How the Lakers, 76ers and Bucks could create a Chris Paul bidding war this offseason

Chris Paul was once so untradable that the Miami Heat reportedly wanted the Oklahoma City Thunder to give them draft picks just to take him off their hands. The stance was extreme, but hardly unjustified. The 34-year-old Paul was due $124 million over three seasons and was coming off arguably his worst season as a pro. He hit new career-lows in scoring and field goal percentage while missing 24 games due to injury for the second consecutive season. History hardly portended a turnaround. Small guards tend not to age well. 

This one did. 

Paul made this year’s All-Star Game in leading the Thunder to a 40-24 record prior to the suspension of the season. His clutch numbers have been preposterous; he leads the NBA in total clutch points by a margin wider than the gap between No. 2 Trae Young and No. 6 Zach LaVine. His shooting percentages approached career-highs across the board. He is currently fifth among point guards in Defensive Real Plus-Minus and seventh among all NBA guards in Defensive Win Shares. Age aside, Paul in his current state is the sort of player that could help any team, and there are only two years left on his contract. 

That will be reflected in Oklahoma City’s asking price. After all, the Thunder are in the midst of a feel-good season. They don’t have to trade Paul, and they have generated real momentum to build on should they choose. But the Thunder’s organizational priority is the oncoming Shai Gilgeous-Alexander era. Acquiring assets to supplement him was the key motivator behind their acquisition of Paul in the first place. They now have not only a suddenly valuable player to trade, but the leverage to deal him for market value. Getting him now is going to be costly for whatever contender dares to try. 

Fortunately for the Thunder, a lot has changed in the past year. Contenders that spent cap space last summer suddenly have tradable contracts. Vulnerabilities in certain rosters that Paul could fix have been exposed on the court. And looming over all of this is the desperation that a potentially lost season could generate. If a 2020 champion isn’t named, the pressure for 2021 doubles. Teams aren’t getting any younger. Their best players draw ever closer to free agency. Unlike last summer, there will be real demand for Paul this time around, enough potentially to create a bidding war.

Add all of this up and some of the best teams in the NBA could now potentially enter the fray. Here’s how. 

Improved finances could facilitate a return to Los Angeles

Paul already played for one Los Angeles team. He was viewed by many as a safety star for the other. But the Lakers traded for Anthony Davis and spent their cap space elsewhere, while the Clippers emptied their vault for Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. By the time both were done, they couldn’t even make a trade work under the cap. Now? A trade is at least possible for one. It’s downright tempting for the other. 

The Clippers employed Paul for six years. They are also ranked 26th in the NBA in passes per game and are 23rd in assist rate. They could use a pure point guard, with some combination of Lou Williams, Patrick Beverley, Ivica Zubac, JaMychal Green and Rodney McGruder, they could at least theoretically cobble the necessary salary together. But neither side would seem particularly motivated to make a deal. The Thunder already stripped the Clippers for every worthwhile asset they had in the George deal, and matching salary won’t be enough for them. The Clippers rely heavily on their depth. A four- or five-for-one trade would be out of character. 

But grabbing a star is never out of character for the Lakers, whose need for a secondary ball-handler has been well-documented. A Paul trade would have been financially impossible for the Lakers this season. They had only around $32 million in cap space after acquiring Davis this summer, but Paul’s cap figure was above $38.5 million. Even if the Lakers could have scraped the salary together, two of the players likely needed to make the numbers work (Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and JaVale McGee) both had the contractual right to veto any trade. 

Were either to pick up their player options this offseason, that right would expire. With Paul’s 2020-21 salary set at $41,358,814, the magic number they would need to reach would be $33,087,051.20 in outgoing salary (80 percent). It would cost a fortune in depth, but the Lakers can hit that number provided those options are picked up. Caldwell-Pope, Danny Green and Avery Bradley would have to be in the deal. McGee would push it over the top, or the Lakers could package Talen Horton-Tucker and Quinn Cook (provided they guaranteed his 2020-21 salary). 

Roster-size constraints wouldn’t be an issue in the offseason, and some of those players would likely be directed elsewhere anyway. The Lakers would need to include a young asset to entice the Thunder. Kyle Kuzma would suffice, or if he is still viewed as untouchable, both their 2020 and 2027 first-round picks become tradable immediately after the 2020 NBA Draft. 

If this strikes you as enormously expensive, well, it should. Acquiring All-Star point guards shouldn’t be cheap. The Lakers would essentially be trading in their point guard problem for a shooting guard problem. Alex Caruso would have to see his role increased significantly. Lakers GM Rob Pelinka would have to absolutely nail his Tax-Payer Mid-Level Exception and minimum signings (and fortunately, this year’s free-agent class features plenty of affordable wings). They would also have to sacrifice their 2021 cap space ambitions in the name of an immediate title run. Getting Paul now eliminates the cap space they’ve seemingly earmarked for Giannis Antetokounmpo. 

