The Corner Three: Chris Paul in OKC, Sixers and Simmons, Zion and Duke

ONE.

The reputation Chris Paul had after he was traded by the Rockets was that of a grouchy, aging star with not much tread left on the tires. He and James Harden clashed in the locker room and one of them had to go.

And we all know Harden isn’t losing that popularity contest in Houston.

HOUSTON, TX – DECEMBER 14: James Harden #13 of the Houston Rockets looks on during the game against the Detroit Pistons on December 14, 2019 at the Toyota Center in Houston, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2019 NBAE (Photo by Cato Cataldo/NBAE via Getty Images)

So GM Daryl Morey, a riverboat gambler when it comes to signings and trades, strapped a bunch of first round picks to the bloated contract he had just given Paul and shipped him off to the Thunder for a slightly younger, but just as grouchy, guard in Russell
Westbook.

And suddenly there was CP3, left to waste in a rebuild in Oklahoma City.

But something happened on the way to obscurity. CP3 was no longer a contentious, injury-prone veteran chasing elusive playoff success and instead became a mentor, a teacher and a valuable piece to a surprising success story in the Western Conference.

Through 37 games, the Thunder are 21-16, which is good enough to be 7th in the West as we near the midpoint of the season. Paul is having a terrific season, averaging 16 points and 7 assists per game with a shooting slash line of 47/37/90. He’s also engaged in helping second-year guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander — whom the Thunder acquired from the Clippers in the Paul George trade — develop into an intriguing talent.

Chris Paul, at 34, has reinvented himself. And right now he appears to be worth every penny of the $38 million salary he’s getting this season.

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK – NOVEMBER 12: Chris Paul #3 of the Oklahoma City Thunder dribbles up court against the Indiana Pacers on November 12, 2019 at Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2020 NBAE (Photo by Zach Beeker/NBAE via Getty Images)

But do the Thunder value his presence enough to keep him around after the Feb. 6 trade deadline? Last month, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski said he had “no belief” that OKC was looking to trade Paul, but rumors still persist he could be on the move.

Why?

Well, he’ll be 35 this year and he still has a $41.3 million salary coming next season with a player option for $44.2 million in 2021-22, when he’ll be 36 years old and in his 16th season. He might not have more value than now, though the contract commitment is
a detriment. It would seem obvious that the Lakers would take the gamble to team him up with his good friend LeBron James. Paul’s family remained in Los Angeles, so he would welcome that move.

Another reason why the Thunder might not be inclined to move CP3, especially if he’s, as he has said, happy to be there, is that any team that takes that contract off their hands would demand a few of those first round picks they acquired in the Westbrook and George trades. OKC has a total of 7 first round picks between 2021 and 2026 from those trades and the right to swap three others.

If you want to take first round picks from Thunder GM Sam Presti, you’ll likely need to pry them from his cold, dead hands.

Chris Paul has had a stellar career that lacks playoff success. His best years were with the Clippers, but he never appeared in a conference final. If he stays with the Thunder, he may never get there, but, for now, that doesn’t seem to be a concern.

Still, that’s a name to watch as we near the trade deadline.

TWO.

The Process was celebrated in Philadelphia and started a troubling trend that other team’s thought to emulate. Suddenly, losing was the new winning.

But 7 years after The Process began by Sam Hinkie, where are the 76ers? Right now they’re exactly where Hinkie said was the worst place to be: on the treadmill of average.

PHILADELPHIA,PA – DECEMBER 11: Sam Hinkie of the Philadelphia 76ers addresses the media in regards to Brett Browns contract extension prior to the game as .At Wells Fargo Center on December 11, 2015 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2015 NBAE (Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images)

The Sixers (24-14) are fifth in the East and pretty much middle of the road in several key categories. Sure, they have two stars in Joel Embiid (now out with a ligament injury in his hand) and Ben Simmons, but that was two picks they got right out of a total of nine from 2013-2018, which included four consecutive losing seasons. Epic losing seasons.

PHILADELPHIA, PA – DECEMBER 2: Joel Embiid #21 and Ben Simmons #25 of the Philadelphia 76ers react after Dario Saric made a basket and was fouled in the second quarter against the Detroit Pistons at the Wells Fargo Center on December 2, 2017 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)

Painful losing, which included a 10-win season, that now finds them as a very good team but not a championship contender. They have two stars and not much of a bench. And now there’s talk that the two stars, Embiid and Simmons, may not be best suited as teammates.

Ugh.

