This time last year, when a rift between James Harden and Chris Paul forced Houston’s hand, Paul was seen as a highly overpaid old-timer on the decline. Most assumed he had little value left as a player relative to the $40-plus million he’d be owed by the end of his contract. Injuries continually derailed the Rockets’ playoff pushes and it seemed as if the shake and peskiness that had defined Paul’s career couldn’t possibly hold up much longer.
But this year, he reframed what could be possible as he nears retirement. Paul, who is 35, can’t do anything to change how much he’s owed over the next two seasons (which is about $85.5 million), but during a throwback All-Star campaign in Oklahoma City, the Point God reminded us of all the things that make him special.
With an elite 61.0 true shooting percentage, it was the most efficient shooting season for Paul since he was a Clipper, and the second-most efficient of his career. And he stayed healthy, starting 70 games for the Thunder in addition to another seven in the playoffs. Most impressively, he gave a sense of purpose and moxie to an Oklahoma City squad that was expected to define success by draft capital rather than playoff wins. Rather than dumping Steven Adams and Danilo Gallinari at mid-season, the Thunder were good enough to make a playoff push and give meaning to what could have been a lost season following the departure of Paul George.
This is Paul in 2020: A genius player and determined leader who is still admittedly being paid too much. That’s still a fairly risky bundle to absorb, but the version of Paul we saw this year is quite a bit more valuable than the Rockets malcontent. Already, many teams — starting with Philadelphia and Milwaukee — have made it known they could make a run at Paul, and with Oklahoma City parting ways with head coach Billy Donovan as the first step of their rebuild, it looks like the Thunder are ready to move him, too.
The best circumstance for Paul is a place where, like he was in Houston, he can be a secondary playmaker and not exert himself too much in the regular season. Teams will still want to be careful with how much they ask of him if they want him at his best in the playoffs. Yet many of these teams exist across the NBA as the league values play-making wings more highly. It’s no coincidence that the Bucks and Sixers — two great teams who fell short this year because their offense runs through bigs — are expected to be among the most aggressive suitors.
That said, here’s what we could be looking at in the Paul sweepstakes this offseason.
These playoffs have reinforced the fact that in the postseason, the easiest way to create good shots in the halfcourt is in the pick-and-roll. Yet the Bucks’ best players rarely hooked up for buckets in these playoffs, and despite creating the third-highest expected effective field goal percentage of any playoff team, Milwaukee was seventh in actual effective field goal percentage. That is the mark of a team that struggled to make good on its usual recipe and whose stars could not make up for missteps.
Paul solves a lot of these issues. He can be effective without having the ball in his hands, as we saw in Houston, meaning Giannis Antetokounmpo can still initiate possessions in transition and from the post, while in late-clock or crunch time situations, Paul can bail the Bucks out better than the likes of Eric Bledsoe or even Khris Middleton.
Milwaukee can put together salaries of Bledsoe and role players to get in business for Paul, and they should be willing to give up multiple first-round picks if that’s what it takes to acquire Paul and upgrade their team in a do-or-die 2020-21 season. The issue is whether they can come close to matching what the Thunder want — or find a third team to make a deal work, as our Robby Kalland looked into earlier.
So much is in flux in Philly that it’s hard to know the Sixers’ priorities. They need a coach, which will help define their desired style, and further front office upheaval could lead to a much different roster going forward. But Elton Brand has made it clear that the team’s goal is to keep Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid going into next season, and Paul complements those two perfectly.
Philadelphia was fifth in the NBA in the proportion of shots taken from floater/post-up range because their halfcourt offense was centered around Embiid and Harris, who prefer those more difficult shots. Overall, over one-fifth of their offensive possessions came via post-ups, almost 10 percentage points higher than second-ranked Denver. They were running an offense that would have been more familiar to “The Last Dance” than the 2020 playoffs.
Rarely has a team had such a glaring weakness and simultaneously done so little to address it as with the Sixers’ need for a perimeter play-maker. Since drafting and dumping Markelle Fultz, the Sixers have effectively acted as if this is not something they need to solve for, but after another playoff disappointment, they have no choice.
Imagine Paul navigating a Simmons screen, running a two-man game with Embiid from the elbow, or hitting Harris off a curl. The possibilities are pretty exciting, and though they made several mistakes in free agency last year, it also means they have the matching salaries for a trade with the Thunder (I picked Al Horford because his contract is shorter than Harris’), as well as young players like Zhaire Smith and all their own first-round picks.
The Mike Conley experiment didn’t go so well for Utah, as it was basically the inverse of what the Thunder got out of the Paul deal. Conley showed his age, shooting worse than 41 percent from the field and being almost a negative player on the whole based on overall stats like Box Plus-Minus. And in the playoffs (when the Jazz were also without Bojan Bogdanovic), head coach Quin Snyder handed the offense almost entirely to Donovan Mitchell.
With Paul next to Mitchell and a supporting cast that includes Bogdanovic, Royce O’Neale and Rudy Gobert, the Jazz are a team that could allow Paul to do much of what he’s most comfortable doing: Initiating offense, setting up teammates, defending point guards, and leading. Utah is still pretty young and has been unable to crack through to the conference finals since Snyder took over. Paul might only be a short-term solution while Mitchell continues to improve, but he could be exactly what the Jazz hoped for from Conley.
Because Conley is on an expiring contract, this could be one of the more attractive deals to Sam Presti and the Thunder as well.
New York Knicks
Especially now that Tom Thibodeau has been hired to coach the Knicks, a grinder like Paul makes even more sense for the team. The other intriguing aspect of Paul going to New York is how it could help the growth of R.J. Barrett, who at Duke and in his rookie season in New York was wildly inconsistent in large part because he had no secondary creator who could take pressure off him, which forced Barrett into tons of bad shots and turnovers.
If Paul can’t finish out this contract on a great team, being close to league headquarters as the union president and playing in a big market under a coach who can match his competitiveness might be one of the best options out there. It’s a stretch, but because Paul is on the trade block and not choosing his destination in free agency, this may ultimately be one of his best options.