Chris Paul knows he will probably get dealt to Miami. But he doesn’t know when. How Chris Paul performs in the first month of the season will determine the trajectory of a Thunder-Heat swap. As it stands in September, the Thunder have no incentive to deal Paul. They would be bidding against their own interests. They want to sell Paul when the Heat are desperate but that can backfire too. If Paul struggles early, it depresses the price. The Thunder don’t believe in that longshot scenario because Paul rarely struggles. They are in the power seat.
On opening night, the Heat are absent an elite point guard. Even with Jimmy Butler’s heroics, the likelihood of Miami stumbling is significantly in the plus column. But that’s a month away and they can afford to remain paralyzed in a bubble and think about the right now. Being a reluctant buyer works when games aren’t in play, when the Heat don’t have to go Milwaukee to play the Bucks on the second night of the season and then a week later play the Rockets, Nuggets and Lakers on the second night of a back-to-back.
Both Pat Riley and Sam Presti are experienced negotiators. Both sides know the deal will probably get done. It’s not like Paul has value anywhere else considering his salary for the next three seasons is what no organization wants on their books for someone of his age who has been to a conference final only once in his 14 year career. So, it’s Miami or nothing. That’s where Presti has to be real careful. He can get too greedy and find himself with Chris Paul for the entire season. And Pat Riley can find himself with just one star.
According to CBA rules, newly signed free agents cannot be traded until December 15th. While the moratorium affects most of those who changed teams in the summer, The Thunder and Heat didn’t sign free agents that they want to move to make this deal go. This sale will come down to pieces the Heat are willing to relinquish. In essence, this deal is all about Pat Riley, the master at playing chess.
The best case scenario for Riles is one in which the Heat start off reasonably well. Then it is not about need but want, where he can technically say no thank you. But as good a salesman as Riley is, he can’t put lipstick on a pig. Justise Winslow is no one’s idea of a point guard. He may have the ball in his hands and act as a distributor but a point guard is much more than that. Goran Dragic has a history of being annoyed when he wants to be traded or when a team wants him gone. (The Heat tried to get the Mavs to take Dragic this summer but it fell through). Regardless of Riley’s skill as a spin doctor, the Thunder are aware of how much the Heat covet Paul and are desperate to pair him with Jimmy Butler because of what it means for the right now. Miami is relevant again.
It would be awesome with Paul at the point and Butler as the scorer. Both have similar edgy temperaments with highly competitive natures that are easily irritated when their perfectionism isn’t honored. The Heat have an envied identity of defense and toughness. Paul and Butler would be more of the same with an added twist of offensive execution and efficiency. The Heat would finally be able to score. With Paul, the Heat rise up the East ladder and are a threat in the playoffs, particularly with how they defend. Sam Presti is aware of all the talking points of why the Heat want Paul and intends to use that for his advantage.
Presti has his own organization to think about. Losing James Harden. Then Kevin Durant. And now Russell Westbrook means Presti is back to the beginning. 12 years after drafting Durant which netted two regular season MVP’s for Durant and Westbrook, and one NBA Finals appearance, Presti is being questioned about his ability to build a championship level roster and to keep that roster together. The summer realized his worst fear. Presti breathed rare air for awhile but now he is in the back of the class with lottery dreams and perhaps LaMelo Ball on the brain. Rebuilding takes engineering and acuity. Presti has to make a subtle change and simultaneously make sure what he receives for Chris Paul is going to be an asset for the Thunder future.
Chris Paul is caught in the middle. The waiting game is the waiting game. I suppose, he has himself to blame. Had he not taken the most money possible he would have had more teams in play. But he is who he is. A competitor. A leader. Fearless. He will play for OKC as if they can win the title. They will get his best. Not because he knows it helps sugar the pot in the negotiations, or weaken it depending on your perspective, but that it continues the Chris Paul legacy. It’s been a while since all we had to do was look at Chris Paul’s game and his leadership, and marvel.
Here we are again, purely by accident. Chris Paul has something to prove. Pat Riley has something to gain. Sam Presti has a reputation to defend.