If you would’ve asked anyone who watched basketball what they thought of the Oklahoma City Thunder before the season started the answer would’ve been relatively the same. Everyone felt that they would’ve been a lottery team that was in the first year of their rebuild. After all, the 2019 offseason saw them trade away franchise player Russell Westbrook and his co-star Paul George. Paul George was sent to the west coast for a collection of draft picks and young players. Westbrook, as beloved as he was in Oklahoma City, was sent to play with former teammate James Harden in Houston. What did they get in return? Chris Paul and another collection of draft picks. Chris Paul had just signed a MASSIVE extension and was showing his age. He had certainly regressed and looked to be on a fast decline. And yet, here we are over a year later, and a game seven is looming for Oklahoma City. Their opponent? None other than the Houston Rockets.
To say Oklahoma City overachieved or surpassed expectations would be an understatement. The Thunder, projected to be a bottom feeder of the western conference, finished the season as the five seed in the western conference, had three players in the top 20 of “clutch scoring”, and overall have been a very good basketball team. They’ve found themselves in a spot to advance to the second round of the playoffs and that’s great for the organization. However, whether they defeat Houston and move on or lose to Houston and get sent packing, the team has to explore trading Chris Paul in the off-season.
Let’s clarify one thing: Chris Paul has played phenomenal this season. He’s had a bounce-back year after a lowly year in Houston and has thrived in the mentor/floor-general role that he’s been allowed in OKC. His quality of performance is the not the reason that OKC has to look into trading him. Instead, it’s every other factor that surrounds Paul and the team itself. Chris Paul is 35 years old, which even in a modern NBA where age limits are being pushed (Carmelo Anthony, Dwight Howard, and LeBron James are examples), and will only physically decline. While Paul has built his game off limited athleticism, there has to be an expected drop-off coming soon, especially when you consider his history of suffering injuries. Assuming that Paul won’t rapidly decline while staying healthy is a VERY big risk for any team to make, especially one that has an uncertain future like OKC. After all, it can easily be argued that this season is an outlier rather than the expected result from this roster. That brings me to my next point.
Chris Paul’s trade value will never be higher than it is right now. Chris Paul was voted an all-star and will likely be on some form of all-NBA team. He’s looked extremely good as an individual and as a teammate/leader by guiding this misfit OKC squad to where they are now. But who’s to say that this can be sustained? Chris Paul’s last season in Houston showed just how much he’s capable of falling and how easily it can happen. If OKC were to keep him, they would have to take that risk. Which then, in return, could have them stuck with two more years of paying Chris Paul, who will be pushing 40, over $40M a year. That’s a tall order, especially for a team that is a small-market team like the Thunder. The team sits at $-24.3M as of today, so to keep players such as Dennis Schröder and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, they’d absolutely dive in luxury tax if Chris Paul was kept on the book. Tying back to his value, the haul for Chris Paul as of now wouldn’t exactly be great. He’s 35 and has two more years of over $40M, but that doesn’t mean that the market is dead. There are teams that will try to find that final piece to push them over the edge and could look to Paul as that piece based on how he has performed this season. But if they hold on to him and he regresses hard? The little market that exists for him now would completely dry up. They would be stuck with that contract and the last thing you want in basketball is to be stuck with a contract. Earlier, I mentioned two players that OKC would like to retain, so let’s look at the team overall.
Dennis Schröder, who is a 6th man of the year candidate and is only 26 years old, will be on the final year of his bargain contract next year. He’s making a flat $15.5M this season and next year, which is an underpay for the production he’s been able to give the Thunder off the bench this season. The player that Schröder shares the backcourt with? Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who was the centerpiece of the Paul George trade. SGA is 21 years old and on his rookie contract. He has three more years of team control, but quality rookies rarely finish out their rookie deal without an extension. While OKC has made the three point-guard system work, everything indicates that the smarter move would be to ship Paul out and extend Schröder and SGA.
While this might seem out of place, especially with OKC sitting in a playoff game right now, the NBA is all about looking towards the future. Everyone knows that this Thunder roster isn’t contending for a championship, with or without Paul. Despite his outstanding play this season, the only smart move is to trade him. There are question marks surrounding his sustainability regarding his play, his age, and his health. Teams, especially small-market teams like OKC, can’t risk those factors sending them to cap space hell with how rapidly moving the league is. They have to cash out on Chris Paul’s maximized value and do what’s best for their franchise in the longterm.