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With Chris Paul in Town, the Thunder Might be Too Good for Their Own Good

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NBA: Houston Rockets at Oklahoma City Thunder Rob Ferguson-USA TODAY Sports

Typically when a franchise trades away its best player for future assets, it means a full teardown is coming. Solid veterans get shipped out for picks to clear playing time for young guys, young guys are promoted to bigger roles, and the franchise prepares for a season where its young players can develop while losing a bunch of games. And yet, with today’s news that Chris Paul will most likely start the season in Oklahoma City, Sam Presti’s Carousel of trades has finally come to a stop and the Thunder’s roster looks...kind of okay?

Paul, who the Thunder took back along with a bevy of future picks and pick swaps in the trade that sent Franchise icon Russell Westbrook to Houston, is in OKC because almost no team wants to take him back on his current contract (He is owed $38 million this year, $41 million next year, and $44 million in 2021-22, by which time he’ll be 36 years old). CP3 is not the player he once was- he looked slower last year, unable to blow by bigger defenders 1-on-1 the way he always has been able to. His days as an all-NBA guard are over, but his contract is still that of a top 10 player in the league. It’s not surprising that other teams aren’t willing to pay a top 50 player like he’s a top 10 player.

That doesn’t mean that CP3 is washed though. He still produced 8 assists per game and was genuinely useful (when healthy) for a Houston team that won 53 games last year. While James Harden’s prolific scoring and 2nd most valuable player in the league level play were the driving force in Houston’s success, Paul notably kept Houston’s non-Harden lineups viable. When Harden was off the court and Paul on last season, the Rockets outscored opponents by 8.4 points per 100 possessions, an elite mark (the Bucks had the best such rating in the league, outscoring opponents by +9.1 points per 100 possessions on the season as a whole). A typical non-Harden lineup looked something like Paul-Eric Gordon-Gerald Green-PJ Tucker-Clint Capela.

Is that lineup really any better than what the Thunder’s projected starting lineup looks like at the moment?

Steven Adams isn’t quite the lob finisher that Caplea is, but he’ll still be an effective rim protector and pick and roll partner with Paul- and his ability to gobble offensive rebounds and create extra possessions will help. Danilo Gallinari is arguably a better offensive weapon than Eric Gordon, the secondary option on those Houston bench units. People who didn’t pay close attention to the Clippers last year will be surprised to hear it, but Gallo was a borderline all-star last year, and was consistently excellent, as our friends at Clipsnation can attest. Gallo might be the Thunder’s primary scoring option next season, freeing CP3 to play maestro.

Alongside Paul in the backcourt the Thunder will most likely start Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, their point guard of the future. SGA’s ideal position is the 1, but he is big enough (6’6!) to defend opposing 2’s, and spent a big chunk of his season alongside another point guard, Patrick Beverly.

The Clippers post all-star break starting 5 of Beverly-SGA-Landry Shamet-Gallo-Ivica Zubac outscored opponents by 8.5 points per 100 possessions, a mark near identical to the CP3 led Houston lineups. The fit between Shai and CP3 is not as clean as the fit with Beverly, a defensive minded guard happy to spend a good deal of time off ball, but CP3 is an excellent 3 point shooter and SGA is a decent, if reticent (he averaged less than 2 attempts from 3 per game as a rookie) shooter, which helps. There may be a bit of tug of war for the ball, and it will be interesting to see how the distribution of ballhandling shakes out. CP3 was willing to share with Harden, but he may not show that same deference to a 21 year old. Having 3 players in Paul, SGA and Gallinari who can, to varying degrees, make plays for themselves and for others with the ball gives OKC a lot of offensive flexibility. Will Billy Donovan finally show off a more creative offense without Westbrook in town? We’ll see.

(Another interesting subplot in the point guard tug-of-war: it would be great to give Shai time running the show solo when CP3 hits the bench. But where does that leave Dennis Schroder, who is now the third point guard on roster? His lack of shooting and size makes him an awkward fit with both Alexander and Paul, but it would seem a waste to have Schroder run the bench unit solo when the Thunder have a far superior player in Paul and a player whose future is far more important to the team in Shai).

