When the Oklahoma City Thunder traded Russell Westbrook to the Houston Rockets for Chris Paul and picks, the team seemed to immediately try to flip CP3, a veteran and hyper-competitive point guard, to another team in its quest for a true rebuild. When a good deal couldn’t be found quickly, the Thunder retrenched and decided to enter the season with Paul at the point and designs on flipping him at some point in the future.
There seemed to be at least a little interest in also determining whether the Thunder, with CP3, Danilo Gallinari (acquired in the Paul George deal), Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Steven Adams, and Dennis Schroder, could be competitive in a deep Western Conference.
OKC is now 5-9, and 0-6 on the road. The Thunder aren’t among the very worst teams in the West, but the playoffs do look like a pipe dream. So trading away the remaining veterans seems like the right move going forward. CP3, the oldest and highest-paid of the Thunder vets, would seem to be the top candidate to re-enter the rumor mill, even though the age and salary make him the least attractive of the options.
The problem is that the two most sensible suitors for Paul — the two teams rumors swirled around back when OKC seemed to be openly shopping CP3 — are actually pretty darn good without him.
The Miami Heat are 9-3, a strong third in the East. They are getting good guard play from Kendrick Nunn, Tyler Herro, and Jimmy Butler. Bam Adebayo is a revelation. Goran Dragic is resurgent. The Heat are better than they have been since LeBron James departed in 2014, and disrupting that core — as would be necessary to match CP3’s enormous salary and fit Paul into the rotation — would be dangerous. It’s a needless risk for Miami, unless you think CP3 takes the Heat from a strong No. 3 seed to a Finals contender.
The Minnesota Timberwolves are a surprising 8-7. Karl-Anthony Towns is playing at a first-team All-NBA level. Andrew Wiggins is playing like an all-star while handling the ball more than ever. In fact, much of his increased value comes from his improved playmaking, which one can assume stems from the fact coach Ryan Saunders trusts him to make decisions with the ball given a dearth of other playmaking options for the team. Adding CP3 to that mix takes the ball out of Wiggins’ hands, in theory, and potentially undercuts the progress Wiggins has made, which is quite material to the Timberwolves’ improvement and the boost in Wiggins’ own value given his hefty contract. (There’s also the fact that some of the CP3-Minnesota rumors centered on Wiggins potentially going back to OKC or a third team. Minnesota would seem less inclined to feel like CP3 is a better long-term than Wiggins given how much Maple Jordan has improved.)
So where does that leave the Thunder? Chasing a playoff spot seems unreasonable. The two biggest suitors for Chris Paul seem less inclined to make a play for him. CP3 himself has been pretty good, but has done nothing to dispel the evidence that he is slowing down quickly in his mid-30s. He can shoot and reads the floor better than 95 percent of NBA players. He can become late stage Jason Kidd. But he’s making about $40 million, or more than one-third of the total team salary cap.
The Thunder may be best served by hanging onto him until another team gets desperate or until the decreasing length, and thus burden, of his contract gets softer.
Because CP3 is slowing down in terms of production, he’s not crowding out the development of Gilgeous-Alexander, the single most important player on the roster. The value of Schroder and Adams benefit from CP3’s competence: Schroder is allowed to play a role more suited to his better nature, and Adams can run pick-and-roll and screen for a master of the form. Gallinari’s skills exist in a vacuum — he could put up 20 a night on any roster — and don’t rely on the competencies of players around him. The key is that having CP3 around is a net benefit to the value of the players around him.
Meanwhile, CP3’s presence isn’t helping the Thunder’s assumed quest to get as high a draft pick as possible. But lottery reform has changed the calculus on the benefit of being awful. Right now, OKC is tied for the 10th worst record in the NBA. These days, that gets you roughly a 14 percent chance for a top-5 pick. It’s not terrible. Getting bad enough to be the sixth worst team in the NBA (eminently doable if they trade Gallo and CP3 for spare parts) results in 37 percent odds for a top-5 pick.
That makes it worth it to try. We need to see where and how a market for what Chris Paul offers these days at the price it costs develops.