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Trade Target Breakdown: Chris Paul

Could the Clippers reunite with their former star?

Chicago Bulls v Los Angeles Clippers
To help you visualize what it would be like if the Clippers traded for Chris Paul, here’s a very realistic photoshop.
Photo by Chris Elise/Getty Images

As we approach next month’s NBA Trade deadline, I’ll be doing a series of posts examining players who the Clippers could be pursuing in trade negotiations. I’ll cover a wide range of potential targets, including players the Clippers have been linked to in rumors, players who I think would make intriguing targets, and players who I have been asked about by readers. Haven’t seen a breakdown for a player you think the Clippers should pursue? Ask me to add him to the list!

Player Name: Chris Paul

Position: PG

Height: 6’1”

Age: 34 (turns 35 in May)

Stats: 42 games played, 31.9 minutes per game, averaging 16.4 points, 6.5 assists, and 5.0 rebounds for Oklahoma City this year

Contract: $38.5M this year, $41.4M for 2020-21, and a player option for $44.2M in 2021-22

Impact on Clippers: Extremely High

Reuniting with their diminutive former star won’t help the Clippers solve their problems at power forward and center—but it would do pretty much everything else the team could want. Paul, even at 34, can still lead a playoff team, and he’s proven it this year, as the Oklahoma City Thunder are 23-19 and sit in 7th place in the Western Conference despite blowing up the superstar tandem of Russell Westbrook and Paul George last July. A lot of the credit for this Thunder team belongs to contributors other than Paul (including, notably, former Clippers Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Danilo Gallinari), but Chris is still clearly capable of running the show for a good team.

That’s something that would make the Clippers even more lethal offensively. While Robert Flom and I will continue to assert that Patrick Beverley is more than capable as a distributor and actually quite skilled and underrated on offense, there’s little doubt that Chris Paul runs a tighter ship. The Clippers currently have the 5th-best offensive rating in the league despite superstars Paul George and Kawhi Leonard playing together in only 18 of the team’s 42 games—imagine the unstoppable offensive force of a team that could not only play George and Leonard together consistently, but with Chris Paul running the show and serving as the team’s third option. Defensively, while Paul doesn’t bring quite the same fire that Clippers fans love from Beverley, we shouldn’t forget that Chris was an All-Defensive 1st Team guard every year from 2012-2017, and even at age 34 still has an effective combination of savvy and stubbornness.

It really comes down to this: Chris Paul is probably the best player who we can imagine the Clippers pursuing at the 2020 deadline. There’s something to be said for adding that level of talent, especially when the Clippers are on a two-year deadline before George and Leonard have the opportunity to opt out of their contracts in June 2021.

Likeliness of Availability: Moderate

It’s hard to know what Oklahoma City will do at this deadline. The obvious answer is that the Thunder should be in full rebuilding mode: they just traded Westbrook and George, have a bright young superstar to build around in SGA, and possess probably the most impressive treasure chest of draft picks the league has ever seen: they’ll likely keep their top-20 protected first round pick this year, as well as add Denver’s—plus the best 2/3 of Houston/Miami/OKC in 2021, LAC 2022, the better of LAC/OKC 2023, Miami 2023, Houston 2024, LAC 2024, the best of LAC/Houston/OKC 2025, Houston 2026, and LAC 2026.

That was exhausting just to type.

So, the conventional wisdom around OKC is that they should aggressively look to flip their large, veteran contracts (Paul, Gallinari, Schroeder, and Steven Adams) for draft picks and younger pieces that fit Shai’s timeline. Gallinari is expiring, and Schroeder and Adams each have one year left, giving the Thunder the further option of flipping those large expiring deals with draft picks to add star talent next off-season. Paul is where things get tricky. At 34 years old, and with 2 additional years remaining on his contract past this season each worth over $40M, he’s going to be hard to move. It would definitely be easy to defend the assertion that any Chris Paul trade for salary relief is a win for the Thunder, who were given two first-round picks by Houston to take on his deal in the Westbrook trade.

That’s where a window of opportunity could open for the Clippers, who obviously don’t have the assets to acquire another superstar under normal circumstances but could be willing to take on Paul’s contract given their compressed timeline.

Any Clippers package would have to start with Patrick Beverley’s $12.3M deal and Maurice Harkless’ $11.1M expiring. From there, negotiations would have to determine exactly where the Clippers add the remaining $7.4M to make a trade work. Adding Rodney McGruder and Jerome Robinson is the easiest path forward from the Clippers’ perspective, but a four-for-one trade is hard to pull off in the regular season. Lou Williams’ $8M salary makes it a more manageable 3-for-1 swap, but losing Beverley and Williams would leave the Clippers in need of another deal to find a point guard. They could also try piece together the money by using Montrezl Harrell’s expiring $6M salary and sending Patrick Patterson’s $1.6M minimum -salary deal to another team (any team can exceed the cap to absorb a one-year minimum in a trade, just like signing someone), but losing Harkless, Harrell, and Patterson for a guard leaves the Clippers with just JaMychal Green and Ivica Zubac at power forward and center (though one might assume that the Thunder would send the Clippers Nerlens Noel’s minimum-salary contract in such a deal).

It would be damaging to the Clippers’ depth, but there are avenues for deals to be put together if both sides are sufficiently motivated, which leads to one final caveat: the Thunder might eschew traditional rebuilding wisdom given their present success. If they keep this crew together (or even add a piece at the deadline), they’re going to make the playoffs this year, gain valuable experience for Shai, showcase their team for potential free agents, and secure the pride of staying relevant after their stars fled. There’s a lot of intangible value there that is arguably more important than adding a late-first round pick in exchange for Gallinari (the Clippers operated under this logic last year when they continued to push for the playoffs despite owing their top-14 protected pick). I think that that argument is a lot harder to make for Chris Paul due to his massive and long-running contract, which could be a roadblock to adding long-term talent around Shai. But the Thunder may believe that Paul will be just as movable this off-season (maybe to a team like Miami?), or even if they are open to moving him now, the Clippers’ odds and ends might not excite them enough to do so.