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September 10, 2020

NBA Trade Rumors: Sixers have 'seriously debated' trading for Chris Paul

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The Sixers have a need for guards. Oklahoma City might be trying to move one of the league's best guards this summer. So you better prepare for an offseason filled with Chris Paul trade rumors, at least until he's eventually moved to another team.

On Wednesday, Kevin O'Connor of The Ringer wrote a piece about the problems facing the Milwaukee Bucks, who must convince Giannis Antetokounmpo he should stay there after his contract expires next season. Antetokounmpo will be the most sought after free agent on the market, and teams around the league are already jostling for position in the sweepstakes for the (likely) two-time MVP.

Enter Paul, who would give the Bucks extra perimeter juice and a capable threat in crunch time, where the Bucks struggled in the playoffs. But within that connection, O'Connor links Paul to a pair of other teams, including the Sixers (bold emphasis mine):

Paul is still one of the NBA’s better defenders at point guard, which means the Bucks could feel comfortable with him replacing Bledsoe on that end. Putting the salaries together to acquire Paul wouldn’t be much of a challenge. Bledsoe, Hill, DiVincenzo, and D.J. Wilson would work. The trouble is that Oklahoma City likely prefers not to take on long-term salary, so a third team could be required. 

The Bucks would likely face competition in any pursuit of Paul. League sources say the Sixers front office has seriously debated the idea of chasing CP3. The Knicks, in desperate need of a player to lure prospective free agents, could also make a run at him after his former agent, Leon Rose, took over as team president. But there likely won’t be a lot of suitors for Paul. [The Ringer]

The first question here, before we get to the actual basketball stuff: who in the front office is actually available and suitable for a debate on Paul? While there have been rumors and hints about who is coming and going at the management level, Elton Brand's safety is the only thing totally clear at this point. It's a little absurd for the same reason the coaching search is absurd, with Philadelphia allegedly considering franchise-altering moves with major decisions still left to be made.

But let's set that aside and focus on the player himself. Traded to Oklahoma City for Russell Westbrook after the conclusion of last season, many wrote Paul and the Thunder off before the team had played a game. Thunder GM Sam Presti received two future first-round picks and swap rights in two more seasons with Houston, with the Rockets presumably thinking they were getting the better/more valuable player in the deal.

About that: Paul turned in an MVP-level campaign for OKC, propelling a young Thunder team to the fifth seed in the West and within inches of a victory over those very same Rockets in round one. Paul had one of the most efficient seasons of his career, fostered the growth of young OKC guard Shai-Gilgeous Alexander, and anchored the league's best crunch-time offense in the regular season. He is not ready to fade into obscurity quite yet.

From a pure basketball perspective, Paul is almost exactly what the Sixers need. He has been the lead ballhandler on every team he has ever played for, mastering the art of when and how to balance his own attacking with setting up his teammates. Paul is best known for his pull-up shooting and has long been a master of the midrange, but he is also elite as a catch-and-shoot option, shooting over 40 percent on those attempts from three in every year since the league introduced tracking data in 2013-14. Most importantly, he has an extended history of making life better for frontcourt players, and with Ben Simmons presumably shifting more to forward next season, there are few (if any) players in the league better equipped to make the most of Simmons as a rolling threat.

So what's the catch? The first hurdle is actually acquiring him. Last offseason, Paul was treated as a declining player and thus declining asset, but as O'Connor notes, there will be some interest in him as a "final piece" this offseason. If the Sixers have to compete with the Bucks, they are in trouble. Milwaukee can send a big-money player to OKC (or a third party) that actually has value, whereas Philadelphia's primary trade candidates have major warts. Tobias Harris' contract is a long-term anchor, and with Steven Adams set to make over $27 million next year, Al Horford arguably makes less sense in OKC than in Philly.

To make a Paul trade work, the Sixers would have to sweeten the pot with either young prospects or draft picks, and likely both. Short on cheap and meaningful contributors as it is, losing any solid rotation player would be a big blow, with Philadelphia's cap situation preventing them from making many helpful additions in free agency. The Sixers aren't dealing from a position of strength, and when you consider how Presti has extracted value from deals with better and more experienced front offices, there is potential for a trade between the two teams to get ugly.

The saving grace on value, unfortunately, is something that could hurt the Sixers moving forward. Paul has one of the league's most exorbitant contracts, with $41.4 million due next season and a $44.2 million player option looming in 2021-22. He will turn 36 next May, and though Paul remained healthy throughout the 2019-20 season, he has missed time due a variety of soft-tissue injuries over the years, including at the worst possible times. Paul injured his hamstring in a Game 5 victory for Houston during the 2018 Western Conference Finals, and the veteran guard could only watch from the sideline as the Warriors came back to win the series.

MORE: Mailbag: What's the best possible team to surround Joel Embiid & Ben Simmons with?

With his body type, Paul is also a tough player to project as he ages. A lost step or two for a guy barely clearing six feet is a bigger deal than for an oversized wing, for example. If he can repeat what he just did in Oklahoma City, Paul ties things together nicely for Philly. If he slides due to age and the wonky team construction even he might struggle with, the Sixers don't get meaningfully closer than they are at this moment.

But I would argue Paul's contract is not really an issue for Philadelphia, assuming ownership is willing to pay him and pay an inflated payroll for a team with a lot of question marks (and that's a pretty big assumption, to be clear). 

This is not a team that has been built with a long-term view. Al Horford is only about a year younger than Paul and is a demonstratively worse fit with both of their two best players. Moving one of Horford or Harris is almost certainly going to require the Sixers to either take back bad long-term salary in return or attach a bundle of whatever valuable assets they have left in order to get off their deals. 

Paul is the most expensive player of the bunch by a considerable margin, but he's also the best player and the best fit by a considerable margin, and his deal is up the soonest even with the player option. In an ideal world with proper planning and dumping of bad contracts, the Sixers could go into the summer of 2022 with Paul's contract coming off the books, Embiid and Simmons still under contract, and options for how to reshape the team from there. In the interim, you begin resembling a real basketball team instead of a science experiment gone wrong.

All of this comes bundled with a player who has known to be one of the most demanding leaders in the league, sometimes to a fault. Former Sixers guard JJ Redick has called Paul, "the best player he has ever played with" while simultaneously admitting those Lob City Clippers teams fell apart due to a culture of passive-aggressiveness. Paul is a notorious perfectionist who searches for every angle to win, a trait that could very well bring the best out of Embiid and Simmons, but he has grated on more than a few people throughout his long and successful career.

There is a healthy amount of downside, and the prospect of an unstable front office sitting down to negotiate with Sam Presti is not a confidence-inspiring exercise. But Paul is as about as good as it could possibly get for Philly in terms of a veteran acquisition unless the team decides to trade one of Embiid or Simmons. He is very good at the things this team desperately needs, capable of making both of their two best players better, and a maniacal competitor who doesn't allow teammates to settle for subpar efforts.

If Paul were younger or cheaper, they would have no chance to acquire him. It doesn't seem likely they can make it happen, but so far as I see it, there's not much to "debate" outside of determining how much or how little you'd be willing to move to get him.

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