Before the Houston Rockets traded Chris Paul to the rebuilding Oklahoma City Thunder last week, they reportedly tried to involve a third team in the deal, in order to redirect Paul to a more competitive situation. When that effort proved especially cumbersome, Rockets general manager Daryl Morey resolved to make that second move the problem of Thunder general manager Sam Presti, and the two-team deal was completed. Now it seems likely that the anticipated second phase of Paul’s departure from the Rockets will come no earlier than mid-December, and possibly not before the summer of 2020.
Brian Windhorst reported this on Monday, and Adrian Wojnarowski filled in the details Wednesday afternoon. It appears that the late hour of the Russell Westbrook trade plus salary cap restrictions all but rule out the possibility of routing Paul to a championship contender this late into free agency. That shouldn’t be especially surprising—most of the league’s real contenders are all set at point guard, and anyway you don’t need advanced knowledge of the current CBA to know that Paul’s $38.5 million salary next season will not easily fit onto the cap sheet of a team that already has several good players. According to Woj, the Thunder and Paul are talking themselves into the idea of Paul playing out the upcoming season with a Thunder team that, optimistically, might be able to mount a campaign for a low seed in the Western Conference playoffs, but not much else.
Thunder general manager Sam Presti welcomes the idea of Paul playing for his franchise this season, and Paul has warmed to the idea of the Thunder as a landing spot for the year based on the organization and a competitive talent level. The Thunder don’t have a Western Conference championship contender, but they do have a core with Paul, Danilo Gallinari, Steven Adams, Dennis Schroder and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander that will not be participating in the NBA’s annual race to the bottom. It promises to be a competitive environment for Paul to play the season.
That’s Woj being awfully optimistic, which has been a weirdly consistent feature of trade and free agency scoop reporting this year. Those players are less “a core” than they are “a lineup,” and by no means does that lineup promise to be a competitive one, especially in a buzzsaw of a Western Conference. If they haven’t shifted into a full-on tanking project, it’s because their biggest contracts are now unmovable, and the rejiggered lottery format has changed the incentives. But they are clearly a team that is now positioned for a rebuild, and not for a lot of short-term success.
That Paul might be okay with this is the silver lining to what is otherwise a bummer, and not just because it means we’ve probably reached the end of what’s been a pretty exciting free agency circus. Paul is still one of the best point guards in basketball, but he’s declining, and the 2019–20 campaign will be his age-34 season. His contract might be easier to move next summer, but given his recent injury history—he’s missed more than 20 regular season games in each of the last three seasons—and the usual decline in productivity for small guards, he’s not likely to be as useful to good teams a year from now as he is today. This year spent on a middling team could very well be his final year as a player capable of making a major contribution to a genuine contender.
Hidden away at the bottom of Woj’s report, which otherwise positions this unlikely marriage as both mutually beneficial and a product of inflexible circumstance, is the news that Presti “doesn’t feel a need to surrender draft compensation to unload Paul’s contract.” Windhorst, too, reported that a hangup in trade talks between the Thunder and the Miami Heat—a good destination for Paul—is the fact that the Thunder own two future Heat first-round draft picks, one of which conveys in 2021 and is unprotected. This makes trading Paul to Miami tricky: for one thing, though the Heat might want Paul on their roster, they probably view his contract as negative value, and would therefore want some sort of sweetener in the trade; for another, the Thunder would prefer that the Heat not become a championship contender, so that their 2021 draft pick can be as valuable as possible, and preferably fall in the lottery.
It’s a shame, because Chris Paul on the Heat with Jimmy Butler and a fairly intimidating roster of defensive menaces, coached by the excellent Erik Spoelstra, would be pretty exciting. It would give the East another team in the hunt for the conference championship, and it would produce the most loathsome superstar duo in all the land. And it’s a duo that makes sense, basketball-wise, for all the ways that Butler is the opposite of James Harden. Butler happily lowered his usage last season to the lowest it’s been since the 2014–15 season—a very generous and un-star-like 21.7 percent—in order to mesh as a second banana in Philadelphia. He’s just as maniacal about winning each possession as Paul is, and is a relentless defender who can take on the burden of guarding the opponent’s best perimeter player each night. Paul and Harden clashed over philosophies and effort; Paul and Butler, by comparison, seem like a match made in heaven. And, given their personalities, there’s the outside chance that they’d wind up punching each other during a game, which would be just fine.
For all the fretting over super-teams and supermax contracts, this is one of those times when it would be better for everyone if a superstar player made his way to a hotter market to join up with another superstar. Paul is not going to lift the Thunder to contention, nor is he going to draw other superstars, nor are the Thunder going to build their next contender around him. He’s just kinda incidentally there, because his previous team wanted a change and the Thunder were hunting draft assets that could be gained by taking on his contract. He’ll be one of the league’s sharpest floor generals, burning one of his final good years in relative obscurity, when there’s a team and a situation out there where he’d have a real chance of chasing his next great playoff flame-out. He might be ready to make the best of it, but this is still a crappy development.