would have been a huge boost to a Rockets team that ranked 28th in rebounds after the Capela trade (40.2), in addition to his aforementioned ability to catch lob passes. Also, Noel's size, along with his 7-foot-4 wingspan, would have certainly made a difference in the Rockets' 2020 Western Conference Semifinals matchup against the Los Angeles Lakers, who had a major size advantage with the 6-foot-11 Anthony Davis.
But it's probably better to not think too much into the ramifications of the Rockets being impeded by Rich Paul and the Klutch Sports agency, because this has been painful enough to re-live.