Why the NBA's Biggest Offseason Prize Could Be 35-Year-Old Chris Paul

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistOctober 28, 2020

In this March 8, 2020, photo, Oklahoma City Thunder's Chris Paul plays against the Boston Celtics during an NBA basketball game in Boston. Making it safe for America's professional sports teams to start playing games is one thing. Making sure athletes are in game shape is another. Experts say nothing should be rushed. Athletes in the NBA, NHL and Major League Baseball all indicate that a few weeks of training is necessary before any games. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)
Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

The race to the 2020-21 NBA championship might be decided by a 35-year-old who is objectively and colossally overpaid.

Seems impossible, right? Well, among 2020's myriad mysteries, this one actually makes some sense.

See, it's not just any 35-year-old. It's Chris Paul. Oh, and in case there were any misunderstandings stemming from his rocky split with the Houston Rockets—there shouldn't have been since he was absurdly productive in Space City—he's absolutely still the Point God and capable of leveling up to Point Gawd any given night.

Sound hyperbolic for an aging 6'1" point guard who's never had otherworldly athleticism? Think again.

This past season, his 15th in the Association, he paced his position and ranked fifth overall in ESPN's real plus-minus. Also, he was one of three players to average 17 points, six assists and fewer than 2.5 turnovers. Also also, he powered the Oklahoma City Thunder, a team oddsmakers picked to finish 13th in the West, to the No. 5 spot in the final conference standings.

He is, as someone's kids might say, kind of a big deal, which makes the CP3 trade sweepstakes kind of a massive, landscape-altering deal.

One glance at his potential suitors shows how heavily he could factor into the 2021 title pursuit. It starts with the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers and Paul's fellow banana-boater, LeBron James.

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"Chris Paul would love to come back to L.A. I know it would be a dream come true for Chris," an Eastern Conference executive told B/R's Eric Pincus. "I know LeBron loves and trusts him and he would be a good fit."

Putting Paul on the Lakers would be like when you beat the final boss in a video game and get rewarded with a bonus item that makes the game easier the second time around. Provided the Purple and Gold avoid the obvious possible pitfalls involved with relying heavily on two 35-year-olds, L.A. could make simultaneous pushes to be crowned the league's smartest and most skilled team.

Paul is the third scorer and support shot-creator who could shift this offense, which finished just 11th in efficiency last season despite nightly magic acts from James and Anthony Davis, into overdrive. He didn't have a lob threat or a slew of scoring help in OKC and still finished in the 93rd percentile as a pick-and-roll ball-handler.

Giving him pick-and-choose partners like James and Davis might meet the legal requirements of a fair competition law violation.

"If that moment ever happens, you're putting some of the greatest basketball minds together," Dwyane Wade said on ESPN's First Take (h/t Heavy.com's J.R. De Groote). "... When you think about what LeBron and [Rajon] Rondo accomplished this year, how they made that team work, if you add CP to that same kind of mix, Jesus Chris that's domination."

It's a terrifying thought for 29 other teams. Then again, so is the idea of Paul joining forces with two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo on the Milwaukee Bucks.

The Badger State's best have delivered basketball's top record both this season and last but were tripped up ahead of the championship round each time. Tagging Paul in for Eric Bledsoe might be Milwaukee's secret sauce.

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Now, here's where a casual fan says something snarky about Paul's playoff past and the lack of major team success. But that ill-advised remark can be quickly and permanently brushed off with this: Paul has top-10 career postseason rankings in player efficiency rating (24.2, eighth) and win shares per 48 minutes (0.195, ninth) among players with 100-plus playoff appearances.

For Milwaukee, Paul could handle the half-court creation and shot-making duties Bledsoe has failed to supply without giving back much (if anything) at the defensive end.

"Financially they'd have to figure it out, but he's exactly what they need there," an agent told The Athletic.

The same may be true of the Philadelphia 76ers.

Their talent is undeniable, but so too is the fact none of it fits together very well. How many teams packed more talent into their starting five than Philly's quintet of Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid, Tobias Harris, Josh Richardson and Al Horford? Not many, if any at all. But how many clubs had more efficient offenses? Thirteen.

That barely seems possible and helps explain why former skipper Brett Brown is out of work despite helping Philly tie for the fifth-best record over the past three seasons. But a coaching change can only take this club so far.

New head coach Doc Rivers knows as well as anyone how critical Paul's on-court leadership can be. The pair spent four seasons together with the Los Angeles Clippers, during which time the club ranked third in both winning percentage and margin of victory.

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The Sixers need a mastermind to somehow align all their various puzzle pieces. They don't have the flexibility to find that player in free agency or the on-hand prospects to develop him in house. But that's just as well since Paul looks like the perfect solution to their problems.

"Even at 35, Paul is one of the league's elite players, and the Sixers' championship window is closing," Keith Pompey wrote for the Philadelphia Inquirer. "They need to win now, and change the culture. He's equipped to help them do both."

The New York Knicks also figure to be in the running for Paul after hiring his former agent, Leon Rose, to take control of their front office, which...well, let's just hope Paul lands somewhere other than NYC.

Sure, they need a culture change as bad as anyone, and maybe he'd eventually help make them more desirable to top-tier players. But again, he's 35 years old. Hopefully, the basketball gods have something more substantial planned for his twilight years than having him serve as the Knicks' brand ambassador.

Of course, all of this assumes the Thunder are definitely dealing him this summer, which doesn't necessarily have to be the case. While this seems like a logical time for OKC to fully embrace its inevitable rebuild—Paul's send-off speech from the bubble surely felt like a farewell to the Sooner State—the right deal must be available for general manager Sam Presti to pull the trigger.

Paul isn't getting salary-dumped this time around. And if that's all his suitors are offering, OKC could stand pat and impact the championship race by keeping win-now players away from contenders. If Paul stays, maybe Danilo Gallinari returns in free agency and Steven Adams never sniffs the trade block.

But Paul shouldn't stay. Between free agency's shortage of spenders and stars, as well as all the question marks with the upcoming draft class, Paul might be the most important player up for grabs this offseason. Unless the trade market collapses, it'll almost certainly be in OKC's best interest to sell.

Contenders should already be angling to meet the Thunder's asking price since several could realistically picture Paul being the difference between celebrating a world title and wondering where it all went wrong.