NBA Daily: Captain Chris Paul Can Steady The Ship

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Damian Lillard’s iconic buzzer-beater and subsequent hand wave was a fitting end to the Russell Westbrook era in Oklahoma City. The Thunder went from championship contender to rebuilding franchise after dealing Paul George to the Los Angeles Clippers this summer. While the direction of the team was crystal clear over the past couple of years, there is now uncertainty with numerous options available to general manager Sam Presti.

Chris Paul has returned to the city where his professional career began. The New Orleans Hornets were displaced due to the hurricane, and Oklahoma City became their temporary home. Paul went on to win Rookie of the Year that season. Now 14 years later, the eight-time All-NBA point guard and nine-time All-Star will lead the Thunder franchise in their most uncertain time.

The fit was questionable from the onset. The Thunder had already acquired a talented young point guard in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander from the Clippers, and Paul’s extremely high salary and injury history stood out like a sore thumb. While the future Hall of Famer may be better off somewhere else, it won’t happen anytime soon.

The popular choice was to ship Paul down to Miami to create another superstar duo with Jimmy Butler. The problem there was that Paul would have to waive his $44 million player option for the 2021-22 season. The CBA does not allow teams to spend more than 15 percent of their current salary. Paul was going to have to agree to a pay cut of more than half of his salary.

Another theory was re-uniting Paul with Blake Griffin in Detroit. The Pistons would be a force in the Eastern Conference, as would the Magic who could use an upgrade at the position with D.J. Augustin, Markelle Fultz and Michael Carter-Williams in Orlando.

The biggest hurdle with any potential deal is that players that were signed this offseason cannot be moved until December 15. Clearly Paul’s contract is counterproductive to the Thunder’s rebuild in the long run. For now, though, could this be an ideal match?

Oklahoma City has so many options with its wealth of future draft picks. Over the next seven drafts, it is possible that the Thunder could have 13 first-round selections and six in the second round. They acquired six of those first-round picks in less than 72 hours.

Sam Presti did draft three future MVPs in consecutive drafts, but the best course of action may be to use these picks to land talented players now.

Both Steven Adams and Dennis Schroder have large contracts with two years remaining. Adams might actually improve with the arrival of Paul. When Westbrook was running the show, most of the other players would stand around and watch. This led to them to the 17th best offensive rating last season. Paul is much more efficient at getting his teammates involved. The gravity of the defense is severely impacted just by him stepping across the three-point arc.

The pick-and-roll game will be much more effective, as opponents often lived with the consequences of Westbrook’s jumper. He also shot 29 percent from downtown, so the choice was easy. Now they will have to respect Paul’s jump shot, which could open things up inside.

Danilo Gallinari comes to Oklahoma City in a contract year. The versatile forward is an offensive machine, shooting 43 percent from downtown last year. He and Paul are going to really feed off of each other.

Thunder head coach Billy Donovan will have many options this season when it comes to his rotation. The backcourt duo between Paul and Gilgeous-Alexander is going to be interesting to watch. Chris has an incredibly high basketball IQ, and both guards have run the offense under Doc Rivers in LA. Shai could play a similar screening guard role that JJ Redick and Eric Gordon ran with Paul in the past. The two have already been working in the gym, with Shai focusing on his perimeter shooting off the dribble. The second-year pro has the length and defensive tools to guard both positions.

The key to all of this, of course, is staying healthy. Paul, in particular, has missed more than 20 games in each of the last three seasons and had career lows in scoring and shooting percentage last year in Houston. He has been named to the All-Defensive team nine times and led the league in assists four times, but he is a different player now.

Paul has the highest assist to turnover ratio (4.1) in regular season history. He has the highest offensive rating (122) in the history of the league. He ranks at the top of so many statistical categories, yet it has never translated to success in the postseason. That might have mattered in Houston and LA, but not in Oklahoma City.

This is a rebuilding team that will need a leader and a teacher.

Being that for this city may be his destiny, like it or not.