Chris Paul trade grades: Suns make push for contention; Thunder continue loading up on draft picks

After going undefeated in the NBA bubble, the Suns have made the offseason’s first big splash.

Chris Paul will be heading to Phoenix in a trade from the Thunder, according to multiple reports. Oklahoma City will receive a package headlined by Kelly Oubre and Ricky Rubio in return. Paul, 35, will form a de facto big three on the Suns with shooting guard Devin Booker and big man DeAndre Ayton. Phoenix will hope that trio and mostly inexperienced players around them will be enough to contend in a loaded Western Conference.

The Thunder received a bevy of assets in return, creating an even bigger chest of future draft picks for general manager Sam Presti to play with in the relatively small Oklahoma City market. With Paul only guaranteed to be in OKC for one more season ahead of a player option, the Thunder chose to chase a haul of talent in return for a point guard who hadn’t proven he could get OKC past the Western Conference elites. 

Here are the reported details of the trade and a breakdown of the short- and long-term ramifications for each side.

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Chris Paul trade grades

Suns: B+

There’s only so much criticism a team can get for acquiring a future Hall of Fame point guard, and Phoenix general manager James Jones did a lot of things right in this deal.

It all starts with Paul, of course. In his age-34 season for Oklahoma City, Paul averaged 17.6 points and 6.7 assists per game, an increase in scoring that offset a decline in assists. After early-career shooting inconsistencies from beyond the arc, Paul has kept up with the times as a near-40 percent 3-point shooter.

It was on Paul’s shoulders that the Thunder lasted seven games with the Rockets in the opening round of the playoffs, as he upped his scoring to 21.3 points per game and also crashed the glass for 7.4 rebounds per game. Paul’s veteran leadership was also a key component in making Shai Gilgeous-Alexander a rising star at guard.

The downside with Paul, and the main reason this deal isn’t an ‘A’ grade for Phoenix, is his contract. The Suns could afford it in 2020-21 at more than $41 million, but that’s not the problem. It’s that Paul has a player option for the 2021-22 season. After one season with Phoenix, which could be filled with ups-and-downs on a young roster, Paul could choose to leave town without much more than a lower-half Western Conference playoff seed to show for the deal.

The Suns’ window of contention, prior to this deal, didn’t really appear to align with Paul. Even if we assume CP3 chooses to opt-in to that player option, that’s two years with an aging point guard leading a team with almost its whole rotation well under 30.

There are leadership benefits to that, surely, and Paul could take the 24-year old Booker under his wing. But Paul’s best remaining chances of winning in the NBA are right now, and for many of Phoenix’s players, their best chances of winning haven’t arrived yet because they haven’t hit their peaks.

This could be a case of the NBA bubble success in an odd environment in a small-sample size coloring the view of the Suns’ front office. But they also may have decided that making the playoffs, even if only to lose to one of the L.A. teams in the first round, is worth it. There’s a case to be made for not wasting Booker and 22-year old Ayton’s rising star years without talent around them. Now, Phoenix has one of the best facilitators in NBA history to pair with its young duo.

There are two other reasons Phoenix deserves praise in this deal. First, they managed to keep Mikal Bridges, who will be the fourth-best player on this new Suns squad as a strong wing defender with blossoming offensive skill. The second is that the Suns kept their 2022 first-round pick protected for that draft and the 2023 and 2024 drafts. If it’s a top-12 pick in ’22, a top-10 pick in ’23 or a top-eight pick in ’24, it’ll remain with Phoenix before being unprotected in 2025, per Shams Charania. That’s built-in insurance for if Paul leaves and Phoenix gets bad again.

At the end of the day, the Suns go to sleep knowing they have a top-notch point guard to go with one of the league’s best scorers (Booker) and a center with still untapped talent (Ayton). Bridges is in tow, too, allowing Phoenix to always hide any defensive deficiencies of Booker. Betting on Paul taking the rest of a young roster further than it would’ve gone otherwise isn’t a bad gamble. 

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Thunder: B

Let’s start with the two smaller Phoenix positives that we just discussed above. The Thunder didn’t find a way to get Bridges in the trade, and those protections on the pick mean it could be a while before OKC really benefits from that potential 2022 first-rounder. The lack of Bridges is the biggest hit, and the reason this grade sits as low as it does — he would’ve been the shining jewel to show off as the reason for dealing away Paul.

Oubre isn’t a bad consolation first prize, though. He just had a career year in averaging 18.7 points per game, and as a versatile lefty on the wing, he can fit into almost any lineup and play alongside Gilgeous-Alexander seamlessly. He’s only under contract through the 2020-21 season, so whether OKC chooses to and can re-sign him could go a long way to determining the long-term outlook on this trade.

Rubio, who has two seasons left on his contract, joins the Thunder as a natural replacement for Paul. Not the scorer that CP3 is, Rubio is nonetheless five years younger and still one of the league’s best passers (8.8 assists per game in 19-20) and pick-pockets (1.4 steals). OKC already discovered that it can play Gilgeous-Alexander alongside another point guard, so while Rubio is a definite step down from Paul in overall ability, he fits very nicely in a successful lineup arrangement from a stylistic perspective.

The other assets heading to Oklahoma City are more like lottery tickets. Jerome just completed his rookie NBA season after being taken 24th overall out of Virginia. He’s got good size for a player with point-guard skills at 6-5, but he only played 10.6 minutes per game for the Suns as a rookie. Jerome sat out five of the games in the bubble, too, so it’s not like he seized a bigger role as the year went on. Oklahoma City could be hoping he’ll learn from another lanky guard in Gilgeous-Alexander before developing into a solid backup point guard. 

Lecque is an even larger swing on upside. He’s got basically a zero-impact floor where he just flames out and doesn’t matter in the NBA. But he was a top-40 recruit out of high school who went the nontraditional route in passing on his commitment to North Carolina State. He had a 43-inch vertical leap at the NBA Combine and could just need some development time to become an NBA contributor. Considering the Thunder’s recent player-development success with Darius Bazley, another player who skipped college but became a key bench player for OKC last season, they might feel they have a shot at shaping Lecque the right way.

Presti has put together a ridiculous assortment of future first-round picks, too, and the selection from Phoenix just adds to that. The Thunder own the rights to 16 first-round picks over the next six drafts.

The Thunder likely looked at this past season with Paul and decided that was their ceiling with him on the roster. In a small market, a team has to always be looking to how best to shape its future, and OKC moved Paul while he still had value. Oklahoma City likely did close to the best it could in this trade without acquiring Bridges, and that makes it a solid deal for the Thunder. It’ll almost certainly mean a step back in 2020-21, though, and less of a step forward in future years than getting Bridges would’ve provided.

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