Conflicting Rumors on Chris Paul's Thunder Future After Russell Westbrook Trade

Joseph Zucker@@JosephZuckerFeatured ColumnistJuly 12, 2019

Houston Rockets' Chris Paul during the second half in Game 4 of the NBA basketball Western Conference Finals against the Golden State Warriors Tuesday, May 22, 2018, in Oakland, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

The Oklahoma City Thunder plan to retain nine-time All-Star Chris Paul after acquiring him from the Houston Rockets, according to Sam Amick of The Athletic:

ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski first reported the Thunder dealt Russell Westbrook for Paul, two first-round picks and two first-round pick swaps on Thursday night. However, he noted that the Thunder "could continue to work to find a new team for the 34-year-old Paul."

Wojnarowski initially reported May 29 the Rockets were looking to reshuffle their roster this offseason and Paul was among the players they were open to moving.

The drama ramped up in June when Yahoo Sports' Vincent Goodwill reported Paul had demanded a trade after his relationship with James Harden broke down. The two stars went almost two months during the 2018-19 season without talking to one another, according to Goodwill.

General manager Daryl Morey acted quickly to refute the report and say the sky wasn't falling in Houston.

The injuries to Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson seemingly opened up a path to the NBA Finals since the Golden State Warriors are effectively looking at a lost year in 2019-20. Durant also left to sign with the Brooklyn Nets

Perhaps the Rockets could've run it back and finally captured the title that eluded them the past two seasons.

But this trade would appear to indicate the rumors of friction between Harden and Paul may have had some level of truth. And if that's the case, then Paul is clearly the more expendable of the two. Harden led the NBA in assists (11.2) when he ran the offense in 2016-17, so the Rockets can trade one of the NBA's best point guards and still have a dynamic playmaker on the floor.

Furthermore, Harden gets to reunite with Westbrook, his teammate on the Thunder from 2009-2012.

Paul is set to earn $124 million over the next three years assuming he opts into the final year of his contract. That deal is burdensome on its own and gets worse considering the player turned 34 in May.

Because of those two factors, many questioned whether the Rockets could find a trade partner who'd be willing to acquire Paul.

Thunder fans will rightfully wonder whether he's worth the cost of his contract.

Paul missed 24 games in 2018-19, the third straight year in which he was out for 20-plus games. He also shot a career-low 41.9 percent from the field while connecting on 35.8 percent of his three-pointers, down from 38.0 percent and 41.1 percent in the previous two seasons.

His 8.1 net rating was his lowest since 2011-12, per NBA.com, though he was fourth among point guards in ESPN.com's real plus-minus (4.76).

In general, Paul is on the wrong side of the aging curve. His performance will almost certainly continue to decline in 2019-20, and the concerns about his durability aren't going anywhere. 

In a vacuum, he makes almost any team better. But his contract has to enter into the equation, much in the same way Westbrook and John Wall's supermax extensions impact their overall value going forward.

By the time $44.2 million player option rolls around in 2021-22, OKC may come to regret signing off on this trade. As it stands, the Thunder are an even more puzzling destination because this represents a lateral move for the team.

Even if one argues Paul is better than Westbrook, the gap is negligible. Paul is also four years older and hasn't built up a wealth of goodwill with the fanbase.

Perhaps general manager Sam Presti intends to turn around and trade Paul at a later date, but he'll encounter the same issues that limited the options available to the Rockets.

When he dealt Paul George to the Los Angeles Clippers, Presti did a great job by getting back a young guard (Shai Gilgeous-Alexander) and five first-round draft picks. Those assets together will help the Thunder move on to a new era.

Acquiring Paul is the exact opposite of that. He doesn't turn Oklahoma City into a title contender and his contract will hinder what the team can do in the future.

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