A point guard with the rap sheet that Chris Paul has does not deserve an anticlimactic ending. Now that he’s being paid almost $40 million in his mid-30’s to lead an average team in a Western Conference that won’t accept anything less than elite, it sure seems like his career is headed that way.
It’s true that in some respect, he did this to himself. He agreed to a contract extension so expensive that including it in a trade would be practically impossible. At the same time, can you blame the man for getting one last payday as his career approaches its end?
Whatever the case may be, now he’s with the Oklahoma City Thunder. Since essentially the first day in OKC, Paul’s name has been brought up endlessly in trade rumors. Even though he’s embraced his role as the mentor — and even though the Thunder have had a stellar start to the season — the plan has remained the same: Blow this sucker up.
That all starts with Paul. Even if he’s not what he once was, Chris Paul is still an effective basketball player. In fact, a case can be made that he’s having a better season with the Thunder than Russell Westbrook is currently having with the Houston Rockets. Based on skillset alone, Paul can still make a major difference in someone’s chances.
Of course, his contract is the ultimate dealbreaker. Teams aren’t exactly lining up for one of the league’s highest-paid players who’s also in decline. The only way they would is if they were just that desperate. They do have to consider that even if he clogs up the cap sheet, a player as good as Paul can basically be had free of charge right now.
We know there are certain teams that are either looking for an upgrade or are frantically searching for any kind of boost. Is the 34-year-old Chris Paul the answer to their prayers?
Milwaukee has been brought up as an option because Malcolm Brogdon’s departure should have hurt them in the playmaking department. If it has, there are no signs of it on the court because the Bucks haven’t skipped a beat this season. Their 16-game winning streak should be enough evidence of that.
They have the contracts to make it work — Eric Bledsoe, George Hill and Ersan Ilyasova — but is Milwaukee willing to sacrifice so much of their depth for someone like Paul when the product they have is clearly working as well as they could have hoped? Unless Milwaukee takes a major turn for the worse, Paul’s name probably won’t be associated with them.
That wouldn’t be the same case with the team that has been associated the most with Paul since his trade to the Thunder — the Miami HEAT. They have the expendable assets to acquire a Paul without losing a wink of sleep — Dion Waiters, James Johnson, Meyers Leonard — but as the season progresses, there should be younger players on cheaper contracts that the HEAT would probably consider before they would inquire about the future Hall of Famer.
There would also be skepticism about how the offense would work with Paul given that their current version centered around multiple playmakers like Jimmy Butler, Justise Winslow and Goran Dragic, among others, is succeeding. The HEAT could use Paul, but they may be better served looking at other players before him.
In short, the perfect team for Chris Paul at this point has to be one that has expendable contracts to get him without sacrificing much of their core that would also stand to benefit from his presence. There is one team that checks all those boxes. Believe it or not, it’s a team that hasn’t been mentioned as a potential CP3 destination as of late, the Utah Jazz.
The Jazz were supposed to have championship aspirations this season. On paper, they did everything right sans adding some scoring to their second unit — ahem, Jeremy Lin was right there, guys. Adding talent on paper doesn’t always translate to the court and for Utah, it really hasn’t.
The prognosis on the Jazz was that while their defense would remain elite, it was their offense that would vault them into title contention. Currently, they stand at 14-11. Their defense has fallen out of the top 10 — their defensive rating is 106.1, good for 11th overall — and their offense has gone from pedestrian to flat-out bad as their offensive rating is 106.7, good for 23rd overall.
There is a myriad of issues facing Utah right now. The bench isn’t providing much scoring support, Joe Ingles’ jump shot has largely failed him, Utah’s calling card – their grit and effort – doesn’t seem to be there anymore, but at the center of their issues is the sudden decline of newcomer Mike Conley Jr.
Conley was very much the talk of the town when Utah’s season first started. He was supposed to be the secondary playmaker/shotmaker that Donovan Mitchell desperately needed both to expand his game and make Utah’s offense more respectable.
Adjusting to Salt Lake’s high and dry altitude can be tough for just about anyone. Adjusting to being the second-in-command can be even tougher. If there was one player who wouldn’t let factors like that get to him, it surely would have been Conley. It sadly has been very much to the contrary.
Conley has not looked like the guy that was once the leader of Grit-and-Grind. At all. Utah wasn’t asking for that guy, but they were asking for someone who was better than what they are currently getting.
Conley is averaging almost 14 points a game, his worst scoring average since 2012 — and his shooting splits aren’t much better at 37/37/80. The 37 percent from the field as a whole is the worst he’s ever shot in his career. His assist-to-turnover ratio has taken a dip, going from 3.5, 11th in the league last season, to 2.2, or 77th this season. Less assists were to be expected with a lesser role, but the turnovers were supposed to go down too.
It gets worse.
Least efficient paint scorers this season:
1. Mike Conley ………… 37.5 FG%
2. Darius Garland ……. 39.6
3. Coby White ………… 40.8
4. Devonte' Graham … 41.7
5. Dillon Brooks ………. 42.1
(Min. 100 attempts) pic.twitter.com/hvuTdlkvmy
— Kirk Goldsberry (@kirkgoldsberry) December 10, 2019
Much, much worse…
This season he's making just 41% of his layups
(down from 54% last year)
He's making just 35% of his floaters
(down from 49% last year)
His overall 2P FG% is just 36.5%, by far a career low pic.twitter.com/aj2X26txn0
— Kirk Goldsberry (@kirkgoldsberry) December 10, 2019
It might be time to ask if Conley’s best days are firmly behind him. Utah is better when he’s on the court — they are plus-4.4 when he’s playing — but this was supposed to go better than how it’s gone. There’s still plenty of regular season left for Conley to figure things out, but we’re 20-plus games into this season and he hasn’t shown any modicum of consistency.
The Jazz wanted a clearcut no. 2 to fortify the offense. Conley was designated to be that guy and he hasn’t been up to the task. His disappointing play combined with the Jazz’s lost identity could lead to a call for action. If there’s one guy who could fill the role that Conley was supposed to play as well as get Utah back to their roots, it’s Chris Paul.
The red flags are there and have already been described in detail, but this is a rare opportunity at hand because Paul won’t come with a hefty price tag. Trading Paul for Conley works straight up salary-wise. Knowing the limited market for the legend, the Thunder could be happy to get Conley — who has one less year on his deal and gets paid around $6 million less per because that creates more flexibility.
Paul’s contract is monstrous and will only get bigger from here — but even at 34, he can be the leader the Jazz wanted Conley to be. He is putting up more efficient stats on a lesser team – averaging 15.7 points on 45/36/89 splits – he has a better assist-to-turnover ratio – 3.68, good for 15th in the league – and the Thunder have been infinitely better when he’s on the court.
He also has shown he can still bring it in the clutch as well as play up to the more competitive teams. The Jazz have seen this firsthand when he and the Thunder basically toyed with them on their home floor.
The Jazz wanted this to be the year in which they were more than just an underdog exceeding expectations. Trading for Conley and bringing in Bojan Bogdanovic cued that they had their eyes firmly on their first title. Trading for Paul would on paper create that window they believed Conley would. It’s a risk to invest in the older, more expensive point guard — but do the Jazz want to fizz out at this point?
Again, Utah has time to sort things. It hasn’t been pretty for them, but it usually never is early on. This isn’t something that they have to consider now, but something they should keep in the back of their heads — especially if Conley never finds his footing.
Chris Paul isn’t the same Point God he was in New Orleans or Los Angeles, but he can be what the Jazz have wanted for the last two-plus years: The final piece.
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