When Thunder coach Billy Donovan decided, after a remarkable season in which his team earned an NBA playoff spot despite being given a 0.2% chance of doing so before the season began, not to return to Oklahoma City, the implication was clear. The Thunder, despite the success this year, were going forward with their plans for a rebuild and Donovan preferred to be with a team that was already set up for a postseason run. That means that OKC’s first order of business remains to ship out star point guard Chris Paul and his weighty contract.
And according to Bleacher Report, an ideal destination for Paul would be the Los Angeles Lakers.
In a three-team trade proposed by analyst Preston Ellis, the Lakers could receive Paul by giving up Kyle Kuzma, Danny Green, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Avery Bradley and rookie Talen Horton-Tucker. That motley bunch would be shipped off to Philadelphia (Kuzma, Bradley, Horton-Tucker) and Oklahoma City (Green, Caldwell-Pope) with the Sixers’ Mike Scott, rookie Zhaire Smith and a first-round pick also landing with the Thunder.
The Lakers would get two future second-rounders to go with Paul.
Chris Paul’s Contract Could Interfere with Los Angeles Lakers’ Free-Agency Plans
The deal would unite Lakers star LeBron James with Paul, a guy with whom he has always wanted to play. In 2015, James explained, via Cleveland.com, that he has three friends in the NBA—Paul, Carmelo Anthony and Dwyane Wade. James pointed out that he, “we all grew up together,” with Anthony, Wade and James all members of the 2003 draft class, and Paul arriving two years later. “And after that I have a bunch of teammates,” James said.
The Lakers’ payroll would be overloaded among its star players, and Ellis concedes that is a problem, though the team has been able to bring in quality low-cost players in free agency like Rajon Rondo, Bradley and Green.
Ellis wrote: “While this transaction makes the Lakers almost untenably top-heavy, agent-turned-front office executive Rob Pelinka has shown a penchant for attracting veterans to Los Angeles on meager deals. The Lakers also keep their 28th pick, which can be flipped for another veteran.”
Paul would be an intriguing fit with the Lakers, a superb ballhandler who could lift the point-guard duties from James and give the Lakers a third scoring option down the stretch of tight games. The Lakers have James and Anthony Davis but have not established a consistent third player to go to for crunch-time points.
The biggest obstacle to getting Paul to Los Angeles is his contract. After this season, Paul is signed for $41 million next year and $44 million in 2021-22. The final year is a player option.
The Lakers are intent on being players in the 2021 free-agent market, when young stars like Bradley Beal and Giannis Antetokounmpo could be available. That is critical to ensuring the franchise is set up to win as James ages and retires. But with Paul (who is 35) on their books, they would not be able to do so, unless he would consent to opting out of the final year of his deal. That could pave the way for him to play in L.A. and have a chance to win a championship.
Of course, he would have to agree to sacrifice $44 million to do so, and that figures to be a stretch.
Lakers’ Kyle Kuzma Will Be on the Trade Block Again
The proposal does highlight one issue the Lakers have going into the offseason—they are going to have to figure out what to do with Kuzma. He was a trade candidate at this year’s deadline, for multiple reasons, but the Lakers could not find the right deal.
For one, he has not meshed well with the Lakers’ star duo of James and Davis. Coming off the bench, he went from 33.1 minutes per game last year to 25.0 minutes this year, and his performance suffered. He dropped from 18.7 points per game on 45.6% shooting to 12.8 points on 43.6% shooting. He attacked the rim far less this season. Last year, 28.8% of his shots were within three feet of the rim last season, according to Basketball-Reference.com, and that dropped to 19.3% this year. He took more 3-pointers, which is not a strength in his game, as he made just 31.6% from the arc this year.
Kuzma is eligible for a contract extension this offseason but that extension would have to begin in 2021-22, which would interfere with the Lakers’ big plans for the free-agent market in 2021. The Lakers want as few contracts on the books as possible going into that summer. If L.A. keeps his for next season, he would be a restricted free agent in 2021.
After struggling in the first round of the playoffs—his postseason debut—Kuzma played better against Houston and had 17 points on 5-for-9 shooting in the closeout Game 5 of that series. Still, over the long term, he is probably not the right fit for the Lakers.
Using him as a key piece to get Paul to the Lakers is far-fetched, but Kuzma is likely to be on the trading block again next month.
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