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Chris Paul Is Stuck in a Limbo of His Own Creation

The Thunder star might be marooned in Oklahoma City for the indefinite future. While CP3 claims he was blindsided by Daryl Morey’s offseason trade, there’s another person responsible for his sobering reality: himself.

AP Images/Ringer illustration

Chris Paul has never been one for false steps. It’s part of what makes him such a challenging teammate, most of all to those who don’t know better or bother to learn. There is a ceaseless frustration in seeing things that other people don’t. Paul has been frank about the challenges of playing with people who aren’t as invested in every possession. He has gesticulated wildly toward teammates he thought to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, as if pointing alone could move bodies through space. Many of the teammates Paul has scolded will nonetheless refer to him, even now, as a genius.

Paul’s brother, C.J., also concedes that, on the court, Chris is an “asshole.”

“There’s just no other way to say it,” he told our own Jordan Ritter Conn back in April. This is what it looks like when a person of exceptional intensity makes precision the guiding principle of their life. You can hear it in the way Paul speaks: carefully, methodically, navigating questions as if he were snaking through a pick-and-roll. There is a great deal of intentionality in how Paul conducts himself, and sometimes annoyance if control is wrested away. When Paul was asked on media day about the offseason reports that he and James Harden had grated on each other in Houston, the 34-year-old point guard spoke respectfully of his two years with the Rockets before veering into a question of messaging. Of authorship.

“People always try to tell your story,” he said then. This week, Paul made it a point to tell his own. In an interview with Marc Spears of The Undefeated, Paul reflected on the trade that sent him from Houston to Oklahoma City. According to Paul, Rockets general manager Daryl Morey assured him he wouldn’t be traded to the Thunder just days before he was.

“I was shocked,” Paul told The Undefeated. “Truth be told, I just talked to Daryl a couple days before the trade and he said he wasn’t going to trade me [to Oklahoma City]. That’s funny because that is going to be the alert that pops up on everybody’s phone because nobody knows that. But what the hell, I just said it.”

These latest comments echo something Paul told investigative journalist Kevin Hart in a previous interview, conducted in a cold tub, as all great interviews are. When Hart asked Paul about the business of being traded and if he ever felt like he had been “stabbed in the back,” Paul cited his most recent trade and “the GM there in Houston,” specifically. “He may tell me one thing but do another thing,” Paul said. “But you just understand that that’s what it is.”

Morey characterized the discussion around the trade quite differently when I spoke with him in late September, while reporting a story for Sports Illustrated. The Rockets have made it a point in recent years to treat their superstars as stakeholders, inviting their input on a variety of organizational decisions. Considering that Paul had been dealt from a title contender to a team in transition, I asked Morey about what voice Paul had in being traded to the Thunder for Russell Westbrook.

“When [the rumors of a trade] came out, I told Chris, ‘Hey, this is one we’re looking at,’ and for it to work, CBA-wise, it almost had to involve him,” Morey said. “Lucky for me, he’s a pro and a very smart guy. He didn’t want to go anywhere. He appreciated I told him, but he told me he wasn’t excited about the idea. He did have teams that he sorta wanted to go to, but early on in the process, in talking to Oklahoma City, they wanted it to just be a one-to-one team trade, and they would work out any secondary deals after. I told Chris that. I told Chris when the deal was done. Some of those conversations were hard—harder for him, obviously, ’cause it’s a bigger change for him. He was always a pro throughout. I hope he’d say we were the same.”

Clearly, that’s not the case. This was the first move of Paul’s NBA career that was squarely out of his hands. There was no trade demand (like the one that sent Paul from the Hornets to the Clippers in 2011) and no player option (which allowed him to angle his way to the Rockets in 2017). Paul did, however, have a fascinating part to play in suppressing his own market. Where transactions are concerned, an NBA player is bonded to his contract. It’s the vehicle that determines where he goes and how he gets there, as specified in the labyrinth of the collective bargaining agreement.

