Has the Chris Paul Rule doomed Chris Paul to a title-less career?
It is hard to feel too sorry for Chris Paul, who will enter the 15th season of his NBA career with his new team, the Oklahoma City Thunder, holding the distinction of having the second highest salary in the entire league.
A paypacket of $38,506,482 (what do you think he’ll spend the $482 on?) is a lot of money whichever way you slice it, especially for a 34-year-old who is at least a little way beyond his true peak.
Yet Paul also faces the possibility of that huge wage being a millstone that severely hampers his ability to play for a winning team as his career winds towards its natural conclusion. What’s more, in a twist of irony, that restriction may come about due to a provision brought in two years ago — and nicknamed after Paul himself.
“That contract is so brutal,” ESPN’s Nick Friedell told The Jump. “This guy is way past his prime. This is a total rebuilding team. It is a team that needs a hard reset.
“I don’t think he is a fit in OKC and they need to hit that button as hard as they can but the problem is...that contract is so atrocious.”
The regulation that allowed Paul to make so much money is sometimes referred to as the Chris Paul Rule. In 2016, the NBA and the National Basketball Players Association, of which Paul was (and still is) president, agreed to a shift in the salary regulations. The main event was a change in what was then known as the Over-36 Rule, a provision that essentially restricted aging players’ ability to sign long-term deals at the highest prices.
Thanks to the negotiating of the NBPA, it effectively became the Over-38 Rule. Without the alteration, Paul would not have ended up with his current four-year $159.7 million package. (And if you think $38 million per year is a lot, he will get $44.2 million in 2021-22. By the end of that campaign, he will be 37.) Instead, he almost certainly would have signed a 3-year deal worth approximately $115 million — one fewer year, $45 million less, and with a lower average annual salary to boot.
Financially, it couldn’t have worked out better. No one makes more than him right now except Stephen Curry, despite Paul being probably outside the top 20 players in the league and having missed 69 games through injury the past three years. But basketball-wise? Paul’s leadership on the negotiating front might have doomed him, as the combination of his massive salary and dwindling play is pure anathema to NBA title contention.
After two unfulfilling years of the Paul/James Harden experiment in Houston, the Rockets moved Paul to the Thunder and got Russell Westbrook in exchange. The trade was a match because Westbrook was the only other player in the league with a similarly prohibitive contract — he will make almost the exact same amount as Paul this year.
Yet to push through the swap, the Rockets still had to throw in enough sweeteners to rot your teeth, including two first-round picks and two more first-round swaps. The kindest interpretation is that with all of the serious free-agent business done, no one had the space to accommodate Paul’s remaining three years and $124 million.
In truth, there isn’t anyone who thinks he is worth that money.
Teams like Miami — with Dwyane Wade retired and Jimmy Butler newly signed — and Detroit could have been fits for Paul. But the combination of his contract heft and the Thunder’s unwillingness to trade away their stash of future draft picks to facilitate a deal all but ensure that Paul will be in Oklahoma City for the foreseeable future.
With Paul and the immediately ready pieces acquired in exchange for Paul George, the Thunder will be able to put out a pretty decent team, while rubbing their hands together and looking forward to the next several draft days. They won’t be a championship team though, nor a contender, or anything particularly close to it.
And so we come back to the Paul rule. Would Paul have done it any differently had he known this would be the outcome? After all, while there is no hint of a suggestion he acted in self-interest, the NBPA negotiation did net him an extraordinary amount of money.
It is but the latest of seemingly ill-fated twists that have kept Paul from playing in the NBA Finals, much less winning one.
In 2011, Paul was a young star in New Orleans and was traded to the Lakers, who were only a year removed from back-to-back NBA titles. But that move – and potential pairing with Kobe Bryant – was nixed by the NBA, which happened to be operating the New Orleans franchise at the time.
Paul wound up in LA with the Clippers and ushered in the Lob City era that was long on style but never materialized as a champion. And his trade to the Rockets two years ago ultimately set the Clippers on their course to emerge as NBA title favorites with the acquisitions of Kawhi Leonard and George this summer.
Right now, it is hard to see him getting another chance, not unless he willingly takes a lesser deal and surrenders tens of millions to buy a lottery ticket for a shot at a championship. Given that he is taking an active role in encouraging younger NBA players to maximize all of their earning potential, that doesn’t look likely.
This is kind of the way it is in the NBA now. If you are a GM who wants to get a top-level star for what might be his prime years at 32 or 33, you are going to have to lock him down to a maximum contract for the long term, and deal with the consequences towards the end of it.
The only damage to the player is to their pride — to their chances of being on a team that wants to win now — and having to listen to descriptions of their contract as absurdly poor value.
That is what the Chris Paul Rule has done to Chris Paul, and he won’t be the last.