The Houston Rockets must have anticipated this outcome when they signed the then-33-year-old Chris Paul to a four-year, $159.7 million contract last offseason.
Paul is on the decline, and while he remains one of the most gifted passers and one-on-one creators in the NBA, his numbers have unequivocally dipped, as has his effectiveness.
Enter the Los Angeles Lakers.
As Arash Markazi of the Los Angeles Times wrote this week, the Lakers need help, and they need it now.
"The Lakers don't need a reboot as much as they need some missing parts," he said. "Along with an experienced front-office executive, they need to add a veteran or two to pair with [LeBron] James, who is still arguably the best player in the NBA."
The team is desperate for a secondary superstar to place alongside James. While the Lakers lucked into the fourth overall selection at the NBA Lottery, they need more win-now, veteran talent. And after striking out on Anthony Davis at the Feb. 7 trade deadline, the Lakers will likely have to shift their free agent gaze to Klay Thompson, Jimmy Butler and Kemba Walker.
However, while speaking on Brian Windhorst's podcast recently, Ramona Shelbourne of ESPN.com doubted that Thompson would even grant general manager Rob Pelinka a meeting.
"Guys, I don't think Klay even gives the Lakers a meeting," she said, via Warriors Wire. "If [the Golden State Warriors] don't give him the full max, I think he goes someplace else. I really don't think Klay gives the Lakers a meeting."
The Lakers are in a tough spot. More than adding talent, they need to save face. Acquiring a superstar like Paul does more than appease James. It appeases the Lakers' fanbase and establishes a bit of stability for a front office in desperate need of it.
But Paul doesn't have many productive seasons left. During the 2018-19 campaign, Paul produced the worst field-goal percentage of his career (41.9); his worst effective field-goal percentage since 2010-11 (50.8); his second-lowest assist total; his most turnovers per game since 2008-09; and his lowest plus-minus since 2010-11. His playoff numbers produced similar outcomes.
Availability remains a concern for the 14-year veteran as well. Paul has dressed for just 61 games or fewer in each of the previous three seasons and has failed to play in 71 or more games all but twice since 2010-11.
The Rockets have $116.2 million guaranteed on their books in 2019-20 and over $100 million dedicated to just James Harden, Clint Capela and Paul in 2020-21. They have $107.1 million going to the trio in 2021-22. They have little to no flexibility to reload in free agency, much less re-sign their own players, such as Austin Rivers, Nene, Iman Shumpert, Kenneth Faried and Eric Gordon (free agent in 2020).
The Rockets cannot afford to lose Rivers and Gordon. Both were significantly more valuable this year. When Paul was paired alongside Harden and Capela during the regular season, the lineup netted a positive-4.6, while a Harden-Capela lineup with either Rivers or Gordon produced positives of 9.1 and 9.3, respectively.
With Harden, Gordon and Rivers, the Rockets have an overabundance of talent at the guard position and not enough sizable playmakers on the wing:
"Houston may have to move either Paul or Capela," Jonathan Tjarks of the Ringer wrote. "Neither is irreplaceable. Paul is a great secondary scorer who can initiate the offense when Harden is out, but he's a deliberate offensive player who is still at his best with the ball in his hands."
The Rockets need a longer offensive threat in a big way, and they're not going to get one at a cheap cost. Capela seems the more likely candidate to move given his age (25 on Saturday), but the center's offensive limitations as well as the gluttony of available talent at his position make taking on the remaining four years and $66.2 million guaranteed a problematic proposition.
Paul's cap hit of $124.1 over the next three years is horrifying on paper, and while the Rockets could make one last run with this group intact, it seems unlikely they will want to take that risk.
"We're going to have a strong offseason, and we're going to do whatever we need to do to be a better team," Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta promised following his team's Game 6 loss to the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference Semifinals. "We are not going to sit on our hands—I can promise you that."
"This one hurts," head coach Mike D'Antoni said. "We played our best and they played their best, and we didn't knock them out."
"I know what we need to do," Harden said. "I know exactly what we need to do. We'll figure it out this summer."
Make no mistake—this is the Rockets' last chance to move on from Paul before his contract becomes immovable next summer. It's almost unmovable now. When gazing across the landscape of the NBA, it's challenging to find a suitor willing to take on Paul's contract, but the most intriguing landing spot probably resides in Los Angeles alongside his friend and banana-boat buddy LeBron.
Lakers get: Chris Paul
Let's try this again!
In December 2011, the Los Angeles Lakers came to terms with then-New Orleans Hornets general manager Dell Demps to acquire Paul to form what could have been the most dangerous backcourt in the NBA alongside Kobe Bryant. Then-Commissioner David Stern nixed the deal.
