In today’s often hyperbolic, social media-driven world, we revel in extremes in the NBA, particularly on the negative end of the spectrum. A team is either a title contender or it sucks and should tank. A coach is either a mastermind or incompetent. A player is either a star or garbage.
This is especially true when it comes to appraising trade values of players near the February 6 deadline. A player is either underrated because he’s on a great contract or he’s “the most untradeable contract in the league.” And once a player is designated as having an untradeable contract, he's nothing more than dead weight sinking his team’s salary cap. John Wall, Russell Westbrook, Kevin Love -– they will all be synonymous with the phrase “horrible contract” until the expiration of their current max deals.
And then there’s the curious case of Oklahoma City's Chris Paul.
CP3 has accomplished the unthinkable over the past six months, dragging his trade value from the Seventh Circle of Hell into a strange purgatory where he could be flipped for an asset or two. But neither he nor OKC seems interested in doing that in 2020 because he’s probably more valuable to the Thunder than he would be to any other team. Paul, who will be 35 by the end of this season, has, at least for this season, become the NBA’s version of Benjamin Button. (For those of you who are pop culturally unsound, click here.)
How did Paul, who is on Year 2 of his four-year, $159.7M max deal, accomplish this feat? Let’s start at rock bottom.
May 10, 2019
The Rockets lost Game 6 in Houston to the Kevin Durant-less Warriors, eliminating Houston from the playoffs. Tension between Rockets stars James Harden and CP3 reached a boiling point; the two had multiple animated verbal exchanges throughout the series. After Game 6, when asked where the Rockets went wrong and how they could address their issues, Harden told reporters, “I know what we need to do. I know exactly what we need to do. We’ll figure it out this summer.”
Though it wasn’t entirely clear at the time what or whom Harden was referring to with that foreboding statement, in the coming weeks, we soon learned about behind-the-scenes turmoil between Harden and Paul. It made Harden seem stubborn and Paul seem stubborn, old and pestering. This was rock bottom for Paul’s trade value. This was a 6-foot-1, 34-year-old point guard whose knees were as worn out as his leadership style. He’d managed to maneuver his way to two contenders (Clippers and Rockets), but he had failed to make the Finals with either team. Plus, he left a wake of misery behind him after each departure.
July 11, 2019
Paul insisted he hadn’t demanded a trade. Rockets GM Daryl Morey repeatedly shot down rumors that he was shopping him. But then Houston traded Paul to Oklahoma City for Russell Westbrook, two first-round draft picks and two first-round pick swaps. At the time, the Thunder’s acquisition of Paul seemed like nothing more than a layover before he was eventually re-routed to a team that wasn’t in the midst of a full-scale rebuild. That seemed to be the Thunder's plan in dealing Westbrook and Paul George.
There was a problem with this layover assumption, however: Paul’s contract, which still had three years and $124.1M remaining on it, was considered untradeable. He was more than a negative asset. Teams would rather agree to do business with convicted fraudster Billy McFarland and host the next Fyre Festival than take on the risk that came with acquiring CP3.
Fortunately for the Thunder, there’s also a basketball side to the NBA –- it’s more than a transactional simulation, which some people tend to forget. And even at his advanced basketball age, CP3 was about to prove that he still had a lot left in the tank.
December 16, 2019
For the second time in 10 days, Paul scored 30 points, leading the Thunder to a 109-106 victory over the Bulls. For good measure, he also chipped in 10 rebounds and eight assists and shot a wonderfully efficient 9-for-12 from the field. The game not only served as notice that Paul is still capable of routine Point God-like performances, but it also jump-started a stretch in which the Thunder won nine of 10 games. By the end of that run, OKC was entrenched in the playoff hunt. Paul’s averages over those 10 games were superb: 17.9 points, 6.7 rebounds and 7.3 assists, with 50-38-94 shooting splits.
Once expected to be obvious sellers at the trade deadline, the Thunder (23-18) could talk themselves into being buyers. It also really began to flip the narrative on Paul, who has been a great leader and mentor for future superstar Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, a second-year pro who is already making the leap. SGA averages 20 points, 5.7 rebounds and 3.0 assists. He even put up a 20-point, 20-rebound, 10-assist game earlier this week in Minnesota.
During the Thunder run, opponents had trouble with OKC’s funky, three-point guard closing lineup featuring Paul, SGA, Dennis Schröder, Danilo Gallinari and Steven Adams. That lineup has a plus-31.4 net rating in 30 games (117 minutes) this season -– by far the best five-man lineup in the NBA that has played over 100 minutes together. The trade chatter surrounding Paul began to die down during the 10-game stretch. So did the Paul “worst contract in the league” talk.
January 9, 2020
Paul’s trade value turnaround has even featured a revenge element. On a night that was supposed to be all about the Rockets’ Russell Westbrook and his triumphant return to Oklahoma City (video tribute and all), Paul upstaged Russ. He also signaled a bright future for the Thunder and reminded the Rockets of the grave mistake of trading him. Paul registered 18 points, six rebounds, five assists and only one turnover in a 21-point OKC win. He capped the night with an emphatic nutmeg in front of Westbrook, reminding the world he's still got game.
For the season, Paul has played in all 41 of OKC’s games, averaging 16.5 points, 5.0 rebounds and 6.5 assists. He has shooting splits of 47-36-90, a 20.6 player efficiency rating and a plus-12 net rating per 100 possessions. Paul ranks in the top 10 in the NBA in total steals, assists, and free throw percentage. Plus, he is 11th in win shares (4.0) and 16th in value over replacement player (2.0).
From an efficiency standpoint, he’s effectively the same player he has always been, albeit he doesn’t have the ball in his hands as frequently. His usage rate (22.1 percent) is the second lowest in his career. Most importantly, perhaps, he has turned the reins over to SGA and Schröder instead of dominating the ball every possession. That's leadership.
And if all of that weren’t enough, he’s one of the more clutch players in the league, averaging the seventh-most points (3.7) in clutch situations. His field goal percentage has improved every quarter this season, topping off at 54 percent in the fourth quarter.
Put simply, the Thunder rely on Paul to be their closer, their leader. He isn’t meant to be a mercenary for a championship contender this season. So, even though he’s revitalized his trade value to the point where he’d be viewed as an asset again, the Thunder isn't trading him anywhere.
Chris Paul is exactly where he needs to be.