It’s not immediately clear who will start at the 3 for OKC either. Andre Roberson would make sense if healthy, but OKC may want to ease him back in after missing a season and a half to injury. Terrance Ferguson would provide another shooter (OKC starting 4 guys who can hit the 3 ball? Is that even legal?), but he wasn’t strong enough last season to successfully defend opposing small forwards. Is Hamidou Diallo going to be ready? The Thunder never found a credible back up small forward behind PG13 last year, and now lack an obvious starter without him.

Still, the CP3-SGA-Gallo-Adams starting quartet is good enough to win games- perhaps a fair number of them. And that’s a problem for OKC. Let’s be clear: OKC’s current roster is not championship worthy, or anywhere close. By the time the Thunder are ready to contend again, CP3, Gallo, and probably even Adams will all be gone. SGA will hopefully be the starting point guard of that team, and he projects to be good- really good. But he’s not likely to reach “best player on a championship team” level good, and even if he does, he’ll need another star or two along with him to take OKC to the promised land. OKC didn’t tear down the Westbrook-George team to try and build another team that one days tops out at 49 wins and first round exit, they did it to build a team that tops out as a champion.

The best way to get the star players who will bring OKC there is the draft, and even with all the future draft picks they now have from the Clippers, Heat, and Rockets, their best bet is still their own picks.

The only picks whose spot in the draft order OKC can really influence is their own. The really juicy picks start arriving in 2024, when Houston and LA could be quite bad, but does OKC really want to flounder around as a 40 win team for the next 4 years until those picks arrive? What if they do, and those picks ends up not being as good as hoped, or OKC whiffs on them? The better strategy is for OKC to try and make its own picks as good as possible now and build a young core without those other picks. Then, if the new core pans out, the other team’s picks can be trade chips to build the team around that core, and if the new core flames out, those picks can be a second attempt to find a core. Tank now, and OKC will get at least one and maybe two shots at building the next big three; get stuck as an average team now and they’ll get maybe one, and possibly zero real shots at it.

It may seem premature to be worrying about all this now, with OKC owning so many future picks, but remember, even if one of those future picks becomes #1, there’s no guarantee that pick becomes a superstar- witness Markelle Fultz or Anthony Bennett. Even if OKC hits a home run, and then another, and then another, that still may not be enough to win a championship, as these three guys can tell you:

Every season matters, every pick matters, every decision matters. That’s why it’s worth being worried that this current Thunder team might be just a little too good. Yeah, they probably won’t make the playoffs in the loaded West, but they could hang around .500 and end up with something like the 13th worst record in the league. Even with the new lottery odds, that gives OKC a mere 1.4% chance of jumping into the top 4, and a 93% chance of getting the #13 pick. It’s possible to find a great player at #13, but the odds are way higher of finding one at #3. OKC doesn’t need a 76ers-esque 9-win season, but they do want to avoid being on the cusp of playoff contention in favor of winning somewhere around 30 games to give themselves good odds of moving up in the lottery.

It’s possible that happens even with the current roster. CP3 and Gallo are both injury prone, and if both miss significant time, OKC could quickly drop below .500 and stay there. The depth behind them is shaky- even if the starters do perform well, you could see the bench blowing plenty of leads this year. And just because he’s not on the move now doesn’t mean CP3 (or Gallo) couldn’t be moved in December, when players signed this summer can be traded, or in February at the trade deadline.

That may be the best case scenario. Having talented teammates like Gallo and CP3 in tow will be helpful for the development of SGA and other youngsters like Ferguson and Darius Bazley. It’s hard to develop as a young players when your teammates are as clueless as you, and player development will be the biggest goal for OKC this year- and potentially as important to their long term title hopes a securing a good pick is. An ideal outcome: OKC is a few games below .500 at the trade deadline, with the young guys developing well as part of fun, competitive team. Then they ship out CP3 and Gallo to greener pastures, struggle down the stretch, and finish with a final record of say, 33-49 and then cross their fingers for good lottery luck. That’s the exact record the New Orleans Pelicans finished with last year, and that was good enough to snatch them the #1 pick when the ping pong balls bounced their way.

The Thunder have enough talent on the roster that their young players can develop in a good system and the fans can actually enjoy the on court product. They just need to be careful that they don’t turn out too good and cost themselves a chance to find a real superstar of the future. It seems small, but the difference between winning 33 games and 40 games this year could be the difference between winning the 2025 championship and losing in the second round in 2025. Paul isn’t thinking that way, but Sam Presti should be. That ultimately means one or both of Paul and Gallinari will need to be moved by the trade deadline.