On Tuesday, Billy Donovan and Oklahoma City parted ways after a five-year partnership, a tenure that included a conference finals appearance in 2016, Russell Westbrook’s bloodthirsty revenge tour from 2016-18, newly-restored hope with Paul George after that, the Great Flood of Draft Picks after that, and then, lastly, the 2019-20 team with Chris Paul. This season, the Thunder were an unexpected and impractical triumph, a tangle of trajectories that general manager Sam Presti was tasked with sorting out before the 2019-20 season began. For whatever reason, unsuccessful trade attempts or curiosity, Presti let the roster ride. Paul, who could’ve seen Oklahoma as purgatory on his quest to win a ring, ran with the wolves. That they even pushed the Rockets to seven games in the first place was a pleasant surprise for OKC fans.
These Thunder were never built to last. The backcourt of Paul and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander that made OKC so successful this season worked in every way but one: Paul is 35, and SGA is 22. Between Oklahoma City’s massive trades with Houston (where it received Paul and shipped out its cornerstone superstar) and the Clippers (where it received Shai and shipped out its other cornerstone superstar), the franchise acquired 15 first-round picks from 2020 through 2026. All signs, assets, and SGA highlights point to the future. While Paul’s Thunder team thrived, the franchise was shifting toward a younger generation.
After Houston eliminated OKC in the first round last week, Paul posted a video to his Twitter thanking the organization. It sounded like a self send-off.
Man what a season.. Thunder UP!!! ⚡️⚡️⚡️ pic.twitter.com/HkYGp2V75g— Chris Paul (@CP3) September 3, 2020
“To the team, to Sam Presti, Billy Donovan, the training staff, everybody man, and coming there obviously a lot of people tried to count us out, counted me out, and all I can say is, I’ll never forget it. Never forget it. … I don’t know what the future holds, but what I can say is that this team, I think I made some connections and bonds with these guys that’ll last a lifetime.”
In Oklahoma City, Paul thrived, liberated from heavy postseason expectations for the first time since he was last playing in OKC, with the relocated Hornets in 2007. One of my generation’s best point guards was free again—setting up teammates without the weight of the franchise depending on their 3s connecting, driving to the lane with the same throttle of his 22-year-old counterpart (and more efficiently!), harassing refs and the players which he defended. It was fun. It was nostalgic to be so annoyed with and in awe of Paul again.
It seems like a given that the past season would be Paul’s only year in OKC. Presti will have an easier time trading Paul this offseason than he would have last year, when Paul’s contract made him one of the most untradeable players in the league. Paul now has two years left on his gaudy contract, with $41 million owed in 2020-21, and $44 million in 2021-22, making it slightly more digestible. Here are three possible landing spots:
On Brian Windhorst’s The Hoop Collective podcast, Thunder beat reporter Royce Young named New York, Milwaukee, and Philadelphia as the “most likely” landing spots for Paul. The Knicks are somewhat probable because they have room for his daunting contract, a happy side effect from their inability to get anyone else to sign one. Leon Rose, current team president and Paul’s former agent, is also in desperate need of a point guard.
It would be a shock to the franchise to have a competent player in the backcourt. Recently, the Knicks have been run by has-beens or was-supposed-to-have-beens, picking or adopting players who never achieved success like draft-board websites promised they would. (Last season the rotation included Dennis Smith Jr., Elfrid Payton, and Frank Ntilikina; in years past, Emmanuel Mudiay, Trey Burke (before he was Bubble Burke), and Tim Hardaway passed through.) Though this would be dropping Paul into a similar (albeit less appealing) situation. The majority of the roster is 26 or younger with a playoff run nowhere in sight. New York doesn’t have the baked-in comradery that longstanding OKC players like Steven Adams brought to the franchise, either. A trade to New York would be infinitely less helpful to Paul’s career than it would be to the Knicks, who need someone like Paul to guide and prod their young players as Tom Thibodeau grinds into them.
If Milwaukee trades for Paul, it would be with the same desperation that pushed Houston to acquire him in 2017. The Rockets needed a dramatic change to push past the Warriors in the West and saw an experienced, highly competent guard to pair with James Harden as the answer. That plan didn’t quite work, but the thinking could be similar in Milwaukee. The Bucks’ front office feels similar distress now after being roundhouse-kicked out of the playoffs by the Heat in the second round.
Paul went to Houston three years ago; even then, it seemed like the Rockets had taken an enormous risk by agreeing to his long and weighty contract. The thought of the Bucks pining for a chance at the back-end of that deal explains how uniquely dire their situation is. Milwaukee defended and shot its way to a fantastic regular season, to the top seed in the East, to a Defensive Player of the Year award for Giannis Antetokounmpo (likely another MVP award, too). But with each failed postseason, they’re at risk of wasting Giannis’s prime and losing his interest. In 2021, he’ll hit free agency.
A versatile ball handler and off-ball guard like Paul fits the Bucks on both ends, freeing Giannis to… shoot… and making his own buckets when his pterodactyl teammate is better off flying inside. In fact, before he was traded to the Thunder, Paul reportedly wished to play next to Giannis. It’s not that hard to imagine the 2019-20 version of CP3 alongside Khris Middleton and Giannis beating Miami, which should be enough for Milwaukee to consider it. But a large package would need to go Oklahoma City’s way—not quite to the degree as the 2017 trade for Paul, when the Rockets sent Patrick Beverley, Sam Dekker, Montrezl Harrell, Darrun Hilliard, DeAndre Liggins, Lou Williams, Kyle Wiltjer, a future first round pick, and cash considerations to the Clippers—if only to make the money work. Plus, Presti is likely still interested in draft assets and shorter contracts. After Middleton and Giannis, Milwaukee’s most match-friendly contracts are Eric Bledsoe (under contract until 2023), Brook Lopez (also under contract until 2023) and George Hill (under contract until 2022).
The hottest mess on this list is Philadelphia. (New York is more of a cold, gelatinous mess with little immediate hope of warmth.) A mountain of uncertainties remained after the Sixers were swept by the Celtics in the first round and fired Brett Brown. Joel Embiid seemed to be subtweeting the organization as he watched Jimmy Butler surpass his playoff high against the Bucks. Meanwhile, the Sixers hadn’t found a proper replacement for Butler—Shake Milton was starting in the postseason—and the ever-persistent question of whether Embiid and Ben Simmons will ever work together presides, even though Simmons missed the playoffs.
How much change Paul could affect in Philly depends on who replaces Brown, and where that coach places Simmons. Paul is the capable crunch-time shooter they’ve been looking for, and the extra ball handler they could use, and a dependable defender. Tacking his contract onto a payroll that includes Al Horford or Tobias Harris—one would have to go to make this trade work—could wind up leaving the franchise with such little flexibility that it drives one or both of its superstars away, and would finish this Sixers era altogether. That’s the worst-case scenario. But it’s also not much worse than doing nothing.