Embiid is averaging 23.4 points and 12.3 rebounds per game as the most dominant big man in the league. When he’s motivated, he’s an unstoppable force. But there’s a feeling he would be better off paired with a more dynamic point guard who can play pick-and-roll as a threat not just with the drive but also with the jump shot.

Simmons (14.9 points and 8.6 assists) is a dynamic playmaker and a game-changing player at both ends of the floor. But the issue that just won’t go away is his inability — and unwillingness — to shoot the three. Simmons finally made his first career three-pointer
this season, but he’s just 2 for 5 from downtown. Opposing defenses are quite aware of this and know they just need to take away the paint. That leads to spacing issues, which frustrates Embiid.

So what do the Sixers do now? Do they dare trade Simmons with the ambition to find a scoring guard (CP3, Westbrook?) that fits better with Embiid? What if that guard struggles with the enigmatic, moody Embiid?

The Sixers first need to get more perimeter shooting to make up for Simmons and also add some offense off the bench. But does that even get them over the top?

To be fair, they went for it last season by trading for Tobias Harris and Jimmy Butler and yet they lost in the second round for a second straight year with 51 wins. Yes, it took an epic bounce on a buzzer-beater by Kawhi Leonard to do it, but the result is still
the result.

Can you see the Sixers reaching the conference finals this year? Maybe. But the way they’ve been playing lately, with the injury to Embiid, this still doesn’t feel like a championship-caliber team.

PHILADELPHIA, PA – FEBRUARY 10: Philadelphia 76ers Center Joel Embiid (21) elevates for a dunk in the second half during the game between the Los Angeles Clippers and Philadelphia 76ers on February 10, 2018 at Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, PA. (Photo by Kyle Ross/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The point is, you don’t purposely lose four straight years — and Hinkie made no secret the strategy was to lose to get the highest draft picks possible — to wind up back where you started as a good, but not great, team in the East. You do it to win a championship.

And the Sixers are clearly still a more or two away from it.

THREE.

Zion Williamson remains out, but at least he’s practicing and is expecting to make his NBA debut in the coming days or weeks. In a recent podcast with teammate JJ Redick via The Ringer, Zion revealed something that was wonderfully genuine and also somewhat sad.

NEW ORLEANS, LA – JANUARY 8: Zion Williamson #1 of the New Orleans Pelicans warms up prior to a game against the Chicago Bulls on January 8, 2020 at the Smoothie King Center in New Orleans, Louisiana. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2020 NBAE (Photo by Layne Murdoch Jr./NBAE via Getty Images)

He wanted to stay in college.

Williamson said he didn’t make his final decision to enter the NBA Draft until the very last day before the deadline.

“Me? I wanted to go back,” he said. “Nobody ever believes me, they think I’m just saying that, but no, I genuinely wanted to go back.”

Williamson was the consensus No. 1 overall pick in the draft. He had millions in guaranteed money waiting for him and yet, he said, he was willing to wait on it.

“I felt like the NBA wasn’t going anywhere,” he said. “The money thing, that’s money. I don’t play this game for money, I play it because I genuinely love the game.”

 

Zion admitted he got a lot of pressure from people to jump to the NBA despite his desire to stay in college. He said Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski wouldn’t let him, and his teammates implored him to not risk an injury. Remember, Williamson endured a knee sprain in
the middle of the season after his sneaker blew out during a game. That same knee required surgery at the end of training camp, which is why he has yet to make his NBA debut.

DURHAM, NC – FEBRUARY 02: RJ Barrett #5 and Zion Williamson #1 of the Duke Blue Devils look on in the first half against the St. John’s Red Storm at Cameron Indoor Stadium on February 2, 2019 in Durham, North Carolina. (Photo by Lance King/Getty Images)

Even Williamson’s parents wouldn’t let him stay in school. Zion said his mother initially said she would support any decision he would make, which led him to reply, “All right, I’m going back [to Duke].” That’s when his mother Sharonda and his stepfather Lateef
talked him out of it.

He went, as expected, No. 1 overall to the New Orleans Pelicans and signed a contract that, with team options, will pay him $44 million over the next four years.

But he sounds like he would have rather waited at least one more year, to experience the college life a little more as a teenager before being thrust into the demands of professional basketball.

“I just loved my experience at Duke that much,” he said. “I wanted to stay.”

The Garden of Dreams Foundation helps kids facing obstacles in the Tri-State area, including Rangers fan Taylor Ryan who is battling a rare blood disorder called Langerhans cell histiocytosis.