The Suns are well and truly going for it. The first domino of what could be a wild NBA week has fallen, and it will see two orange-clad Western Conference teams high-fiving as they pass each other going opposite directions in the standings. Phoenix is swapping some guys and a draft pick for Oklahoma City point guard Chris Paul.
Oubre and Rubio were good last year, though since Oklahoma City is pretty clearly heading for the toilet, this trade can be understood as Paul for a pick and no longer having to pay Chris Paul $87 million over the next two seasons. It isn’t hard to see why Phoenix wants Paul: Robert Sarver desperately wants to get back into the playoffs for the first time in a decade; DeAndre Ayton gets the ideal pick-and-roll partner and also a point guard who can hit a midrange jumper for the first time in his career; Paul’s commitment to defense could theoretically get Devin Booker to at least pretend to fight through a couple screens a game; and having Mikal Bridges, Cam Johnson, and Ayton on rookie deals also helps alleviate the pain from Paul’s contract, which looks much better than it did last year thanks to a resurgent season away from James Harden.
The team that gets the best player is usually the team that gets the better end of a trade, and that’s true here. Sam Presti and the Thunder—who made the playoffs kind of on accident last year—seem like they want to keep ripping this thing down to the studs (goodbye, Danilo Gallinari) to give themselves as many chances at building their team around someone who is probably 16 years old right now. That’s decent arbitrage but also it’s boring and theoretical, and you can’t fault the Suns for taking a swing here by giving up a worse version of Paul and a player made somewhat redundant by Cam Johnson. The Suns will have to slow their pace down to accommodate a ball-stopper like Paul, and there are some eyebrows to be raised at Booker’s fit alongside a point guard who’ll handle the rock at all times. But you make the talent play when you can, and trying to win basketball games is good. Lord knows Suns fans deserve to root for a team that is not full butt.
However! This is a big-time win-now trade, the kind that you make when you think your team’s core is just one big piece away from making a huge step up. What I am less sure about than the value exchanged here is the idea that the Suns’ core is really that close to a breakthrough, since they seem to have arrived at this conclusion based mostly on eight whole games played in the bubble last summer.
Let’s not forget that when the bubble started in Orlando, it barely made sense for the league to even invite the Suns. They began in 13th place, 6.5 games away from the eight seed. Of course, the Grizzlies, Kings, and Pelicans pooped the bed while Phoenix briefly became the story of the league, ripping off an 8-0 run to just miss out on the playoffs. Usually, a team with two hotshot youngsters who knocks on the door of the playoffs is exactly the sort of team that should add a star to try and leap up a tier. But it is perhaps unwise for the Suns to assume that they fit that profile based largely on what happened under the odd circumstances produced by the bubble.
Not only did the Suns rely heavily on Jevon Carter, Rubio, and now-free agent Dario Saric for a good chunk of that run, it came in the most anomalous possible setting. The Devin Booker Suns have not proven that they’re legit, they’ve proven that they’re more suited than any other bad team to put together a nice two-week run on a hotel court amid league- and worldwide turmoil. They will also be sledding uphill in a Western Conference with six playoff locks, and possibly seven if the Rockets don’t blow things up. Ja Morant and Zion Williamson will also be a year older and hungrier next season, and there will really only be one team in the conference actively trying to lose.
This is not to say the Paul trade is not one worth making, but it would come with a good deal more skepticism if, say, a fellow piece of shit like the Kings made the move. The only real difference is that the Suns have cooler jerseys and an 8-0 run at Disney Orlando under their belts.