Chris Paul was traded to the Oklahoma City Thunder Thursday night in a blockbuster swap for Russell Westbrook, who is now on his way to the Rockets. The question now becomes: Is Paul in OKC for good, or is another trade sending him elsewhere on the horizon? Multiple reports suggest the latter is the smart bet, with the Miami Heat registering as the likeliest landing spot for Paul.
ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski doubled down on this report Friday morning on “Get Up,” saying the focus is on moving Paul again and the list of suitors might very well begin and end with Miami. There’s a reason for that. Paul is not the player he used to be, and he’s really expensive. Paul, who is already 34 years old, is owed $124 million over the next three years assuming he exercises his $44.2 million player option in the summer of 2021.
And you can bet it’s 2021 the Heat are thinking about.
That free agent class is loaded after Kawhi Leonard unexpectedly signed a three-year deal which includes a player option in the final season with the Clippers rather than a four-year max, likely putting him back on the market in 2021, when he’ll reach 10 years of experience and thus be eligible for the highest max deal at 35 percent of the cap. Joining Leonard on the 2021 market will be Giannis Antetokounmpo, LeBron James, Paul George, Bradley Beal, Victor Oladipo, Jrue Holiday, C.J. McCollum, Rudy Gobert and Blake Griffin.
Miami remains a legitimate free agent destination, which is to say the Heat have every right to believe all those players would at least consider signing with them. As long as they have the money. If they trade for Paul, they won’t. With Paul on the books (again, this is assuming he exercises his player option), Miami could only get to about $25 million in 2021 cap room, and even to do that it would have to renounce pretty much everyone but Jimmy Butler — including Justise Winslow and Bam Adebayo, the two guys they held back in talks for Russell Westbrook, per reports.
On the other hand, if the Heat don’t add Paul, with Spotrac.com estimating the 2021-22 salary cap to be around $125 million, the Heat project to have between $35 and $40 million in cap room without having to renounce Winslow and Adebayo. Now, there are other avenues the Heat could take to get in the game for one of these 2021 stars — namely a trade between now and then if they could make the money work.
But that’s a potential rental situation, and you’d have to give up a lot even to do that — and that’s even assuming one of these guys is actually made available for trade. Presumably, you can cross Leonard, George, Giannis and LeBron off that list immediately, and likely many others given their teams’ current situations.
Still, would Paul even be worth all this? That’s what Miami is weighing as we speak. On the one hand, if they didn’t think Westbrook was worth signing up for huge contract on a diminishing player, chances are they feel the same about Paul. On the other hand, Paul likely wouldn’t cost them as much. The Heat likely wouldn’t have to give up Adebayo or Winslow (if they did, they would walk away for sure), and on top of that OKC would likely add a first-round pick to the deal to sweeten the deal for Miami. Plus, Paul has one less year on his deal than Westbrook.
He’s also four years older, and in a top-heavy Eastern Conference, you’d be hard-pressed to project the Heat as anything more than a 4-seed, at absolute best, with Paul and Butler leading the charge. For a proud organization that’s been trending toward, frankly, a boring product of late, that might be attractive. Get back in the game. See what happens with the trade market. It’s difficult to look more than a year down the road, or two years at the most, in today’s NBA anyways.
Still, teams look. If Miami thinks it can get a player in 2021 that significantly changes the title discussion, is that unknown worth waiting for against what you know would be a good team now? Remember, Butler will be two years older in 2021, and there are real questions around the league about how former Tom Thibodeau players age — see Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah and Luol Deng. So if Butler falls off in 2021, is the combination of a reduced Butler and a legit star better than a maximized Butler and somewhat fading Paul right now?
These are not easy questions to answer. There are no certainties in today’s NBA. One day you can seemingly be set up with a two-star duo for years to come, and the next you can be torn down to the screws. Just like the Thunder. Through that lens, Miami knows it will be a good team with Paul and Butler. Not a great team, but a good one. If they fancy a bird in the hand over two in the bush, Paul makes sense. But there is definitely a bigger game out there, and the 2021 hunt has already begun.