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Rockets turned themselves into a championship wildcard

Houston Rockets v Los Angeles Clippers

LOS ANGELES, CA - APRIL 10: James Harden #13 of the Houston Rockets and Chris Paul #3 of the LA Clippers look on during the second half of a game at Staples Center on April 10, 2017 in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)

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The walls are already closing in on the Rockets’ championship window.

On one side, James Harden and Chris Paul will need time to acclimate to each other. As talented and as smart as they are, the ball-dominant guards won’t instantly and completely mesh. It might take a full season. It might take longer.

On the other side, Paul is headed into unrestricted free agency next summer. Even if he re-signs, most of the team’s likely rotation – Paul (32), Trevor Ariza (32), P.J. Tucker (32), Luc Mbah a Moute (30) and Nene (34) – is on the wrong side of 30. Their productive days might be numbered.

But the window exists, and that’s everything.

A highly successful offseason has elevated Houston from good to potential champion. Trading for Paul was the banner move, but the Rockets followed it with a savvy series of additions that better equip them to challenge the Warriors.

Tucker (mid-level exception minus a sliver to sign 2016 second-rounder Zhou Qi to a three-year contract) and Mbah a Moute (minimum) will provide versatile and chippy defense. They’re capable of executing the switch-heavy schemes necessary to keep up with Golden State. Tucker and Mbah a Moute have also developed reliable corner 3s, which will be particularly useful while playing with Houston’s playmaking star guards.

Nene (Non-Bird Exception after an over-38 snafu) and Tarik Black (bi-annual exception) add size behind Clint Capela. They’ll help through the slog of a long regular season. The Rockets need everyone fresh for the playoffs, when Mike D’Antoni shrinks his rotations especially tight.

Houston also locked up Harden with a massive contract extension. A loyal face of the franchise, Harden showed faith in Daryl Morey after the Dwight Howard experience fizzled, saw the team improve from 41-41 to 57-25 then recruited Paul.

Paul now lifts the Rockets to the next level. They’re far from the favorites, but they’re alluring in the championship chase.

They’re in the championship chase.

Offseason grade: A+