In what seems like another basketball lifetime, Chris Paul made the splash heard round the NBA when the New Orleans Hornets traded him to the Los Angeles Clippers in the first blockbuster move in the wake of the 2011 lockout.
Well, it was the second blockbuster move, actually; the first, a trade sending Paul to the Los Angeles Lakers, was nixed by then-Commissioner David Stern, who was acting in the uncomfortable role as basketball decision-maker for the league-owned New Orleans franchise.
Paul's resume with the Clippers included three first-round and three second-round playoff exits before he finally wore out his welcome and forced a trade to the Houston Rockets.
General manager Daryl Morey built the Rockets around Paul and James Harden for the express purpose of derailing the Golden State Warriors. That hasn't happened (though Paul did finally reach the conference finals for the first time in his career in 2018). This time around, they crashed and burned against the Warriors in the conference semifinals.
Now, as Morey looks to reboot, ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski reported everyone on the roster is available in trade talks; everyone, that is, except Harden, who is "not going anywhere," a rival executive told Bleacher Report.
Paul, 34, once again finds himself at a career crossroads. This time, with three years and $124.1 million remaining on his contract, it's going to be far more challenging for him to find a path to a better situation.
Challenging but not impossible, according to multiple executives and agents in the league.
"The good thing about the contract is it's three years and you're done," a Western Conference executive said. "There's no more extensions, no more money coming. Chris gets paid, and that's it. Plus, it's an expiring in two years."
Nonetheless, it would take a unique set of circumstances for Paul and his agent, Leon Rose of Creative Artists Agency, to find a contending team willing to absorb his enormous contract—and for Morey to walk away from the CP3 experiment with something approaching fair value in a trade.
"He's going to have to give him away," another Western Conference executive said. "That contract is scary. Plus, he's been injury-prone a little bit. I don't know that I would touch that. I think they're stuck."
There are very specific circumstances under which a Paul trade is imaginable. For starters, it almost certainly has to be with a contending team that could absorb his contract into cap space. There would also have to be a level of risk-taking and desperation involved, including, possibly, a big swing and a miss in the free-agent market. Here are a few scenarios in which rival executives say a deal for Paul could materialize.
Los Angeles Lakers: Two executives told B/R the Lakers left the draft combine in Chicago without much traction on meetings with top free agents come July 1.
Hmm, I wonder why? They whiffed on their attempt to pry Anthony Davis from the New Orleans Pelicans at the trade deadline and missed the playoffs even though they have the best player on the planet, LeBron James. Magic Johnson abruptly resigned as team president in April (and proceeded to throw GM Rob Pelinka, among others, under the bus), and what's left in the wake of all that is a lukewarm level of confidence among prominent agents in Pelinka's ability to right the ship. (And that's being kind.)
The Lakers could have close to $40 million in cap space and wind up with very little to show for it. The "other" team in L.A. has a more compelling case to make to potential free agents such as Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Kyrie Irving and others. The Clippers have room for two max contracts, a playoff-tested coach in Doc Rivers, stable ownership and an intriguing core of young players. Plus, they made the playoffs this season despite a roster bereft of superstars. How good could they be if they got two?
The Lakers? They have...LeBron. But as one executive pointed out, if James was willing to throw the entire roster under the bus in the pursuit of Davis, why has there been no hint of lobbying the front office to acquire Paul, one of his banana boat buddies and one of his best friends?
This scenario depends on two factors: the Lakers failing again to acquire Davis in a trade and striking out on the top free agents, and Pelinka deciding that, after everything that has gone down in L.A., he needs to "make a splash," one of the rival executives said.
"Is Pelinka desperate enough to make that move?" the executive said. "And where is Daryl setting the bar? The fourth pick in a three-player draft and [Kyle] Kuzma is about the best you could hope for."
New York Knicks: Everyone and their uncle—even Uncle Drew—seems to think Durant is destined to sign with the Knicks this summer. But what if the Knicks get Durant but not Irving?
"I could see a scenario where Chris Paul becomes the consolation prize," one of the executives said.