Eight years later, this move could promise Jeanie Buss and the Lakers the star power they've been desperate to pair with LeBron while rescuing them from what has been arguably their most embarrassing year in franchise history because of this, this, this, this and this.
The Lakers failed to acquire Davis at the trade deadline and are unlikely to have the culture to intrigue Thompson or Kyrie Irving this summer given their front-office turnover and late-season collapse. Klay seems destined for his fourth title in five seasons in Golden State. Former Cleveland Cavaliers GM David Griffin's recent comments seem to suggest Kyrie wouldn't be interested in a reunion with LeBron in Los Angeles either.
The Lakers will likely first try their luck at Kemba. Should they fail, they can try shopping their fourth overall selection for an all-star level talent like Bradley Beal or they can try to make a run at Anthony Davis again. But the most likely route involves casting their net over Jimmy Butler or Tobias Harris. Bringing in Paul should only improve the sales pitch to one of them and would be feasible given that deals are agreed upon in principle before the actual signings. Paul adds a veteran presence and a win-now mentality to a locker room full of young players who reportedly have found themselves at odds with James.
Right now, there seems to be a battle between LeBron and his young core. Bringing in a veteran like Paul may help invigorate James' faith in the brass. Getting a locked-in LeBron over the course of a season is an upgrade in and of itself, and if the Lakers are to do the unthinkable and add another star in AD or Beal, Paul works at the perfect facilitator to distribute to them.
Paul is declining, but he was the third-leading facilitator in 2018-19 with 8.2 assists per game. His 4.70 real plus-minus is still in the top five among point guards and 14th overall. Most importantly, he will finally give LeBron the freedom to roam off the ball, something the King was hoping for in L.A. with 2017 No. 2 overall selection Lonzo Ball and Rajon Rondo.
Rondo couldn't duplicate the success he experienced in previous seasons in Chicago and New Orleans, and the Lakers have continued to be open to the possibility of trading Ball.
Chris Paul (34) doesn't fit into James Harden's (29) timeline anymore. The Rockets likely have near to five productive seasons left of their superstar. LeBron (34) fits Paul's timeline perfectly (even their contracts match!), and if the two hope to team up before the twilight of their careers, now is the time.
Rockets get: Lonzo Ball, 2020 protected first (lottery protected), $23 million in cap space
It isn't sexy from the Rockets' perspective. The point guard swap hardly gives Houston what it needs in this deal. Ball (21) has more than impressive upside, but his timeline doesn't match that of his championship-ready teammates (Harden; Gordon, 30; PJ Tucker, 34).
However, there is evidence to suggest the Rockets can be effective in four-guard lineups, and playing Ball alongside Harden, Gordon and Rivers isn't inconceivable.
The real move here is the $29.8 million the team would save next season, bringing it to approximately $86.4 million in guaranteed money and nearly $23 million below the $109 million salary cap (not including roster charges or cap holds). That would give Houston the requisite space to add the win-now tools it's desperate to add.
The Rockets upended their roster following the 2018 season, losing wings Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute in free agency—and, in the process, the size that gave the Warriors such trouble in the 2018 Western Conference Finals. They desperately need an upgrade at the position occupied by Gary Clark.
While bringing back Ariza remains a possibility, the cap space available would give them run at someone like Bojan Bogdanovic, DeMarre Carroll, Danny Green, Kelly Oubre Jr., Terrence Ross or Nikola Mirotic.
If Ball isn't the proper fit, moving on from him shouldn't be a challenge. They can exchange him for a low-priced wing (e.g., Josh Jackson or Mikal Bridges) and then use that small cap bump to add one of a myriad of backcourt players to replace Paul in free agency (Ricky Rubio, Terry Rozier, Darren Collison, Patrick Beverley, Malcolm Brogdon, Elfrid Payton).
The Rockets appeared to be on the doorstep of a championship in 2018 but undeniably took a step backward this year, winning 12 fewer games in the regular season before being eliminated in the playoffs by the Kevin Durant-less Warriors at home in Game 6.
Harden has already said he doesn't want to keep playing "hero ball" in Houston, according to a conversation NBA TV's mics picked up between Curry and Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer (h/t Jordan Zirm of Uproxx), and he can't be expected to put up another stat line of 36.1 points, 7.5 assists and 6.6 rebounds per game over the course of 78 games next season.
For the Rockets to contend in each of the final years of Harden's three-year extension (fourth-year player option), they'll need to carve out the cap space to retool their roster. Moving on from one of Capela or Paul is a necessity, and Paul could become the more movable quantity for a team in Los Angeles desperate for star power.