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Suns show they’re serious by acquiring Chris Paul from Thunder for Oubre, Rubio, 2022 pick: Grade the trade

Chris Paul turned the Oklahoma City Thunder into a playoff team last season, and now he’ll have the same task with the Phoenix Suns. According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, Paul is headed to Phoenix in exchange for wing Kelly Oubre; guards Ricky Rubio, Ty Jerome and Jalen Lecque; and a 2022 first-round pick.

The difference between Paul’s new situation and his most recent one is that the Suns will be expected to make the postseason. Phoenix is giving up real stuff to acquire the 35-year-old future Hall of Famer, while Oklahoma City was compensated with draft picks when it swapped Russell Westbrook for Paul in the summer of 2019. 

Let’s grade the trade:

Suns acquire Chris Paul

At the conclusion of the 2017-18 season, in which Phoenix went 21-61, guard Devin Booker told reporters that he was “done with not making the playoffs.” This did not prove prophetic: The following season, under new coach Igor Kokoskov, it went 19-63. 

The Suns didn’t quite break through in 2019-20, either, but it was the best season of Booker’s career. Under Monty Williams, Booker’s fifth coach in as many years, they finished 34-39 after an undefeated sprint through the seeding games in Orlando. Trading for Paul shows Booker that they’re serious about taking the next step.

The upside here is obvious. Paul brings the unselfishness and ability to organize the team that the 30-year-old Rubio brought last season, plus deadly spot-up shooting and the ability to take over games in crunch time. He’ll take pressure off of Booker offensively; regardless of which guard has the ball, defenses will have a hard time dealing with DeAndre Ayton rolling to the basket and Mikal Bridges and Cameron Johnson spotting up on the perimeter.

The Rubio signing wasn’t met with universal praise last summer, but it is what put Phoenix in position to make this upgrade. He helped the Suns jump from terrible to respectable, and his contract and age made him a natural trade piece here. Oubre would have fit just fine if they’d run things back, but re-signing him in 2021 would have been tricky if they were also planning to keep Bridges and Johnson around long-term. 

The Suns likely aren’t contenders with this roster. Projections from SportsLine’s Stephen Oh give them a 73.8 percent chance of making the playoffs, up from a 36.8 percent chance before the trade, and an estimated record of 39-33. Phoenix is betting, however, on Paul’s presence having benefits that go beyond his pick-and-roll aptitude. Williams coached Paul in 2010-11 in New Orleans and knows what he’s like as a leader. Ideally, he will help Ayton, Bridges and Johnson grow. 

The downside of this deal is the opportunity cost. With a more patient approach, the Suns could have improved without adding a player who is will be making $44.2 million in 2021-22. They can still be players in free agency this offseason, provided that they execute this trade after using their cap space, but Paul has limited their future flexibility. Rather than sacrificing a first-round pick, they could have gained one by moving Oubre in between now and the trade deadline. If Phoenix’s front office were focused solely on making the 2023 iteration of the team as good as it can be, it wouldn’t have made this move. 

As long as Paul stays healthy and plays near the level he did for the Thunder, the Suns’ immediate future is more exciting than it has been in more than a decade. How we’ll look back on this trade in a few years, however, is less clear. 

Grade: A-minus

Thunder acquire Kelly Oubre, Ricky Rubio, Ty Jerome, Jalen Lecque, 2022 first-round pick

Oklahoma City’s front office continues to win nerd points, having amassed a ridiculous amount of future picks by trading away star players. When it made the Westbrook-Paul trade, there was initially speculation that Paul would never play for the team, and that moving him would require some sort of sweetener. By keeping him around for a season, the Thunder played the situation perfectly: He helped their young players, got them to the playoffs and increased his trade value dramatically. 

Oubre could be a part of Oklahoma City’s core. He could also be traded again before the deadline, perhaps in exchange for yet another first-round pick. A versatile, 6-foot-7 forward coming off his best season as a scorer, a shooter and a defender, he is precisely the type of player a contender might see as its missing piece. 

Rubio can run the Thunder the same way he ran the Suns, a top-notch stopgap for a rebuilding team. He’s a questionable fit next to Shai Gilgeous-Alexander offensively, but the two of them are smart enough to overcome some spacing issues in the halfcourt. I am personally looking forward to seeing him throw alley-oops to Darius Bazley.

For Oklahoma City, though, this is about maximizing a long-term future that likely won’t include Rubio. He makes sense on this team because the $35.8 million he’s owed for the next two seasons is less than half of what Paul will make. The Thunder might as well see what Jerome and Lecque can give them, too. (I am also looking forward to seeing Jerome throw alley-oops to Bazley.) The reality is that, while they had a better record than Phoenix last season, they are several stages behind the Suns in their life cycle. For a team that isn’t trying to win right now, the two most important parts of this deal are the first-round pick and Oubre. This is a no-brainer for them. 

Grade: A

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