The vast majority of NBA players are merely subject to that document and all its arcana. (What tyranny is the apron!) Paul was one of the few who, as president of the National Basketball Players Association since 2013, had a role in crafting it. The most conspicuous bit of negotiation came by changing the over-36 rule—a provision that made it more difficult for teams to sign veterans to longer contracts stretching beyond their 36th birthday—to an over-38 rule … just in time for Paul to take advantage at the age of 32 with a four-year, $159.7 million contract. It was under Paul’s own executive leadership that he would sign a deal to become the second-highest-paid player in the league this season. And it’s because of that deal that Paul now finds himself in a limbo of his own making.

Players should push for whatever the market allows, but sometimes it allows for contracts so unwieldy as to become a burden. Paul remains a very good basketball player: productive, brilliant, and highly impactful. It speaks volumes that the Thunder are a net-positive team with Paul on the floor. There are, however, only so many franchises that would even entertain the idea of trading for a contract of his size, and fewer still that could muster a legal, fair, and interesting package in return. Now that Paul has left the ready-made Rockets, his contract could well be contention-proof—demanding of so much salary in a trade that he would likely diminish any team that lands him. Whether by giving up instrumental players (how else could another team put together almost $40 million in salary?) or eating the opportunity cost that comes with taking on the next two years of Paul’s contract, a team trading for Paul would have to be working from a place of desperation.

This is why, according to a report from Ethan Strauss of The Athletic, some of the NBA’s rank-and-file laughed when Paul was traded to the Thunder. Some of the superstar-first policies that Paul helped enact as NBPA president have not been popular among his full constituency, regardless of the case that star players might deserve an even bigger cut than they’re currently allowed. This trade, then, was a kind of reckoning—proof that a player who has his cake might be able to only nibble around the edges.

For a ruthless competitor stuck on a merely decent team (OKC is 8-12, 10th in the West), Paul—to his credit—has seemed in fairly good spirits. Before the season started, he joined fellow Thunder newcomer Shai Gilgeous-Alexander for a workout, largely for the sake of getting to know each other. Paul is part of the reason even a team in this state is bad at so little; there is a competency that comes with having a playmaker on the floor who knows the reads of the league. When the Thunder needed a defender to check LeBron James down the stretch of a close game with the Lakers, Paul took the job and acquitted himself admirably. He has been vocal, accountable, and deferential as a member of the Thunder, understanding that part of his new job is allowing players like Gilgeous-Alexander to grow.

It’s an honest effort to make the most of his circumstances, though it does little to change them. There are so few plausible trade destinations that make sense for Paul this season. Miami, the early rumored favorite, has gone 15-6 by playing a balanced style with a rookie point guard about 10 years Paul’s junior. If Minnesota has interest, it would be complicated by the fact that Andrew Wiggins is playing the best basketball of his career by helping initiate the offense. A trade for Paul, if it doesn’t involve Wiggins, would seem to get in the way of that—to say nothing of the differences in timeline between Paul and 24-year-old Karl-Anthony Towns. Would the Sixers attempt to go mainstream by pursuing Paul for Tobias Harris? (And would Oklahoma City even be interested in taking custody of his five-year, $180 million deal?) Even teams that are intent on locking in a playoff spot (like Charlotte or Orlando) would have trouble piecing together offers that make sense. You can never count out the Knicks from doing something contrary to their best interests, but trading for Paul when the rest of the roster makes so little sense feels like a stretch, even for them.

The hope, in potentially trading for Paul, is that he could do for a new team something similar to what Jason Kidd once did for the Mavericks: take an already capable squad and make their operations that much more fluid. When Dallas traded for Kidd in 2008, he was roughly the age that Paul is now. The differences, however, are crucial. Part of what gave Kidd staying power was size, which Paul won’t have working in his advantage. And by the time the Mavericks won the title in 2011, Kidd’s contract took up only about 15 percent of the salary cap. As it stands now, Paul accounts for more than 35 percent of the cap—and counting.

Maybe it’s best, then, that Paul get comfortable wandering the Great Plains. Part of the appeal for the Thunder in completing a two-team trade, as Morey described, is that it gives them the freedom to play the market on their own time. The circumstances in this case are so particular—and the market for Paul’s services so specific—that it makes sense to wait for the exact right scenario. It could take months. It could take years. All of which forces Paul, one of the game’s all-time-great point guards, to come to terms with something entirely new in his 15th season: the restlessness of a fate beyond his control.