With Paul George now a member of the Los Angeles Clippers and franchise icon Russell Westbrook off to the Houston Rockets after Thursday's still-unofficial blockbuster trade, the first two booms of the Oklahoma City Thunder's quickly planned demolition have come to pass.
The next step? Determining the immediate future of nine-time All-Star point guard Chris Paul, acquired in the Westbrook deal. The 34-year-old's production isn't what it used to be, but he's still an impact player when healthy, making him a poor fit for a Thunder organization with vastly altered priorities following a decade of playoff contention.
Of course, the small matter of the $124.1 million owed to Paul over the next three seasons complicates potential trade negotiations. With that in mind, here are four potential landing spots for the future Hall of Fame floor general.
Having finally parlayed their warm locale and Pat Riley-led front office into a star player in Jimmy Butler, the Heat are still short on the requisite firepower for a deep playoff run, even in a diminished Eastern Conference.
Goran Dragic, the Heat's incumbent starting point guard, is on an expiring deal. Considering he was originally reported to be central to the Butler trade before a new deal was agreed upon, don't bank on the 33-year-old staying in Miami long-term.
Packaging Dragic with either James Johnson or Kelly Olynyk allows the Heat to match Paul's salary. The Thunder would probably have to kick in a pick, though they have upward of 15 first-rounders through 2026. Through a series of trades dating back to the Heat's 2015 acquisition of Dragic, the Thunder actually own Miami's 2021 first-rounder outright and its lottery-protected 2023 first. The Heat would likely appreciate getting one or both of those assets back in exchange for assuming the risk of Paul's contract.
For a team coming off a winning season (42-40) and its first playoff berth in seven years, Orlando has tempered expectations with a quiet offseason. The team re-upped 2019 All-Star center Nikola Vucevic and wing Terrence Ross, and poached forward Al-Farouq Aminu from the Portland Trail Blazers.
Still, the slow build still hasn't unearthed
many any long-term solutions at the point. The Magic's past two opening-day point guards were D.J. Augustin and Elfrid Payton. The former is penciled in to reprise those duties this coming season - unless Michael Carter-Williams mounts a push. Yikes.
As far as plausible - or perhaps, just technically possible - trades, the pickings are slim. In terms of matching Paul's salary, the Magic could package two-guard Evan Fournier and forward Aaron Gordon, losing two key starters in the process. They could also balance the books with either of those players plus Augustin, 2018 No. 6 pick Mo Bamba, and 2018 second-round selection Melvin Frazier. As with the Heat, the Thunder would presumably have to include draft picks to mitigate Orlando's risk in taking on Paul.
As he enters his fifth year in the league, Karl-Anthony Towns is now just two-and-a-half seasons out from when Anthony Davis began pushing for a hasty exit from the New Orleans Pelicans. Ignore that KAT is under contract with Minnesota through 2024; it's become a bit cliche at this point, but the past several seasons have shown that the so-called "player empowerment era" is in full swing. The Timberwolves would be wise to show their young superstar they're capable of building something meaningful before his attention turns to greener, warmer pastures.
To that end, the T-Wolves - and Towns specifically - were pursuing D'Angelo Russell before the 2019 All-Star landed with the Golden State Warriors in a sign-and-trade; Minnesota is obviously entertaining the possibility of an upgrade at point guard.
Is a 34-year-old Paul, owed $124.1 million over three years, more valuable than 31-year-old Jeff Teague and his expiring $19-million contract? If so, then for how much longer? If such a gambit were to result in the worst possible outcome, the Timberwolves could be left with a $44.2-million cap hit for an unplayable 36-year-old Paul.
For what it's worth, a package of Andrew Wiggins and Gorgui Dieng for Paul and Patrick Patterson works on paper. It'd be a world-class game of bad-contract musical chairs. Maybe shedding Wiggins' own albatross deal is a win in itself. In that scenario, taking on Paul's massive contract becomes far more palatable.
But what if the Thunder ultimately fail to find a trade package to their liking? What if they simply opted for a year of Paul-Steven Adams pick-and-roll action, letting a third of the point guard's gargantuan salary come off the books before re-evaluating the trade market next summer? After all, every team needs to spend at least 90 percent of the $109.1-million salary cap - even squads with clear
tanking rebuilding aspirations.
Fans of a certain vintage will recall that Paul actually spent his first two NBA seasons calling Oklahoma City home after the fallout from Hurricane Katrina forced the then-New Orleans Hornets to temporarily relocate. There would be something poetic in a roundabout homecoming for OKC's first NBA star as he plays out his final act.
In a loaded Western Conference, a core of Paul, Adams, ascendant second-year guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, oft-injured forward Danilo Gallinari, and sixth man Dennis Schroder is probably looking at a top-10 draft pick in 2020 (to say nothing of all the draft assets tied to other teams' performances). If Paul is unwilling to leave any money on the table in a possible buyout situation, OKC would be wise to let the dust settle before its next franchise-altering detonation. There are worse things for a small-market team than maintaining a veneer of respectability.