Rumblings of a Chris Paul and Phoenix Suns union have been ongoing for weeks.
Whether it was educated speculation, a former front office executive answering a fan’s question in a Q&A or Arizona Sports’ John Gambadoro refusing to shut down the possibility of the Suns trading for the 35-year point guard, it’s been there.
It became real Tuesday night when ESPN reported that Phoenix has been involved in discussing a trade with the Oklahoma City Thunder. As of Wednesday, the NBA remains in a trading freeze, but with the draft a week out, that will be lifted shortly.
As we wait, here are a few things you should know about a potential trade, from what it could take on Phoenix’s end to how it might go if it happens.
Yes, Kelly Oubre and Ricky Rubio would probably be involved
The No. 1 reaction many in the Suns universe had once Brian Windhorst and Tim Bontemps’ report on ESPN dropped: Do the Suns really have to give up Kelly Oubre Jr.?
The short, simple answer is “yes” if it’s a two-team deal.
To get the deal done, Phoenix must clear enough space off the roster to make room for a massive $41.4 million payout to Paul for the 2020-21 season. In fact, they must include those two players plus another. ESPN’s Kevin Pelton suggests guaranteeing a deal for either Cheick Diallo, Elie Okobo or Cam Payne and including them to get it done.
The Suns cannot absorb half of Paul’s deal into the $17 million or so cap space they might have because that space is only available if they let a bunch of their bench players walk — and then they wouldn’t have money to fill out a full roster!
What the Suns can do is hold off on making the trade official, operate through the draft and free agency with the current roster, sign a free agent starting power forward like Danilo Gallinari or Davis Bertans, and then submit the Paul deal after burning that cap space.
The order of it all gets messy, but to keep it simple, yes, Rubio and Oubre look like the two main sacrifices barring three- or four-team trades. Gambadoro reports that the Thunder do not want multi-year deals coming back, which would require the Suns to find other avenues to get a deal done.
We shall not go down that complicated road.
Will it cost the Suns much more than those two starters?
It shouldn’t take a lot more, but despite the Thunder’s lack of leverage with the team losing coach Billy Donovan and looking to hit reset even more so, the good news for the Suns is that Oklahoma City has little choice but to move on from Paul and his gigantic contract. They’ve been known to do right by players and move them if that’s their desire.
Pelton suggests that throwing in the Suns’ No. 10 draft pick for next week’s event might even be overkill.
If that was the deal-breaker, perhaps a pick swap — Oklahoma City has the No. 25 selection this year — would be sufficient for the Suns to still add a rotation piece, getting two (Paul and a draft pick, say Desmond Bane) for two (Rubio and Oubre).
What does the trade bring in terms of upside?
We can admit Ricky Rubio was a breath of fresh air and that Chris Paul is an immediate upgrade at point guard. While he might be slowing down at 35 years old, Paul is one of the smartest players in the game and remains a physical defender at the point of attack.
He averaged 17.6 points, 6.7 assists and 5.0 rebounds per game while making the All-Star game last year. He shot 49% from the floor and 37% from three, an uptick compared to his two years prior playing as a ball-dominating guard for the Houston Rockets.
Paul’s lone season in Oklahoma City should be promising from several perspectives. It showed his willingness to work with a relatively young roster that surprised many by going 44-28 before falling to the Rockets in a seven-game playoff series.
After Paul and James Harden didn’t get along in basketball terms and beyond from 2017-19, the point guard resumed his elite pick-and-role play in a more diverse system with the Thunder. He shot 54.7% in pick-and-rolls himself and is right in line with Rubio as one of the five best pure passing point guards in the league.
While Paul actually was used in pick-and-rolls much more frequently with the Thunder compared to his Rockets days — I would have thought the opposite — he touched the ball much less often. Playing with guards Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Dennis Schroder, it suggests he would not be a slogging presence in terms of ball movement in coach Monty Williams’ 0.5 offense.
That he knows Williams from their time together in New Orleans would be further evidence that he’s willing to fit in, too.
All that suggests he should take the burden off Devin Booker even more than Rubio did. Ideally, he would boost Deandre Ayton’s rim-rolling production and give Phoenix a defensive and leadership boost to immediately peg the team as a true playoff contender rather than a play-in game hopeful.
What are the risks?
Injuries, for one. Paul has missed at least 15 games in seven of his 15 prior NBA seasons. Last year, he played 70 games in the coronavirus-shortened season, making his first All-Star game since the 2015-16 season.
If the Suns can find a third guard, keep Booker as involved as last year and get a power forward via the draft or free agency who can act as a connector, maybe Paul’s mileage can be managed.
Even if there’s dropoff, he’s still a very good player on both sides of the ball.
The next worry is about personality.
Rubio was a calming, quiet influence on the Suns, while Oubre was a positive, vibey personality on the court and off. Usually, Oubre having a big game was a stamp of approval for the Suns to win.
The locker room dynamics would certainly change if Paul is incoming.
He’s an alpha for sure, and the on-the-record division between he and Harden was covered extensively during their playoff series this past season. Paul’s second NBA team, the Los Angeles Clippers, broke up as he, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan went through their issues.
Booker and Paul should be fine. Booker comes with his own fire but, you would think, won’t take criticism the wrong way.
It’s a matter if the other players, Ayton especially, will improve when being pushed hard each and every day.
How does this limit the Suns financially?
First of all, legitimate interest in Paul says the Suns are willing to spend big. They’ve not even sniffed tax territory of late.
There are a lot of unknowns depending on how Phoenix wants to operate this offseason, Paul trade or not. They can let the following players walk to open space or sign them to relatively small deals to fill out the roster.
Team option/non-guaranteed contracts: Frank Kaminsky ($5 million), Cam Payne ($2 million), Cheick Diallo ($1.8 million) and Elie Okobo ($1.7 million)
Cap holds for free agents: Dario Saric ($10.4 million), Aron Baynes ($10.4 million), Jevon Carter ($1.9 million) and Tariq Owens ($1.5 million).
Avoiding the nitty gritty, let’s say the Suns trade for Paul, sign Bertans for $15 million and keep a few of these players on smaller contracts so the roster looks like so:
PG — Chris Paul, Cam Payne, Ty Jerome
SG — Devin Booker, Jevon Carter, Jalen Lecque
SF — Mikal Bridges, Cam Johnson
PF — Davis Bertans
C — Deandre Ayton, Cheick Diallo
Rounding up, that’s $112 million, above the $109 million salary cap, for only 11 players — and a lot of those players are end-of-bench types.
Add in a draft pick this year (the 10th pick is slotted at $3.5 million), and throw in a mid-level exception to sign a rotation player like a third guard (hello, Langston Galloway or Alec Burks) or a backup big (hello, Nerlens Noel), and that pushes the salary total to around $120 million. A couple veteran minimum deals to get the roster to 15 and it’s getting kind of close to luxury tax territory set at $132 million.
Making the trade for Paul, in other words, would be a full commitment through 2021-22. The good news, however, is that Paul’s deal comes off the books just as Deandre Ayton and Mikal Bridges likely get huge pay bumps to follow their rookie deals.