Phoenix Suns: B-
When my ESPN colleagues Brian Windhorst and Tim Bontemps reported last week that there was mutual interest in Chris Paul heading to Phoenix, I broke down the major implications of the trade, including how good the Suns might be with the future Hall of Famer.
There's one notable change from that piece. I wrote about the possibility of Phoenix delaying the completion of this trade until after using cap space in free agency, which would have given the Suns about $17 million to spend. Instead, sources confirmed to ESPN that Phoenix is expected to make the deal now, choosing to stay over the cap.
The Suns will retain their Bird rights on restricted free agent Dario Saric and will also have the $9.3 million non-taxpayer midlevel exception available to add to the roster. I would have preferred the $17 million in cap space, but Phoenix can reasonably argue that Saric (age 26) is younger than anyone they could realistically have signed and that the midlevel will yield a second useful contributor.
Besides the timing of the trade, the structure is interesting too. The Suns needed to add one low-salaried player in the deal. Instead, they ended up including two: 2019 first-round pick Ty Jerome and Jalen Lecque, who signed a three-year deal last summer as an undrafted rookie.
It's tough to say which side insisted on Jerome being in the deal, but his inclusion suggests Phoenix no longer valued him as much as last year, when the Suns took him No. 24 overall. Jerome suffered an ankle sprain in practice just before opening night, sidelining him the season's first month, and never got on track. He shot just 28% from 3-point range and 38% inside the arc and saw only 13 minutes of action in blowouts in eight bubble games.
Notably, Phoenix retained this year's No. 10 overall pick in the deal, instead sending back a protected 2022 first-rounder. The team surely hopes that in 2021-22, the final season of Paul's contract, that pick will fall outside the lottery. My colleague Jonathan Givony also pointed out that 2022 picks are looking less valuable than ones in 2021 based on the perceived strength of the draft classes.
The downside for the Suns is they'll be limited to some extent in trading another first-round pick after this year's draft. Their 2021 first-rounder is now off the table until that draft is complete due to the Stepien rule preventing teams from being without first-round picks in consecutive future drafts, and they can't guarantee teams a first-round pick before 2027 because of the possibility this pick doesn't convey until 2025.
All told, this is pushing the limit of what Phoenix could have given up while still making this trade a reasonable value. Even if Paul struggles with injuries and aging, the Suns haven't really compromised their long-term prospects to get him. By the time Phoenix's payroll gets more expensive in 2022-23, when starters Deandre Ayton and Mikal Bridges have completed their rookie contracts, Paul's $44 million salary will be off the books. So this deal was worth the risk for the Suns.
The value in this trade for the Thunder reminds me a little of one of Sam Presti's first trades after being hired as GM of the then-Seattle SuperSonics, coincidentally with Phoenix. Because the Suns were desperate to avoid the luxury tax, Presti extracted two first-round picks to take Kurt Thomas' salary into a trade exception generated by signing-and-trading Rashard Lewis to the Orlando Magic as a free agent.
Exactly seven months later, Presti got a third first-round pick from the San Antonio Spurs to swap Thomas for expiring contracts. Two of those picks didn't amount to much, but the third was used to draft Serge Ibaka, a key part of the core that took the Thunder to four conference finals and one NBA Finals after their move to Oklahoma City.
In this case, the Houston Rockets paid the Thunder handsomely in first-round picks (in 2024 and 2026, top-four protected) and swaps (in 2021 and 2005, also protected) to make up for the seeming difference between Paul's remaining contract and Russell Westbrook's. Then Paul outplayed Westbrook in 2019-20, leading Oklahoma City to an unexpected playoff run and earning All-NBA Second Team honors. Now, the Thunder are getting another first-round pick while clearing Paul's salary off the books.
There could be more draft compensation coming for Oklahoma City, if there's any left for other teams to trade them at this point. Oubre has value with one year and $14.4 million remaining on his contract, and the Thunder will surely collect on it between now and the trade deadline. Rubio might be more challenging to trade for value, so his long-term future in Oklahoma City may depend on whether the Thunder want Shai Gilgeous-Alexander to be their primary point guard or are comfortable with him continuing to play off the ball.
Jerome and Lecque are flyers for the Thunder. Neither has any guaranteed money beyond this season (Oklahoma City will have to decide whether to pick up Jerome's third-year option by Dec. 29). Lecque, who followed a similar path to Darius Bazley by heading to the NBA draft without playing college basketball or going overseas first, now joins him with the Thunder.
I suspect Oklahoma City picked the right time to move on from Paul. As happy as last season's surprising run was, the Thunder would have been hard-pressed to duplicate it based on their good health, high winning percentage in close games and Danilo Gallinari's free agency. Keeping Paul any longer risked both his value declining because of injury and performance and him becoming unhappy on a non-contender.