If, upon learning that future Hall of Fame point guard Chris Paul will soon be set free by the Suns, your mind immediately drifted to the Lakers and his good friend LeBron James, you are not alone. Every NBA exec we spoke to about the situation on Wednesday agreed that the Lakers are the team to watch on Paul.
“Lakers first,” one Eastern Conference GM texted. “It’s not definite, a lot can happen. But you’d have to start there. He always had (the) dream of being a Laker (and) playing with LBJ (James).”
As the GM referenced, Paul’s situation could prove to be not-so-simple. The easy path would be for Paul to be bought out by the Suns for the remaining $15.8 million on his contract, leaving him a free agent. But the Suns could choose to trade Paul, and he could be later bought out by whatever new team takes him. Or he could be kept by the new team.
Or the Suns could wind up bringing him back, if they make an aggressive move to reconstruct the roster, as expected.
“There is a lot that can happen there,” an Eastern Conference executive said. “The Suns need depth all over that roster. They want to free up their payroll. They want to see if there is a way to bring in Dame (Lillard). They want to see what they can do with a DeAndre Ayton deal. There is a lot on the table. And the Lakers need to know where they are going with (D’Angelo) Russell. They’re not just letting him walk. They traded a pick for him. And who knows if they could get Chris to sign a vet minimum deal or what?
“But if it is a straight kind of thing, just giving (Paul) the $15 million and moving on, and everything else is equal, it is hard to imagine him not going to the Lakers.”
Can the Lakers Play Paul & D’Angelo Russell?
The complicating factors on both sides are many, as the exec pointed out. Russell was the main return asset in the midseason trade that sent out Russell Westbrook and the team’s 2027 first-rounder, and the Lakers clung so dearly to that pick that it’s difficult to see them simply walking away from Russell (who struggled badly in the Western Conference finals) when he hits free agency this summer.
The Lakers could work out a sign-and-trade option with Russell, though it could be difficult to find a taker—the Lakers were one of only a small handful of teams interested in trading for Russell at the February deadline. But trading Russell away for useful rotation depth would be ideal.
The Lakers could re-sign Russell and add Paul, though that would create a logjam at the point guard spot.
Another issue: The Lakers are likely to be a luxury-tax payer next season, so signing Paul for anything more than the veteran’s minimum ($3.1 million) could get expensive quickly. The Lakers are expected to have the full $12 million mid-level exception available this summer, and could give Paul a big chunk of that. But that would not only be costly because of the tax, it would use up one of the main options the Lakers have for filling in gaps in the roster.
There’s also potential competition from other teams—not only a potential return to the Suns, but also a spot with the Heat, which coveted Paul back when he was with the Thunder and tried to work out a deal to bring him to Miami in 2019. Even as they toil in the NBA Finals, it is obvious the Heat need more depth, and with point guard Gabe Vincent hitting free agency in three weeks, there could be a roster hole.
A 2011 Lakers Redo for Chris Paul
Still, if Paul does want to be a Laker badly enough, it will be easy to make it happen. Paul was nearly a Laker back in 2011, of course, when he was traded in a three-team deal among L.A., New Orleans and the Rockets. But commissioner David Stern, acting as the steward of the New Orleans franchise at the time as it was seeking a buyer, nixed the deal before Paul was eventually traded to the Clippers.
Paul was angry about the nixed deal 12 years ago. At long last–and at age 38–he could get a chance at a redo.
“If it is what Chris Paul wants, being with the Lakers, it is what he is gonna get,” one Western Conference executive said. “He has the house in L.A. He is getting near to retirement. He wants a chance to win. There’s the LeBron thing. That’s where all the signs point, to L.A.”