Everyone knows that LeBron James and Chris Paul are great friends. But their friendship has never been enough to get them on the same team, and it feels unlikely that will change this summer, no matter how much the Lakers and Thunder stars would like it to happen.
Not everyone agrees with that conclusion, however. As unlikely as it seems right now after the Lakers just won a title this week, Eric Pincus of Bleacher Report spoke to multiple executives who think James will try to push the Lakers to trade for Paul, and that the interest will be mutual:
“Chris Paul would love to come back to L.A. I know it would be a dream come true for Chris,” an Eastern Conference executive said. “I know LeBron loves and trusts him and he would be a good fit.”
As true as all that is, a good basketball fit wouldn’t get a deal done on its own. Pincus detailed what the Lakers would have to give up — in theory, just to make the salaries work — and the same executive offered some more context:
If James set his sights on Paul, the Lakers would have to send out five players: Kyle Kuzma, Danny Green and Quinn Cook, along with Avery Bradley and JaVale McGee, who need to opt into their contracts to be dealt. L.A. would also need to send its No. 28 pick in November’s draft, signing that player before waiting 30 days to execute a deal in which the Lakers would offload almost $33 million in players salaries.
Isn’t that too much of an upheaval for a team that just won a title?
“It seems like a risk, but sometimes you need to [execute big moves] to make yourself even better,” the executive continued. “The [Golden State] Warriors will be better. The [Los Angeles] Clippers may be better. The [Denver] Nuggets aren’t going to get worse. Your competition is getting better. It worked [in Orlando] for the Lakers, but I don’t know if you have a normal regular season without the bubble if it does.”
Again, that’s all true, but that still doesn’t make such a deal anything close to a foregone conclusion (and to be fair, Pincus does not suggest it is). JaVale McGee and Avery Bradley could kill that deal by opting out of their player options if they don’t want to be a part of it, in addition to other logistical hurdles that would make this difficult:
Just logistically this doesn’t actually feel tenable—the order of operations is all out of sorts in terms of allowing Cook to guarantee, then drafting a guy for OKC, then McGee/Bradley opting in (and if they hear a rumor and don’t want to go, they opt out and kill deal), etc https://t.co/TsIXdldBOd— LA Clippers Assistant Coach Candidate Lucas Hann (@LucasJHann) October 16, 2020
But “difficult” does not mean “impossible,” and there are reasons to believe this could happen, if things broke right from a logistical perspective.
As much fun as Oklahoma City unexpectedly was with Paul leading them to a playoff spot last season, he is still owed nearly $90 million over the next two seasons. Does a small-market team in the midst of a pandemic-fueled economic downturn affecting the NBA and the country as a whole really want to pay that? Especially when they have more draft picks coming down the pipeline and could continue to add to their asset chest moving forward with a deal?
Maybe they do if they’re desperate to chase playoff gate receipts from another first round exit, but with the Golden State Warriors returning to normalcy, the Phoenix Suns getting better and more, the Western Conference may be even more competitive next year, and a playoff spot is far from a guarantee. Sam Presti also might want to move Paul at the peak of his value on a contract that was previously an albatross, and the fact that him not being willing to commit to remaining competitive is one of the reasons it appeared he and coach Billy Donovan parted ways might offer a clue to his intentions this offseason.
From the Lakers’ side of things, I can already hear the chorus of fans crying out: Why gut our team for an aging point guard? Why take on that albatross of a contract? The reality is that those are valid points, especially when the Lakers have previously been so committed to keeping their powder dry for 2021 (The Summer of Giannis Antetokounmpo). This would be a change of character for the Lakers, at least a little bit.
That said, would Rob Pelinka not want to be the Lakers general manager who closed the team’s Chris Paul loop, and actually acquired him nearly a decade after The Veto? Would the Lakers not want to go all in on this core of James and Davis while keeping Paul from potential competitors if the Thunder are just selling him off? As that anonymous executive said, it would be a big gamble, but it might be a worthwhile one.
Paul is still really good, making the All-NBA second team last season with averages of 17.6 points and 6.7 assists with a true-shooting percentage — which factors in the value of threes and free throws — of 61%, the second-best efficiency mark of Paul’s already notoriously efficient career.
Paul’s shooting and smarts should allow him to age pretty well, especially in a reduced role alongside James and Davis, even if he’s a relatively small point guard. The two years on his deal would line up with the end of James’ own — if he doesn’t opt out next summer — and there is also the matter that Paul badly wanted to be a Laker in 2011, and might see some appeal in completing that journey alongside his best friend.
And that friendship is what actually brings this full circle. James was the best man in Paul’s wedding, and Paul is the godfather of James’ oldest son. Their respect and love is clearly mutual, as genuine a friendship as two NBA stars have ever had.
Why is that relevant? Well, James loves trying to help players he’s friendly with or respects win rings — look at the circle of reclamation projects his teams have taken over the last few years for evidence. Paul isn’t exactly a reclamation project, but it’s worth remembering a quote James had while praising Paul after the Thunder were eliminated from the playoffs, and the word choice he used to describe Oklahoma City in NBA terms:
LeBron couldn't say enough about CP3's impact this year.— Championship Faigen (@hmfaigen) September 3, 2020
"All the talk was basically 'oh, they traded him to the slums.' Everybody was like 'hehe' and laughing about the whole situation. (Saying) 'CP is done,'" James said. "He showed what he's all about. Obviously I love that."
Does that not sound like a situation he’d push the Lakers to get his friend out of if they could, especially if it might help the team win? Again, this team just won a title and a trade wouldn’t be easy, but it would be shocking if James and Pelinka didn’t at least explore the feasibility of getting Paul out of somewhere James sees as “the slums.”
Now, whether the Lakers ultimately make a deal will be another matter altogether, but this will just be one more of a million possibilities to keep an eye on this offseason as the Lakers try to find the right balance of remixing and retaining their roster while beginning their title defense.