Chris Paul’s brilliance makes him the biggest trade chip for next season

1270343141.jpg.0 - Chris Paul’s brilliance makes him the biggest trade chip for next seasonPhoto by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Chris Paul proved he’s still one of the NBA’s best players with the Thunder.

Chris Paul’s reputation as one of the greatest point guards of all-time was already cemented before the shocking, blockbuster trade that sent him to the Oklahoma City Thunder for Russell Westbrook and an immense collection of draft picks and pick swaps last summer. Less certain was how much CP3 still had left in the tank for a season that would see him turn 35 years old.

Paul began the season with three years and $125 million remaining on his contract. He hadn’t played more than 61 regular season games the last three season because of injuries. Houston’s motivation to move him was at least in part because of his deteriorating relationship with James Harden, which offered more evidence Paul’s incredibly demanding nature as a teammate made him hard to work with.

The draft capitol that changed hands in the Westbrook-for-Paul swap offered further proof of how Paul was no longer considered an asset, at least not on that contract. Oklahoma City was able to strong arm Houston into surrendering first-round picks in 2024 and 2026 (both 1-4 protected), along with pick swaps in 2021 and 2025. Following the deal that sent Paul George to the Clippers, the Thunder’s move for Paul was obviously less about the player and more about the future assets.

Most people didn’t even think Paul would play a game for Oklahoma City. What need did a rebuilding team really have an aging and ultra expensive point guard? There were rumors connecting Paul to the Miami Heat for weeks. But when trade talks broke down and it became apparent CP3 really was going to play for the Thunder, few expected that a playoff run was even in the realm of possibility.

Not only did the Thunder make the playoffs this season — they were actually better than they were a year ago with Westbrook and George. After the slow start, the Thunder were the NBA’s third-best team after Thanksgiving by winning percentage, trailing only the No. 1 seeds (the Bucks and Lakers) in each conference. None of that happens without Paul, who was an absolute wizard on the way to one of the best seasons of his illustrious career.

The Thunder’s season is now over with a last second loss to the Rockets in Game 7 of their first round playoff series. It’s another bummer ending for CP3 in the playoffs, but his season should be viewed as nothing but an incredible success.

The Thunder were thought to be tanking without Westbrook and George. Instead, they only got better with CP3

Oklahoma City was seen as a fringe championship contender in the 2018-2019 season with Paul George locked up to a new contract extension and Westbrook coming off two straight seasons where he averaged a triple-double. Instead, the Thunder were good-not-great all season and saw their campaign end in the first round on an iconic Damian Lillard shot.

The Thunder’s disappointing ending in the 2019 playoffs made it hard to see them as a championship contender again if they ran it back, but it was certainly possible for OKC to make a deep run in the West with some fine-tuning to the roster. George’s trade request to Los Angeles blew the whole thing up and positioned the franchise for a total rebuild. After George and Westbrook were moved, most preseason projections like this one from Jacob Goldstein had the Thunder projected to win 36 games with about a 20 percent chance to make the playoffs.

No one would have guessed OKC would be even better this year, but that’s exactly what happened.

Oklahoma City won 61.1 percent of their games this season and finished with the No. 5 seed in the West playoff picture. A year earlier with George and Westbrook, the Thunder won 59.8 percent of their games and finished with the No. 6 seed.

Credit Oklahoma City for acquiring a proven shooter in the front court in Danilo Gallinari and one of the best young guards in the game in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. The Thunder’s three-guard lineup that also include Dennis Schröder became the league’s most devastating trio, as detailed by writer Michael Pina. Steven Adams also remained serviceable at center, and the Thunder appeared to find a gem in undrafted rookie Luguentz Dort, who briefly turned into the most buzzed about player in the league in Game 7.

There is no doubt who was the driving force behind OKC’s surprising season, though. All of Thunder’s success started with Chris Paul.

Chris Paul turned in one of the best seasons of his career

It sure seemed like Paul’s days as an All-Star were behind him coming into the season. Paul hadn’t made the All-Star team since 2016. There was a group of impressive young perimeter players in the West waiting for their turn. Yes, Paul did become an All-Star this season — remember that alley-oop dunk he threw down? — but he was also so much more than that.

By almost any definition, Paul was one of the best players in the NBA this year. Here are his league-wide rankings in several all-in-one stats that attempt to capture on-court impact and contribution to winning:

  • RPM: No. 5 in the league
  • RAPTOR: No. 12 in the league
  • PIPM: No. 8 in the league

How did Paul do it? Mostly by turning in one of the most efficient shooting seasons of his career. There are a few numbers that jump out:

  • Paul’s 61 percent true shooting this season was the second best mark of his career.
  • He made 55.4 percent of his two-point field goal attempts, his highest mark ever.
  • Paul somehow made 85.2 percent of his shots at the rim, blowing away his previous career-high of 70.6 percent in 2014.

Paul being that good at the rim at such a size and athleticism disadvantage is truly one of the craziest numbers of the season. It’s more evidence that intelligence and craftiness is just as important as outlier physical ability when evaluating players.

Paul was also money at the line, hitting 90.7 percent of his free throws. That should only make Thunder fans more curious why it was Gallinari taking (and missing) a free throw that could have cut the deficit to one point with one second left in Game 7.

CP3 could help a lot of teams if he’s traded

Paul is now under contract for the next two seasons at about $85 million total. It’s still a massive number on a cap sheet, but he’s proven beyond a reasonable doubt that he’s worth the money. The Thunder could easily hold onto Paul for another year, but it would make some sense for executive Sam Presti to cash-in on Paul’s value after a fantastic season. There should be no shortage of suitors lining up to offer him intriguing packages.

The Milwaukee Bucks are on the brink of disaster in their second round series against the Miami Heat. If the Bucks are eliminated, there is no better move on the board than trying to trade for CP3 as a last ditch effort to win a title in the final season Giannis Antetokounmpo is under contract.

The Philadelphia 76ers would be another great fit for Paul. Adding CP3 would help Ben Simmons slide into a more natural power forward role and give the team another knockdown outside shooter. Miami could remain a suitor as well if they fall short this year, though it’s likely the team will want to keep its salary cap space open for Antetokounmpo in the summer of 2021. What if a young team looking to jump to the standings like the Phoenix Suns made a push for Paul?

Of course, working out a trade for CP3 and his giant salary is going to be exceedingly difficult and will likely take multiple teams to pull off. It’s also a question of what would make it worth it for the Thunder, as they already have a ton of future draft picks from the Clippers and Rockets and trading him would surely send the team into full rebuilding mode. Regardless, Paul should have immense value league-wide after his run with the Thunder this year, and that makes him one of the most interesting potential pieces to move during the offseason.

None of this even touches on Paul’s responsibilities as the head of the Players Association during an incredibly trying year, especially once he arrived in the bubble.

Critics will hold Paul’s lack of playoff success against him, but the reality is he dragged a Thunder team no one thought would even make the postseason to a Game 7 and nearly won it. Paul’s numbers throughout the seven game series were pretty great, too: 21.3 points per game on 60.4 percent true shooting.

Chris Paul is far from washed, and he proved it this year. There isn’t a better player to target for a would-be contender this offseason to push them to the next level.

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