For this to happen, the Knicks would have to decide that Paul's star power, his friendship with Durant and the idea of trying to squeeze two more star-caliber years out of him in his mid-30s is a better scenario than paying the 29-year-old Kemba Walker—a New York native—$140 million over four years or trading for the 31-year-old Mike Conley.
"In some ways, hoping to get two good years out of Paul and then waiving and stretching him or dumping him as an expiring is more palatable," one of the execs said.
The haul of assets that would land Paul would pale in comparison to what it would cost to trade for Davis. Given Paul's age, contract and injury history, is the third pick even worth discussing?
"It depends on how high Daryl tries to set the bar," one of the execs said.
Phoenix Suns: Hear me out. There are a lot of dots to be connected in this scenario.
Suns GM James Jones is close with Paul from their days together on the National Basketball Players Association's executive committee. New coach Monty Williams coached Paul in New Orleans. The Suns' best player, Devin Booker, is languishing on a perennial lottery team—and also is represented by CAA.
Plus, owner Robert Sarver might just be erratic enough to take a flier in the hopes of finally breaking through and showing some semblance of progress...such as, you know, making the playoffs for the first time since 2010.
"Chris isn't good enough anymore to justify the contract or to put up with all his histrionics," one of the execs said. "But he still knows how to play. He's good enough to get you to the playoffs."
No team emerged from the draft lottery more devastated than the Suns, who had a 40 percent chance of securing a top-three pick and wound up with No. 6. For a team that is rebuilding yet again, is that pick worth forfeiting in a package that could include, as one of the executives suggested, T.J. Warren?
This is where the Paul trade scenarios start to get murky. Morey would be trying to serve the dual purposes of unloading Paul's enormous contract while improving his team. It's hard to envision such a scenario in a deal with the Suns. But it's also hard to ignore all the connections.
New Orleans Pelicans: Say what? Could a CP3-NOLA reunion be possible? It could be.
The Pelicans now have a savvy, rational executive running the show in David Griffin, and his sole purpose at the moment is to avoid trading Davis. Think back to the circumstances surrounding Paul being shipped to the Clippers in 2011. Then-Clippers GM Neil Olshey's gamble—which involved much less risk since Paul was in his prime—basically secured a commitment from Blake Griffin to re-sign.
Could re-acquiring Paul in New Orleans have the same effect on Davis? If so, it would make Paul's contract a lot easier to swallow.
"If getting Chris Paul means AD stays, he pays the rent," one general manager said.
There are a handful of other teams that either have the cap room or the level of desperation necessary to pull off a deal for Paul. The Philadelphia 76ers could use an infusion of leadership and playoff experience, but Ben Simmons would have to be in the deal (since the ball would be in Paul's hands instead of his), and Simmons—a point forward who can't shoot—isn't exactly Morey's cup of tea.
The Indiana Pacers? A team with plenty of cap room that's knocking on the door in the Eastern Conference—and one that is not in an attractive market for top free agents. But the Pacers also don't have the kind of budget to take on a contract that would pay Paul $44.2 million when he's 36.
What about the team in Paul's home state of North Carolina, owned by Michael Jordan, whose Jordan Brand company makes Paul's shoes? The feeling among rival GMs is that if Walker leaves, it will be because the Charlotte Hornets didn't want to pay him the supermax ($221 million over five years). If they do and Walker stays, there's no need for Paul. And if the Hornets aren't willing to pay Walker, why would they pay Paul?
One last factor to consider with Paul is his legacy, which is something a person in the league who knows him well said Paul cares deeply about. Things ended badly for pretty much everyone involved when Paul left New Orleans and L.A. Is another failure to get a team to the Finals, followed by an inglorious exit from Houston, something Paul wants on his Hall of Fame resume?
"He's a couple of years away from being the next Carmelo," one of the Western Conference executives said, referring to another first-ballot Hall of Famer, Carmelo Anthony, who, at the moment, appears unemployable.
Dwyane Wade is retired, Anthony is out of work, James is coming off his first season out of the playoffs since his second year in the league and now Paul is at a crossroads of his own. If there is such a thing as the Curse of the Banana Boat, Paul certainly doesn't want to find out. But this next move for him could be telling.
Ken Berger covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @KBergNBA.
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