It ultimately boils down to preference. The Lakers preferred a three-star construction to a deeper lineup last summer, when they pursued Leonard, but even in his revitalized state Paul can’t match Kawhi’s value. LeBron James’ friendship with Paul would almost certainly be a factor. So would this year’s roster’s unbridled success. The Lakers might need a 2020 postseason to make this decision. 

But almost a decade earlier, the Lakers very nearly acquired Paul before ultimately losing out. It sent them spiraling into the worst stretch in franchise history. Nothing could be more poetic than the Lakers finally getting their point guard and riding him back to the championship heights they haven’t experienced since 2010. 

Desperation could land Paul with an Eastern Conference contender

Just as their free agency machinations prevented the Lakers from trading for Paul last summer, the Eastern Conference’s two preseason favorites were similarly financially restrained. Between Eric Bledsoe’s mid-season extension and all of their re-signed free agents, almost no expensive Milwaukee Bucks were tradable when Paul was originally available. The Philadelphia 76ers invested in two mercenaries in Al Horford and Josh Richardson while retaining Tobias Harris on a max deal. Neither team could’ve gone after Paul at the time even if they’d wanted him. 

But to be fair, at the time, neither seemed to want him. Paul’s issues aside, the 76ers were committed to Ben Simmons as their sole ball-handler last season. That’s why they let Jimmy Butler go. How firm is that commitment with the Sixers currently mired in the No. 6 seed? Milwaukee may have been content to play playoff roulette with Bledsoe yet again this spring, but if it loses again, or more distressingly, doesn’t get the chance to after a canceled season, the Bucks would suddenly have only more chance to win a championship with Giannis before his 2021 free agency. Fear is an agent of change. The Bucks might not be enthused about Paul’s contract, but could be willing to bite the bullet in an all-or-nothing year-long recruiting pitch to the reigning MVP. 

Luckily, both can make a trade work financially this offseason … provided they’re OK with a potentially enormous luxury tax bill. A Bucks trade would look fairly similar to the Lakers deal presented above. Milwaukee would aggregate four or five salaries, almost certainly starting with Bledsoe, George Hill and Ersan Ilyasova, and then entice Oklahoma City with Indiana’s valuable 2020 first-round pick along with potentially some of its own draft capital. 

Philadelphia’s path is far simpler. Harris could be dealt for Paul straight up. Horford would require minimal additional filler. Add draft capital as needed. More of it would be necessary in a Horford construction, but as dreadful as his contract looks now, it should be noted that he played for Billy Donovan at Florida. The Thunder might be more open to swallowing his deal than most teams.

The biggest deterrent here isn’t basketball-related. It’s pure cash. Milwaukee is hovering around the luxury tax line as it is. Philadephia is destined to bolt past it next season, and stay above it for years to come. The pursuit of Paul, in the grand scheme of things, would cost either team tens of millions of dollars over the next several years. Is that a price either would pay? 

In the interest of winning, the answer is, unequivocally, yes. Remember those absurd Paul clutch numbers we mentioned earlier? Well, Milwaukee is 12th in clutch offense. Philadephia is 16th. It is arguably both of their greatest weakness, and Paul not only solves it on his own, but one team acquiring him means that the other can’t. There isn’t exactly another Paul-caliber player either of these teams can afford. Missing out likely means leaving that clutch offense hole unfilled. 

The Knicks have a new savior, so anything is possible

Knicks’ general managers are notoriously fidgety. When a new one gets hired, usually every few years or so, they’re desperate to make a splash just to prove that things are different this time. Isiah Thomas got Stephon Marbury. Phil Jackson acquired the 2010 Bulls. Steve Mills paid Tim Hardaway Jr. just to keep David Griffin away. History says that Leon Rose is about to do something short-sighted to placate a fanbase that has never been placatable, and sure enough, Paul’s name has already come up

That isn’t to say that the Knicks wouldn’t benefit from the NBA’s consummate adult in the room. A dose of professionalism is always welcome for a franchise that less than two months ago needed to author a press release indicating that their owner doesn’t plan to sell the team. 

It’s just that the Knicks aren’t exactly overflowing with assets. They didn’t achieve pick-neutrality until 2016, when their final obligation from an ancient trade (this one involving Andrea Bargnani) was fulfilled. The one thing that the Knicks have going for them right now is their cupboard of picks. Giving any of them away for a player unlikely to last long enough to see this team truly compete for championships again is exactly the sort of decision that pushed the Knicks so far away from championship contention in the first place. 

But nobody has ever accused the Knicks of being logical, and if New York views a Paul deal as a step toward league-wide credibility, it is something it will consider. The construction would be simple enough. The Knicks have more than enough expiring salary to satisfy Oklahoma City. They also own two future first-round picks from the Mavericks that make more sense as trade assets than their own picks. There are cheaper ways to prove to the world that you deserve to be taken seriously, but “cheap” has never been part of New York’s dictionary. 

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