What's Next for Chris Paul After NBA Finals Run?

Eric Pincus@@EricPincusLA Lakers Lead WriterJuly 22, 2021

Phoenix Suns' Chris Paul shoots during the first half of Game 4 of basketball's NBA Finals against the Milwaukee Bucks Wednesday, July 14, 2021, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Aaron Gash)
Aaron Gash/Associated Press

Now that Chris Paul's quest to win the 2020-21 NBA title fell two wins short, the veteran point guard will need to decide on his $44.2 million player option for next season.

As we reported in June, several sources believe Paul intends to opt out to sign a new contract in the three-year, $100 million range. If the Phoenix Suns are willing to offer him a deal of that size, Paul is likely to stay. 

But with Deandre Ayton and Mikal Bridges becoming extension-eligible this offseason, will Phoenix commit significant resources to a roster that exceeded all expectations? Should a team built around 20-somethings invest heavily in a player who turned 36 in May?

After the Suns' Game 6 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks on Tuesday night, former Los Angeles Lakers executive Earvin "Magic" Johnson chimed in with his opinion on Paul's future.

Earvin Magic Johnson @MagicJohnson

If Chris Paul opts out of his contract with the Suns, his first call should be from his best friend LeBron James and the Lakers.

Earvin Magic Johnson @MagicJohnson

A big three with LeBron, Chris, and AD will equal a NBA championship!

Johnson never seems to lack enthusiasm. However, his awareness of the Lakers' salary-cap position appears tenuous at best.


Why the Lakers May Not Make Sense

The Lakers project to have either the $9.5 million non-taxpayer mid-level exception or the $5.9 million taxpayer MLE, neither of which is close to Paul's opt-out number.

Paul, who serves as the National Basketball Players Association president, is far too savvy to take a $35 million pay cut.

The Lakers could clear about $21 million in cap space by either trading, waiving or renouncing everyone on the roster (including the No. 22 pick in next week's NBA draft) except for LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Talen Horton-Tucker if they didn't bring back any players in return.

That may not be possible, but even if it were, why would Paul opt out of $44.2 million if the most the Lakers can only pay him is $65 million over three years? He'd make more by opting in than he would over two years with the Lakers even if they give up nearly everyone on the roster.

Perhaps Johnson was thinking about a sign-and-trade, with the Suns acquiring one or more of Lakers free-agent guards Dennis Schroder, Alex Caruso or Horton-Tucker (also via sign-and-trade), or wings under contract like Kyle Kuzma and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope? But if the Lakers added Paul via a sign-and-trade, their payroll would be hard-capped at roughly $143 million.

Pencil in Paul at about $31 million with just James, Davis and 11 players on minimum contracts. The Lakers would stand at only $17 million below the hard cap, which would complicate fleshing out the rest of the roster.

Ashley Landis/Associated Press

If Paul did want to join the Lakers, a more viable path would be opting into his contract contingent on a trade to L.A. (similar to how he got to the Houston Rockets from the Los Angeles Clippers). Schroder could give Phoenix a younger replacement point guard if he was willing to go there via sign-and-trade. The Suns would then be hard-capped, but they should have plenty of breathing room below the apron.

Schroder will decide his fate as an unrestricted free agent, regardless of what L.A. might prefer. The Lakers could try to executive a similar move with Caruso or Horton-Tucker, or one for Paul without a sign-and-trade built around Montrezl Harrell, Kuzma and Caldwell-Pope. That would require Harrell to pick up his $9.7 million player option, which might not be an issue. The most recent intel on Harrell suggests he may be leaning toward opting in.

The Suns also might not be interested in what the Lakers have to offer, requiring a third or fourth team to join the party. While Paul heading to the Lakers is not impossible, it may be too complex to be considered realistic.


The CAA Knicks

The NBA is a business built around relationships, and Paul has had a long one with his representatives at CAA Sports. Leon Rose, who was Paul's agent with CAA, is currently the president of the New York Knicks.

Considering his impact on the Oklahoma City Thunder and Suns over the past two years, Paul would be a key acquisition for the Knicks. He's an expert at making borderline playoff teams a tough out. Although he's yet to win a title, he could help New York build upon its brief postseason run.

And while going to the Lakers is fraught with complications, New York would be as simple as it gets. The Knicks project to have $50 million in cap space this offseason. The Knicks can easily sign Paul to a $30 million starting salary while retaining Derrick Rose (a free agent), Julius Randle, RJ Barrett and Immanuel Quickley.

To add more experience to the roster, the Knicks could look to trade their two first-round picks (Nos. 19 and 21). They could also dangle young players such as Obi Toppin, Kevin Knox, Mitchell Robinson and Quickley, who was one of the most impressive rookies this past season.

Paul heading to the Knicks would make a lot of sense if he opts out and can't come to terms with the Suns.


Do Not Worry About Tomorrow

Matt York/Associated Press

The Suns' extensions for Ayton and Bridges won't kick in until the 2022-23 season. If they let Paul walk in free agency because they're worried about going into luxury-tax territory two years from now, they'll have misplaced priorities. 

Phoenix may have overachieved this season, with several Western Conference teams suffering injuries (Davis with the Lakers, Jamal Murray with the Denver Nuggets and Kawhi Leonard with the Clippers). In that case, moving on from Paul might be a basketball decision.

The merit of that potential decision would be subjective. So would letting Paul go because of the cost, but that would be much harder to justify.

If the Suns need to trim salary in 2022-23, they can look to move off other contracts like Dario Saric (who missed almost all of the NBA Finals with a knee injury), Jalen Smith, Jevon Carter or even Jae Crowder. It just isn't a significant issue for the 2021-22 season.


Anywhere Else?

The Miami Heat could use a win-now starting point guard, but they may have to make some trades to give Paul a starting salary above $25 million. 

The Chicago Bulls also need a starting point guard. While they might have the ability to pay Paul more than the Heat can, they also look further away from a title.

The New Orleans Pelicans would need a Lonzo Ball replacement if he walks as a restricted free agent. To carve out enough cap space for Paul, the Pelicans might need to find a team to take on Eric Bledsoe. However, a Suns-Bledsoe reunion likely isn't in the cards.

Other teams could attempt to acquire Paul either by sign-and-trade or an opt-in-and-trade. Would Philadelphia 76ers team president Daryl Morey want to reunite with Paul if Ben Simmons is on the move?

Paul will decide his future in the next few weeks. But if it involves a trade, he’ll need the Suns to willingly participate in a deal that returns enough value.


Email Eric Pincus at eric.pincus@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter, @EricPincus.